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Burning Passion Drives Devotees of Cryonics Idea

January 17, 1988|T.W. McGARRY and LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writers

RIVERSIDE — While Riverside County authorities rummaged through the Alcor Life Extension Foundation laboratory last week, searching for a missing human head, Hugh Hixon stood outside the open door, watching the vault where the "suspendees" are stored.

Hixon, as much a devotee as an employee of the laboratory, stood there all day as his bald head reddened in the sun. That night he slept nearby in his car, continuing his vigil.

The "suspendees" are six human heads--including that of Hixon's father--and one body, frozen in liquid nitrogen to a temperature of about 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, awaiting a return to life in the future, when science will be more advanced and life will be forever.

Hixon's determination was an example of the burning passion that abounds among believers in cryonics, as the reanimation movement is called.

Assails Coroner's Action

"What the coroner did to us is like someone coming into an intensive care ward with a machete and saying they were going to chop up your relatives," said Keith Henson, a San Jose computer consultant who plans to be frozen some day at Alcor.

"We do not think of the patients as body parts. To us they are friends who are gravely injured, but the final outcome is still in doubt. I'm going to be joining them someday."

The bizarre tug-of-war between the Alcor Foundation, one of two cryonics groups in California, and the Riverside County coroner's office over the still-missing head of 83-year-old Dora Kent has focused national attention on the small but obsessive world of cryonics.

Advocates of cryonics believe that at some uncertain date in the future science will be able to revive the frozen dead. When only a head is preserved, the assumption is that a new body will be cloned. The movement was begun in 1962 by Robert Ettinger, a retired college physics instructor who lives in Michigan, but it has taken hold most strongly in California.

There are now at least four bodies, eight heads, two cats and two dogs in the freezers of Alcor, at the American Cryonics Society of San Francisco and at its affiliated Trans-Time laboratory in Oakland, and Ettinger's Immortalist Society of Oak Park, Mich.

About 230 people have signed up to join them.

A Canadian group has formed recently with ties to the San Francisco laboratory. A Long Island agency recently began selling cryonic life insurance policies, advertising that death benefits will finance the buyer's storage in the San Francisco group's freezer tank.

(Alcor has 98 "suspension members," who pay $200 a year to become eligible for immediate freezing at the foundation's laboratory after their deaths. There is also a one-time charge at death of $100,000 to freeze an entire body or $35,000 for a head, money that is supposed to be provided by life insurance policies. Other cryonics groups charge roughly similar fees.)

Ettinger would not comment on Alcor's situation, saying that he did not have enough facts.

But a leader of the American Cryonics Society, which has feuded recently with Alcor and its president, Mike Darwin, over the best ways to advance cryonics, distanced his group from the Riverside organization.

'Looks Like Real Good Idea'

"They wanted to go it alone in the past. That looks like a real good idea now," he said.

So far, Alcor's dispute with the coroner has led to an unusual court order shielding the foundation's frozen bodies from being thawed by the coroner; an investigation into possible stolen property at the laboratory, and allegations of zoning and other administrative law violations.

Dora Kent was decapitated at the laboratory on Dec. 11 so that her head could be frozen and preserved. That was two days after her son had moved the woman to the laboratory from an unidentified Riverside-area nursing home.

Coroner's investigators believe that she was deceased at the time of the decapitation, and conducted an autopsy on her headless body. But medical examiners want the head to complete the autopsy and determine whether Kent died of natural causes or "by some outside agent," according to Daniel Cupido, the coroner's supervising investigator.

The cryonicists, who say that the coroner's tests would harm the head beyond hope of resurrection, will not say where it is, but that it is safely frozen in an insulated canister of liquid nitrogen. Hixon has hinted that the head is under the control of Dora Kent's son, Saul Kent, 48, a leading figure in the cryonics movement who has donated thousands of dollars to Alcor and to the San Francisco-based American Cryonics Society.

Saul Kent, who moved into the Riverside County community of Woodcrest about a year ago, is also a founder of the Life Extension Foundation of Hollywood, Fla., which is under investigation by the U.S Food and Drug Administration for allegedly distributing unapproved medicines.

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