Acting at the request of a group that freezes the dead in the hope that they can be revived in the future, a Superior Court judge Wednesday temporarily barred coroner's investigators from defrosting six heads and a body resting in the group's Riverside headquarters.
Judge Victor Miceli granted the request made by attorneys for Alcor Life Extension Foundation, who argued that thawing the remains could "render them unfit, at any time in the future," to be revived by as-yet-undetermined scientific techniques. Arguments for a permanent injunction will be heard in Riverside County Superior Court on Feb. 1, Miceli said.
The request came amid a coroner's investigation into the death of Dora Kent, 83, whose head was surgically removed at Alcor on Dec. 11 and then frozen in liquid nitrogen. The coroner is probing whether Kent might have been alive when she was decapitated. Alcor officials have contended that the woman was brought to the facility by her son, Saul Kent, and was legally dead before she was decapitated. However, they have refused to make Kent's head available to the coroner for autopsy, contending that it would require unfreezing the head.
Riverside County coroner's officials have said they do not wish to disturb any of the other remains at the Alcor facility. The body and heads are kept frozen in liquid nitrogen in concrete vaults.
Alcor officials are practitioners of cryonics--the belief that bodies can be frozen for revival at a later date. They also believe that by the time science advances to the point where the dead can be revived, it also will be able to clone new bodies.
Most scientists dismiss cryonics as a fantasy.
Investigators threatened at one point last week to open all containers of frozen human remains at Alcor in order to find Kent's head. Alcor officials said the head has been taken to an undisclosed location and is the "custody" of Saul Kent, who is well known in cryonics circles.
Chris Leanders, an attorney representing Alcor, said after Wednesday's hearing that he has been told by Alcor officials that the head "is in a safe place, being well cared for. . . . I do not know the whereabouts."
Joyce Reikes, a deputy county counsel who represented the coroner, declined comment on the hearing except to say, "I am here to see that my client is not restrained from doing his duty."
Meanwhile, investigators continued Wednesday to remove property from the Alcor facility, a one-story building in an industrial park. Riverside County coroner's investigators and UCLA campus police began searching the building Tuesday, seeking material that may have been stolen from UCLA. Alcor officials have said that all of the equipment in question was purchased at UCLA surplus sales.
Rich Elbaum, a spokesman for UCLA's health sciences department, said it has not yet been determined whether any equipment found at the laboratory had been stolen. He added that the university frequently sells surplus medical equipment.
By Wednesday, investigators had confiscated seven computers, numerous pieces of scientific equipment, a .45-caliber weapon and a kit to make the weapon fully automatic. Also removed was a plastic container carrying the hands of Dora Kent.
Officials said the coroner's office on Dec. 23 forwarded the hands, which are believed to have been removed at the time of Kent's decapitation, and the woman's body to a Buena Park mortuary after an autopsy on the body parts failed to determine the exact cause of her death.
"We don't know how the hands wound up back at Alcor," said an investigator.
The search for Dora Kent's head began when Alcor applied for a permit to cremate her headless body after her death at the laboratory, a spokesman for the firm said. The coroner investigated because Kent was not under a doctor's care at the time of her death.
Cause of Death 'Pending'
Kent was brought by her son to the Alcor laboratory from a convalescent home where she had been residing. A death certificate filed by the coroner's office Wednesday with the Riverside County Registrar of Vital Statistics said that cause of death was "pending."
Riverside County Coroner Ray Carillo said Tuesday that a medical examination of the body indicated that the woman may have died of pneumonia and arteriosclerotic heart disease, but that no cause of death could be determined without the head.
Saul Kent could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Louis Sahagun reported from Riverside and T. W. McGarry from Los Angeles.