RIVERSIDE — Prosecutors have quietly closed their investigation into the death of Dora Kent, the elderly woman whose head was cut off and frozen by a Riverside cryonics laboratory.
The Riverside County district attorney's office had hoped to file homicide charges in the 1987 death of Kent, whose head was severed at Alcor Life Extension Foundation and placed in a tank of liquid nitrogen in hopes that science would one day reanimate her with a new body.
But Asst. Dist. Atty. Don Inskeep said the inquiry into the bizarre case, which focused nationwide attention on the controversial freezing technique known as cryonics, was hampered by a lack of evidence.
"We evaluated all the evidence there was and there simply wasn't enough for us to prosecute," Inskeep said Wednesday. "There wasn't a likelihood that more would develop, so the case is closed."
At Alcor, research director Mike Darwin called the decision "a wonderful Christmas present that is long overdue."
"This was a terrible injustice and it has meant three years of fear and anxiety for us," Darwin said, noting that investigators once threatened to thaw out seven heads and a body stored at the laboratory. "Any time you are accused of grand theft, homicide and other untruths it is damaging to you both personally and professionally."
Still, it seems Alcor has not suffered financially. Darwin said the laboratory has 16 "patients"--10 heads and six bodies--in so-called cryonic suspension today. That is double the number in storage in 1987.
Moreover, Darwin added, another 200 foundation members "have made full legal and financial arrangements for suspension" at the time of their death.
The strange saga of Kent's head began in late 1987, when the ailing 83-year-old woman was moved from a convalescent home to Alcor by her son, Saul Kent, a devotee of cryonics. Alcor officials said that after Kent died a natural death Dec. 11, her head was surgically removed.
After Alcor applied for a permit to cremate Kent's headless body, the Riverside County coroner's office launched an investigation, noting that the woman was not under a doctor's care at the time of her death.
Investigators sought the right to defrost and examine Kent's head, but a Superior Court judge ruled that would be an unconstitutional infringement on a person's right to choose how to dispose of his or her remains.
Even without examining the head, however, Coroner Raymond Carillo ruled that toxicological tests on Kent's body tissues revealed her death was a homicide, resulting from a lethal dose of a barbiturate.
Alcor officials conceded that the drug Nembutol was administered, but insisted it was used after her death to help preserve brain cells.
They also called Carillo's investigation a "witch hunt" and "vicious smear campaign." Carillo, who has come under fire for his handling of several other prominent cases over the last several years, lost a reelection bid Nov. 6.
Advocates of cryonics believe that future technology will make it possible to revive the frozen dead. When only a head is preserved, the expectation is that a body will be cloned to match it.
Most medical experts dismiss cryonics as at best a fantasy, and at worst a moneymaking scam.
Darwin said Alcor is pursuing a civil lawsuit against Riverside County over the arrest of staff members and two raids on its facility.