Patricia Lynch, Fearless Journalist Who Took Down Cult Leaders, Dies At 82

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Pat Lynch with her dog, Mr. Ben, at Southampton Town Hall. DANA SHAW

If not by face, Patricia Lynch was known by name — and reputation.

She was a force, a fearless investigative journalist who exposed cults and their leaders for “NBC Nightly News.” As one of the first women in her field, the two-time Emmy Award-winning producer blazed a path for women in male-dominated television news, splitting her time between New York and Southampton, and drawing ire as a hotly contested local figure here.

She owned who she was, through and through.

Ms. Lynch died on February 3 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at her home in Manhattan, according to the New York Times, and left no immediate survivors. She was 82.

“I thought her story was so interesting. I thought she was very interesting,” said Sag Harbor-based author Tom Clavin, who helped Ms. Lynch pen a book proposal about 13 years ago. “She was rather a formidable person and the idea of her being a pioneer in her field was intriguing.”

Patricia Kathleen Lynch was born on March 5, 1938, in Floral Park to Harold and Violet Lynch, who were teachers in the New York City school system. She graduated from the now defunct College of New Rochelle with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1959, followed by a master’s from Boston College in the same subject two years later.

First a reporter for a Gannett newspaper in Mount Vernon, Ms. Lynch moved to CBS News, where she worked on the “Twenty-First Century” science series with Walter Cronkite, as well as news specials with Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner. One of them led to her first book, “The National Environment Test,” followed by “What’s It All About, Charlie Brown?” before she joined the investigative unit of “NBC Nightly News.”

It was 1977, and she was one of the first women to be named an investigative producer on the team.

“Her world of broadcast news in the 1960s and 1970s, and even into the ’80s, on one hand, at best, you could probably count the number of female journalists who played a prominent role,” Mr. Clavin said. “And she was constantly butting up against that. She had to develop a pretty tough hide.”

Ms. Lynch quickly sharpened her focus on fringe groups run by charming, charismatic leaders, starting with a series on the Synanon cult in California — a story that she broke and, as a result, faced multiple death threats. While filming, cult members held the journalist and her crew hostage for three hours while they blocked the roads in and out of the compound.

But even that experience didn’t stop her from taking on another cult leader: the Reverend Jim Jones, who had created Jonestown in Guyana in November 1976. The series was set to premiere in October 1978, following at least 20 hours of interviews with Jones, his followers, his detractors and former cult members, when NBC executives yanked it — spooked by letters promising violence if it aired — and pulled Ms. Lynch off the story.

“She was the one who was on the very cutting edge of alerting people to the impact of cults and what was out there,” Mr. Clavin said. “Jonestown was her story, and she was not allowed to go there because she was a woman — and one that was a pain in the neck for the male bosses. If it was a man, it would have been called ‘assertive’ or ‘bold.’ But because it was a woman, it was a negative.”

In her place, NBC sent reporter Don Harris and a camera crew to Jonestown, to cover U.S. Representative Leo Ryan’s visit to the compound. Ms. Lynch desperately tried to reach Mr. Harris by phone, to warn him about the mental deterioration of Rev. Jones and his followers, but he never picked up, she wrote in her book proposal.

Three weeks later, Mr. Harris, Mr. Ryan, members of his delegation, cameraman Bob Brown, other innocent bystanders and over 900 residents of Jonestown — including 300 children — were dead, following a mass murder and suicide.

“I knew I could have made a difference had my series aired when it should have a month before the massacre,” Ms. Lynch wrote in her proposal.

She jumped ship to “ABC News Closeup” in protest, before rejoining NBC News after its leadership changed. She turned her attention toward Lyndon LaRouche, a perennial presidential candidate who ran eight times and led a “violence-prone, anti-Semitic cult that smeared its opponents and sued its critics,” the New York Times said Ms. Lynch recounted in a 1985 article in The Columbia Journalism Review.

When her reporting went mainstream, LaRouche fanatics picketed her apartment building, where Paul Pamias had recently started working as a doorman. They carried signs that read, “Lynch Pat Lynch,” and the then 28-year-old said he thought to himself, “Oh, I’ve gotta meet this woman.”

A fast, and 38-year-long friendship, was born. Mr. Pamias described her as revered by the building staff and an, overall, sweet woman, “until you mess with her.”

“She was totally, totally unafraid of anyone or anything,” he said. “The running joke at her Manhattan apartment building was, ‘You know why Jim Jones drank the Kool-Aid? He heard Pat Lynch was coming after him!’”

Ms. Lynch would go on to win two Emmy Awards — one for her investigation of Mr. LaRouche, which led to his indictment and conviction — and was nominated for 10 in total. Her work on the LaRouche story also earned her the prestigious Dupont Columbia Award.

She left NBC in the early 1990s and became a freelance writer, her articles appearing in Family Circle, The Wall Street Journal, Mademoiselle, New York Magazine and The Southampton Press, where she penned a column, “Shelter Stories.”

Much of her material was sourced from her experiences volunteering at the Southampton Animal Shelter and the Riverhead Animal Shelter, which both later banned her after she publicly criticized their euthanasia policies. She sued the former in 2007, three years after her termination, for violating her First Amendment rights and the court ruled in her favor, initially awarding her $251,000 and later reducing it to $50,000.

“Pat was a pistol,” recalled Joseph Shaw, executive editor of the Express News Group, which publishes The Southampton Press. “She and I spoke a lot, and it wasn’t always pleasant — she never held back when she had a complaint. But I had so much respect for her as a journalist, and we really developed a great friendship over the years. Her passion for animals was unmatched. She’ll be missed.”

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