Frostbitten – Times Publications, December 2009
After gaining access to Alcor’s inner circle, Larry Johnson has now gone public with several shocking allegations in his book, “Frozen: My Journey into the World of Cryonics, Deception and Death.”
For eight months in 2003, Larry Johnson worked as a paramedic for the recently de-animated.
As the clinical director for the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the world’s leading cryonics organization, it was Johnson’s job to prep deceased Alcor patients for their “second life cycles.”
As time passed, however, Johnson began secretly preparing for his next job: whistleblower.
At Alcor’s facility, located in Scottsdale, 88 heads and full bodies are suspended in liquid nitrogen awaiting future scientific advancements that could one day bring them back to life.
During his first few months at Alcor, Johnson says he witnessed senseless animal experiments, the dumping of toxic chemicals in the public sewage system and three gruesome cyro-suspension procedures. As he was thrust deeper into the peculiar world of cryonics, and promoted to one of Alcor’s top posts, he says he became aware of disturbing rumors claiming Alcor’s former president had injected a terminally ill AIDS patient with a paralytic drug to hasten his death.
Motivated by these horrific discoveries, Johnson began taking pictures, copying documents and even wearing a wire while on the job, all in an effort to hold Alcor accountable for what he claims were numerous transgressions.
It was a typical bizarre Monday morning at Alcor as Larry Johnson nervously tucked a digital voice recorder under his shirttail and approached one of his colleagues.
Terrified of being caught with the recorder, Johnson could hardly breathe, his heart pounding so furiously he was sure the thumping could be heard across the hallway. Johnson stuttered as he spoke to Alcor’s facility engineer about the dangerous drugs he had found in the medical supply closet, which included potassium chloride, a drug used in lethal injections.
Johnson was about to uncover what he calls Alcor’s darkest secret. The following conversation is taken from the actual recording between Johnson and Alcor’s facility engineer.
Johnson: “We at one time carried potassium chloride… What were we carrying that for?”
Alcor Employee: “A very long time ago we used bars of potassium chloride and now we use…”
Johnson (interrupting): “Was that just to pretty much to stifle the cardiac, um, the chances of coming back?”
Alcor Employee: “It was to kill them… to put them down and make sure they stayed that way.”
Concealing his shock and revulsion, Johnson says he fought the urge to run out of the room. As a former paramedic, he had spent 25 years saving lives. Now he was working for a company he believed was euthanizing people.
“When I found that out I got scared,” Johnson told The Times. “I knew that this was so outlandish, but I had it all on tape in case they did it again.”
Soon, Johnson would submit the tapes to authorities, leading to the launch of a homicide investigation. He later went public with his allegations in his book, “Frozen: My Journey into the World of Cryonics, Deception and Death.”
Becoming a whistleblower took Johnson down a twisted and terrifying path. Fleeing from state to state, living in hiding, he says he was stalked, threatened and terrorized by fanatical cryonics-believers. To cryonicists, he says, he was jeopardizing their chance at immortality.
Welcome to Alcor
It was January 26, 2003, Larry Johnson’s first day at Alcor.
Six months earlier, baseball legend Ted Williams had died at the age of 83 of cardiac arrest. Reports of Williams’ remains being stored inside Alcor’s freezers placed Alcor at the center of a national media spotlight.
When Johnson applied to work at Alcor, he knew little about cryonics, aside from what had been reported about Ted Williams. Still, the self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie thought it would be an exciting place to work. After being offered the position, Johnson quit his job as a paramedic in Las Vegas and relocated to Scottsdale with his wife.
At the time, Alcor had no professionally trained medical personnel on its staff. Upon their death, bodies of Alcor members were transported to the facility by a team of volunteers in the back a U-Haul.
To be frozen at the Alcor facility, a member pays $150,000 for the suspension of the entire body or $80,000 for the suspension of just the head. Most patients choose to have only their heads cryo-suspended, and the decapitation procedures are freelanced to either a retired local surgeon or veterinarian. Johnson says a primary reason for his hiring was to legitimize Alcor’s medical practices.
