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The Icemen Goeth

March 02, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG

They have boarded airplanes with a human brain as carry-on luggage, turned a bullet-riddled lawyer into a Popsicle and employed a dog surgeon to operate on people who want to conquer death.

Now, after two decades of freezing heads and whole bodies for possible future revival, they have fled California.

Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the world's leading cryonics company, has packed up its icy clientele and moved to Arizona. Left behind is one of the weirder chapters in state history, replete with murder accusations, a cryonics civil war and a mysterious pair of severed hands.

The move took place last week under a shroud of secrecy--and paranoia. At the firm's Riverside headquarters, five vats of liquid nitrogen--two filled with frozen heads, the rest with naked bodies in sleeping bags, and pets--were hoisted aboard a tractor-trailer rig and quietly shipped to Scottsdale. A caravan of Alcor members shadowed the cargo across the desert to guard against saboteurs.

"If people out there think whacking ice skaters in the knee is a neat idea," explains Alcor freezemeister Steve Bridge, "then they might think the same for us."

Bridge, formerly a children's librarian in Indianapolis, says fear of earthquakes spurred the exodus. Company officials also were weary of a seemingly unending string of clashes with city, county and state authorities.

To be sure, Alcor's tenure in California has been anything but peaceful.

The bitterest battle erupted in 1987, when the company decapitated and froze the head of Dora Kent, an 83-year-old ex-seamstress. (Cryonicists believe that by the time science figures out a way to defrost and revive chilled humans, it will also know how to clone new bodies for them.)

The Riverside County Coroner's Office labeled the case a homicide, saying it found a lethal dose of barbiturates in Kent's headless body. Alcor insisted that the sedative was injected after death to preserve brain cells. When authorities demanded the head for testing, Alcor moved it to a secret location.

Investigators raided the company's headquarters, discovering a cache of rifles and pistols, and a plastic jar containing Kent's severed hands. The weapons turned out to be legal and--after a judge blocked further searches--the case was dropped. The hands are still a mystery.

The publicity, meanwhile, prompted a surge of inquiries and "cryonaut" sign-ups. LSD guru Timothy Leary, for instance, said he wanted his cranium immersed in liquid nitrogen because "I refuse to go belly up when my Blue Cross runs out. . . . I want to wake up . . . with champagne glasses and rock 'n' roll music on the record player, if they have those things then."

Other Alcor recruits include a mathematician who sued for the right to be frozen before a tumor ravaged his brain (he lost and the cancer went into remission) and a former Arizona seat-cover pitchman who did television ads with a Great Dane named Little Woofie.

"Woofie died before I knew a lot about cryonics," David Pizer told a Phoenix newspaper, but the dog's replacement is on ice.

Most of Alcor's 375 living clients are atheists, men (by a 2-1 margin) and Libertarians, says effervescent president Bridge, a cattle breeder's son who once dreamed of running the first library on the moon.

Some signed up for suspended animation in hopes of seeing the world of the future. Others feel shortchanged by AIDS or cancer and want to be revived when there's a cure.

A few have odder reasons.

In a "why I want to be frozen" essay contest last year by Alcor and Omni magazine, one reader said he had a psychopathic urge to murder and wanted to come back when weapons of mass destruction were more widely available so he could "rack up a higher body count."

Another insisted that he had been born in the future, time-traveled to the 20th Century, got stuck and must be frozen to return home.

There were critical essays, too. Said one: "The purpose of every human being should not be to weasel into the future but to make the future worth living."

Cryonics also has endured withering fire from scientists. Art Caplan, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Biomedical Ethics, has called the concept "goofy beyond amusement. (It) combines . . . screwy science and a secular lust for reincarnation with large-scale refrigeration technology."

Other researchers allow that cryonics could be possible in the distant future--and some have even signed up--but they insist that there is no chance of reviving anyone frozen with today's technology.

The cell damage is so extensive that it would be like "trying to turn hamburger back into a cow," says Arthur Rowe, past president of the Society for Cryobiology, which studies organisms at low temperatures.

Nevertheless, the future frozen of America figure they have nothing to lose. If they're wrong, well, they're dead anyway. But if they're right. . . .

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