Paul Morantz, a lawyer and investigative journalist who in the 1970s was so successful at taking on cults, abusive psychotherapists and self-proclaimed gurus around California that one of his targets tried to assassinate him with a rattlesnake, died on Oct. 23 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 77.
His son, Chaz, confirmed the death, at a hospital. He did not provide a cause but said his father had been in declining health for several years.
Cults proliferated in the post-hippie weirdness that was California in the 1970s, often establishing alternative communities in rural parts of the state where authoritarian leaders, typically men, dictated every aspect of their followers’ lives, down to their clothing and choice of sexual partners.
Mr. Morantz made his name taking down one such movement, Synanon. It had begun as a last-chance drug rehabilitation program in the late 1950s but had, by the early ’70s, become an insular, oppressive organization under its founder, Charles Dederich.
As he walked in the door, he reached his left hand into his mailbox. As he did, he noticed a dark, lumpy shape. He didn’t have time to pull back before the object, a four-and-a-half-foot diamondback rattlesnake, bit him on his wrist.
He screamed for help. Neighbors came running. One applied a tourniquet. Another brought ice. A third called 911.
Mr. Morantz remained in the hospital for six days. Doctors said he was lucky to survive.
The police, working off tips from neighbors, soon arrested two of Mr. Dederich’s Imperial Marines: Joe Musico and Lance Kenton, the son of the band leader Stan Kenton. They were charged with attempted murder. Mr. Dederich was also arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
The charges were easy to prove: Mr. Dederich had a habit of recording everything he said, including his orders to Mr. Musico and Mr. Kenton. All three pleaded no contest.
The judge, callingd the attack on Mr. Morantz an “aberration,” went easy on the two assailants, owing, he said, to the group’s history of helping addicts. Each was sentenced to a year in prison, while Mr. Dederich received five years’ probation.
By then Mr. Morantz had taken on other cases. He learned that the self-help guru Werner Erhard, the founder of Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, was lobbying a small California town to let him “train” its employees. Mr. Morantz intervened and turned the town against him.
In 1978, he tried unsuccessfully to win the release of a client’s son from the People’s Temple, whose leader, Jim Jones, later led several hundred of his followers in a mass suicide in Guyana.
Mr. Morantz later represented 40 ex-followers of the Center for Feeling Therapy, a New Age movement that, among other things, employed “sluggo therapy,” in which members beat each other, supposedly to release suppressed anxieties. And he took on several psychotherapists who had used their positions to sexually molest their patients.
All the while he continued his fight against Synanon. Working with the federal authorities in the 1980s, he managed to get its tax-exempt status revoked, essentially shuttering the organization.
It was not the path that Mr. Morantz thought his career would take.
“I thought that I was actually going to leave law and go full time into writing, which was my number one love, and that I would never do some crusade like that again,” he told the website Gizmodo in 2014.
But after the call from Mr. Winn about Synanon, he knew he didn’t have a choice.
“And that was the end of the life that I thought I was going to live,” he said.
Paul Robert Morantz was born on Aug. 16, 1945, in Los Angeles to Nathan and Jeanette (Kates) Morantz. His father owned a meatpacking business, and his mother was a homemaker.
After high school, he served six months in the Army Reserves, then attended Santa Monica City College. He transferred to the University of Southern California, where he studied journalism and wrote for The Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper.
He graduated in 1968 and, turning down an offer to become a sportswriter for The Los Angeles Times, went back to the University of Southern California for law school. He graduated in 1971.
He married Maren Elwood in 1984; they divorced in 1988. Along with his son, he is survived by two granddaughters.
After law school Mr. Morantz worked briefly as a public defender, but quit to pursue journalism, while doing part-time legal work for his brother, Lewis. A profile he wrote of the surf-rock duo Jan and Dean appeared in Rolling Stone. He co-wrote “Dead Man’s Curve,” a teleplay based on the article that was later made into a TV movie.
Mr. Morantz’s first big case, in 1974, involved a scheme by a network of nursing homes to kidnap homeless people and keep them drugged up on Thorazine, an antipsychotic, then bill the state and collect the patients’ Social Security checks.
Mr. Morantz filed a class-action law suit, winning $300,000 and setting himself up as the go-to guy for taking on shady, coercive institutions — including cults.
He stepped back from his regular legal work in the early 2000s but remained a popular speaker on the lecture circuit, regaling listeners with stories about California’s cult scene.
“When asked how to know when you are in a cult, I said count the number of Hollywood stars in it,” he would tell his audience. “If you get past five, you are in one.”