“They seemed aware they all gave off an odd sense to outsiders,” Johnson wrote in his book. “That’s where they seemed to hope I’d come in. They needed someone like me, as a bridge to the mainstream medical community.”
Johnson’s new job responsibilities required him to prepare patients’ bodies, administer drugs and assist in the washout procedure, in which the member’s blood is replaced by Alcor’s cyro-preservant chemicals. Believers in cryonics hope that one day medical advancements will devise a way to clone a new young body around the brain, which would retain their memories and personality.
Alcor currently has 905 living members. Larry Johnson says he was the first non-Alcor member to have been hired by the company.
“When I first got there it was quite obvious that I was an outsider,” Johnson says. “I wasn’t in their little circle. A lot of them wouldn’t even look at me.”
While Johnson was intrigued by biotech research, he thought the prospect of reanimation was largely science fiction. Alcorians, however, are resolute in their belief that cryonics could hold the key to immortality. Johnson says he was told over and over that Alcor patients are never to be referred to as dead, just “de-animated.”
“They are very fanatical,” Johnson says. “They truly believe that this is going to work. They don’t believe these people are dead so they refer to them as patients. In other words, they think they’re still alive.”
Johnson says he was told on his first day that most cryonicists are a “little off center.”
Some of his eccentric co-workers were obsessed with “Star Trek,” wore bike helmets in their cars and ate only a specific diet consisting of a homemade vegetable concoction.
“Alcor seemed like it would be a good mixture of science and excitement,” Johnson wrote. “It turned out I overestimated the science and underestimated the excitement.”
Johnson says his entire perception of Alcor changed the day he witnessed his first cryo-suspension procedure.
At about 8:45 a.m. on February 24, 2003, the organization’s hotline rang: an 81-year-old Alcor member from San Diego had “de-animated.” About 17-hours later, after several delays in transportation, the body arrived at Alcor’s facility on ice in the back of a U-Haul truck.
For the next several hours, Johnson says he watched in horror as the procedure unfolded. In gruesome detail, Johnson’s book outlines how Alcor staff removed the man’s head and placed it in a makeshift contraption. Johnson says it was horrifying.
“Alcor’s surgical standards were not even remotely up to those of, say, your average hospital,” he wrote. “I’d call the bodies under the knife dead. Alcorians considered them alive. Regardless, as an emergency medical professional for more than twenty-five years, I had never seen such a gross lack of professionalism in my life.”
In a prepared statement Alcor contends that Johnson’s accounts are “fictionalized” and denies “exposing patients to any devices or equipment not appropriate for their function, clean and sterile as required.”
After witnessing two more cryo-suspension procedures over a three-week period, Johnson says he attempted to bring the matter to the attention of Alcor employees. According to Johnson, his complaints about the dumping of disease-ridden blood and toxic chemicals in the public sewage system fell on deaf ears.
He suspected Alcor had more to hide but says he didn’t believe they would make such disclosures to him. Johnson was an outsider, not an Alcorian. So at the end of March 2003, he filled out the necessary paperwork to become Alcor member A-2032 – a move he contends was his way of learning more about what he believed to be a corrupt organization.
“It was like turning on a light switch,” he says. “As soon as they found out that I had filled out the paperwork to become an Alcorian, then all of a sudden everyone was coming up shaking my hand and telling me congratulations.”
Almost immediately, Johnson says, he was assigned a new, larger office and given access to all of Alcor’s patient files. After work that same day, Johnson went to his attorney’s office to add a clause to his will: “It is my wish that all previous arrangements made with the Alcor Foundation of Scottsdale, Arizona, become null and void.”
Johnson says he was terrified. For weeks he had nightmares about ending up on Alcor’s tables with masked men injecting him with syringes filled with cyro-fluids. He didn’t want to be an Alcorian but felt it necessary in order to uncover the truth.
