How a Point Reyes Paper Won a Pulitzer, Thanks to the Late Dave Mitchell

Pt Reyes Light newsroom

In 1975, a young reporter named Dave Mitchell and his wife bought the Point Reyes Light, a weekly newspaper in West Marin for $47,000. At the time, Mitchell was an experienced journalist with a masters degree in communication from Stanford. At the time, the Light was anything but brilliant, it was lucky to sell 1,300 papers a week. 

Just four years later, the Point Reyes Light won a Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service. Based on accounts from that era, Dave Mitchell was fearless — yet in his later years he more resembled a contented Marin farmer than a firebrand journalist. 

He and the Light won the Pulitzer for their coverage of Synanon, a notorious Southern California drug rehabilitation program that had moved to West Marin and morphed into a tax-free, criminal cult. Over two years in the late 1970s, the Light covered Synanon’s suspected child abuse, requirements for vasectomies and abortions and staff assaults on its numerous members. Mitchell also wrote about Synanon’s attempt to murder a lawyer who had recently won a $300,000 settlement against them.

Their weapon of choice was to place a deadly rattlesnake in the attorney’s mailbox. As a result of his writings, henchmen threatened Mitchell and he was sued six times by Synanon for libel. The positive result was the winning of a Pulitzer Prize (In the accompanying photo, that’s Dave at lower right soon after learning of his award). The 1980 book The Light on Synanon, written by Mitchell about his experiences, is available at local libraries and bookstores.

Late this past October, Dave Mitchell passed away in his Point Reyes Station hillside home. Locals say it was hardly a surprise. In retirement, Dave had a blog titled Sparsely, Sage and Timely and in June he wrote: “A bout of Parkinson’s has substantially crippled me. For now it’s time to close the curtain.” Dave Mitchell was 79-years-old.