RIVERSIDE — Investigators looking into the death of a woman whose head was surgically removed and then frozen at a Riverside cryonics center have uncovered numerous zoning violations and what they believe is an illegal drain used to dump fluids from stored bodies into the city's sewer system, officials said Friday.
A search of Alcor Life Extension Foundation turned up six detached heads and one body being maintained in containers of liquid nitrogen, but the head of 83-year-old Dora Kent still had not been located Friday, according to Riverside County Supervising Coroner Daniel Cupido.
Cupido said that based on a statement by Alcor officials, he hopes that the head will be made available to coroner's investigators soon. But Cupido added that Alcor officials have not been fully cooperative in the investigation.
"I thought I had seen everything until this," Cupido said.
"It would be an asset if we had some cooperation--like getting the head back," he added. "There are a lot of unanswered questions in the investigation into the death of Dora Kent."
Among other issues, investigators are seeking to determine whether Mrs. Kent may have been alive when she was decapitated.
Stored in Liquid Nitrogen
The woman had been taken from a nursing home to the Alcor facility by her son, Saul Kent, 48, an Alcor member and major financial backer of cryonics. Kent has insisted that his mother died before her head was removed and frozen for possible revival in the future.
Cryonics adherents believe that bodies stored in sub-freezing vats of liquid nitrogen might be brought back to life at a future date. Often, cryonics believers freeze only the subject's head in the belief that science will advance to the point that a new body can be cloned or otherwise developed.
Cryobiologists, scientists who study the process of life at very low temperatures, scoff at such beliefs. The cryobiologists say that there is no way to prevent the process of freezing and thawing from damaging tissues beyond repair.
Alcor is the largest of the cryonics groups in the United States, according to its president, Mike Darwin, 32. Darwin says the group has 233 members, and 93 have signed up to be frozen after death. Alcor charges a minimum of $100,000 to freeze a body, or $35,000 for a head.
The firm has an ambulance and emergency response team that rushes to the bedsides of dying members to begin the preservation process immediately.
On Thursday, coroner's investigators brought six Alcor members, including Darwin, in for questioning after they would not reveal the location of Mrs. Kent's head, Cupido said. The members were released four hours later.
In a brief telephone interview Friday, Darwin said the investigation into the death of Mrs. Kent was "very unfair" and that the "coroner's office is trying to cremate us."
"The whole thing is being blown out of proportion," he said.
Christopher Leanders, the Riverside attorney representing Alcor, declined to discuss details of the case but denied Cupido's assertion that his clients have not been cooperative.
"Alcor is cooperating fully with the coroner's investigation and we anticipate an amicable resolution to this matter," Leanders said in a brief statement Friday. "Alcor is also reviewing its legal position to a number of issues which the coroner has raised."
Cause of Death Unknown
Cupido said the coroner's office was drawn into the case because Mrs. Kent died under unusual circumstances without a physician present. Although the coroner's office has performed an autopsy on the woman's body, a cause of death has not yet been established. The coroner's office now wants to examine the head to try to determine the cause of death, Cupido said.
In addition, Cupido said there are concerns that Alcor plumbed its own connection to the city sewer system. One of the heads stored in the Alcor facility is that of a man who died of AIDS, but health officials say they don't believe that any fluids from that body dumped into the sewer would pose any particular health danger.
However, city and county officials concerned with potential zoning, health and public works violations said they have agreed to a coroner's request to not take action on suspected zoning and health code violations at Alcor pending the completion of the coroner's investigation of Mrs. Kent's death.
Matters that could be subject to further investigation include Alcor's alleged failure to notify city fire officials of its use of volatile chemicals and a failure to obtain permits to store human body parts or to dispose of infectious materials such as body fluids, city officials said.
"We are very upset with what was going on out there," said Cecelia Lawson, the city's senior zoning inspector. "As soon as I know we will not interfere with the (coroner's) gathering of evidence, we will take action."