Investigators looking for stolen scientific equipment Tuesday raided a laboratory run by a group that freezes bodies in hope of immortality, the latest episode in the group's strange tug-of-war with the Riverside County coroner's office over a vanished human head.
Riverside County coroner's investigators and UCLA campus police began removing equipment from the offices of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation Tuesday night following a 9 1/2-hour search of the facility. Authorities served two search warrants on Alcor, saying they were looking for equipment that may have been stolen from the UCLA Medical Center.
Equipment in the laboratory, where a body and six heads are kept frozen in liquid nitrogen, bore labels indicating that it was owned by UCLA, a coroner's investigator said. At least two of the foundation's researchers are also employees of the UCLA Medical Center.
Spokesmen for Alcor said the equipment had been legally purchased at UCLA surplus sales.
The material removed, which was loaded onto a flatbed truck, included word processing equipment, computer diskette files and a .45-caliber carbine. A coroner's investigator said authorities expected to work well into the night removing material. Officials said they did not plan to remove any frozen bodies or body parts.
A UCLA spokesman said the school was awaiting a report from its investigators but that "any activities at Alcor by any employee of ours are completely independent and unaffiliated with our school of medicine."
Coroner's officials said Alcor continued to refuse to turn over the head of Dora Kent, 83, which was surgically removed Dec. 11 at the foundation's laboratory so that it could be frozen.
The coroner's office has been trying since mid-December to examine the head to determine whether the woman was still alive when she was decapitated. Alcor representatives have refused their requests and say the head was not removed until Kent had died of natural causes.
Riverside County Coroner Ray Carillo said Tuesday that an autopsy of Kent's headless body indicated that she had pneumonia and arteriosclerotic heart disease, which may have led to her death. But Carillo said medical examiners need the head to complete the autopsy.
"All we're saying is, bring us the head and we'll back off," Carillo said. "We have a responsibility to figure out what that woman died of."
But advocates of the idea that bodies can be frozen for revival at a later date--a practice called cryonics--believe that tests run by the coroner would so harm the skull and brain that Kent could never be returned to life.
'She's Alive in There'
Hugh Hixon, an Alcor laboratory employee, said Tuesday that Kent's head was being kept safe in a canister of liquid nitrogen. Hixon indicated the head was under control of Kent's son, Saul Kent, an Alcor member who has a home in Woodcrest, south of Riverside, and that Saul Kent does not want the head disturbed.
"She's his mother," Hixon said. "She's alive in there."
Saul Kent, a leading figure in the cryonics movement who has donated thousands of dollars to cryonics research, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Cryonics adherents believe that bodies frozen now may be thawed and revived when science has advanced. Often they freeze only the heads, saying that by the time science can revive the dead it will also be able to clone new bodies for the frozen heads.
Scientists dismiss the beliefs as baseless.
There are 13 known human bodies or heads in the freezers of U.S. cryonics groups. In the 110-gallon, concrete freezer vault at the Alcor facility, there are six heads, one whole body, a dog and a cat.
Tuesday was the second time investigators searched the Alcor facility. The building was also searched Thursday, and six Alcor members, including the foundation's president, Mike Darwin, and Hixon were taken into custody for questioning. They were released four hours later.
Christopher Ashworth, attorney for Alcor and Saul Kent, told reporters Tuesday that he had filed suit in Riverside County Superior Court requesting an order forbidding the coroner to thaw any of the frozen heads, and had asked for a hearing today on the request.
The search for Mrs. Kent's head began when Alcor applied for a permit to cremate her headless body after her death at the laboratory, Hixon said. The coroner investigated because Kent was not under a doctor's care at the time of her death. Kent was brought by her son to the Alcor laboratory from a nursing home where she had been residing.
Among the equipment being examined by UCLA police was an electron microscope. Hixon said Alcor bought the microscope from UCLA for $2,500 about seven years ago.
The gun seized Tuesday was taken away to determine whether it is an automatic weapon, which would make it illegal. Jerry Leaf, 46, an Alcor member who described himself as a research associate at the UCLA School of Medicine, said the weapon, as well as other guns found in the earlier search Thursday, belong to him and that all are legal. He said the gun taken Tuesday is not an automatic weapon. The weapons found Thursday were not seized by authorities.
Louis Sahagun reported from Riverside and T. W. McGarry from Los Angeles.