David Mitchell, the retired editor and publisher of the Point Reyes Light, died in his sleep Wednesday, Oct. 25, a month shy of his 80th birthday.
Born Nov. 23, 1943, Mitchell was among a handful of editors of weekly newspapers to win a Pulitzer Prize, in this case, for an exposé of Synanon Incorporated, a Marshall-based drug-rehabilitation program-turned-cult led by Charles Dederich.
Mitchell’s dogged efforts to reveal the cult’s criminality included revelatory coverage of a bizarre reptile attack on a Los Angeles-based attorney. When Dederich lost a judgment against the cult to the tune of $300,000 on behalf of a married couple, the wife claimed she was held against her will by Synanon, which had also attempted to brainwash her.
The cult leader ordered an attack on the couple’s attorney, Paul Morantz, that involved placing a poisonous rattlesnake in his mailbox. The snake subsequently bit the attorney—he survived—and Dederich and two accomplices eventually pled “no contest” to charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
Mitchell’s wife, Lynn Axelrod Mitchell, who accompanied him to the 2014 International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors conference in Durango, Colorado, when he won the Eugene Cervi Award, recalled that the journalist had “…been very brave this past year. You all know he was dedicated to helping the ‘little guy’ against government overreach. He loved being called a muckraker.”
Mitchell later co-wrote The Light on Synanon: How a Country Weekly Exposed a Corporate Cult, which won the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for “Meritorious Public Service.”
“He personally helped people down on their luck and taught me, through example, about long-term help to strangers, not just for a single time—who then became his friends,” said Axelrod Mitchell.