All Alcor members are assigned a number and given a medical-information bracelet so that if they die suddenly, caregivers can immediately contact Alcor.
“I was scared to death to wear it,” Johnson says. “What would happen if I got in a car wreck on the way to work and I’m wearing that bracelet? I would leave the bracelet off under my seat in my vehicle, and when I got to Alcor I would put it on.”
For the next several months, Johnson was an Alcor employee by day and a sleuth by night.
Poring through Alcor’s files, he says he was able to piece together an account of how his boyhood hero, Ted Williams, became Alcor patient A-1949.
According to a copy of Ted Williams’ will, presented in court by his daughter, his final wishes were for his body to be cremated and for his ashes to be scattered at sea off the coast of Florida. However, Williams’ son, John Henry, had his father’s power of attorney upon his death. When John Henry toured Alcor in 2001, he expressed interest in having his father’s remains frozen for possible future cloning.
In the early morning hours of July 5, 2002, when John Henry learned his father had died, his first call was to Alcor, according to Johnson. Six hours later, John Henry signed Alcor membership papers on behalf of his father, and his body was flown to Scottsdale on a private jet.
On Ted Williams’ membership agreement, dated July 5, 2002, the space reserved for Ted Williams’ own signature was left blank.
That afternoon, dozens of Alcor volunteers crammed into the small operating room.
According to Johnson, Williams, a famously private man who battled the paparazzi his entire life, was sprawled out on the white mortician’s table and pumped with cryo-preservants as Alcorians snapped photos, laughed and joked.
According to Alcor documents, Mike Darwin, a dialysis-machine technician, and Hugh Hixon, a mechanical engineer, performed the procedure. During the procedure, the equipment malfunctioned, according to the medical log, and the chemicals pooled in Williams’ skull. When his head was finally placed inside the freezing vault, the liquid expanded, ultimately cracking his skull. Williams’ cyro-suspension was considered a failure, even by Alcor’s standards, Johnson says.
In a statement Alcor president Jennifer Chapman called Johnson’s claims “outrageous,” and reminds that Johnson was not employed at Alcor during the time Ted Williams was cryo-preserved.
“Alcor especially denies mistreating the remains of baseball great Ted Williams,” the statement reads.
John Henry remained steadfast that his father wanted his remains cryonically suspended.
For years, Williams’ daughter, Bobby-Jo Ferrell, battled Alcor in court to have her father’s remains released from Alcor and cremated according to Williams’ will.
Two of Williams’ nephews, Ted and Sam Williams, also contend their uncle never wanted cryonics for himself. The legal battle has torn their family apart.
After reading Ted Williams’ case file, Johnson says he too doesn’t believe Williams ever wanted to be cryonically preserved.
“For someone to voluntarily take the zillion-to-one chance of reanimation and unfortunately suffer the indignities of a bungled cryo-suspension is one thing,” Johnson wrote. “But it’s quite another thing, and much worse, for a son to sign over his father’s body against the stated will of the parents, and against the pleadings of this sister.”
Johnson believed what was done to Ted Williams’ body was despicable but says that what he learned about the mysterious deaths of two other Alcor patients—John Dentinger and Dora Kent—was what pushed him over the edge.
According to cryonics theory, the sooner the brain is frozen, the better the chance for successful reanimation. Some cryonicists have gone to extreme lengths to better their chances at successful reanimation.
In 1990, Thomas Donaldson, an Alcor member who was suffering from cancer, even went through a lengthy legal battle to be euthanized and cyro-suspended “pre-mortem” before the cancer destroyed his brain. He called it “elective cryo-preservation.” A California court rejected his petition. Donaldson’s cancer later went into remission, and he went on to live 16 more years before dying in 2006 and being cyro-suspended at Alcor.
While at Alcor, Johnson says he learned of two suspicious incidents of patients being euthanized prior to being cryo-suspended.
The first involved an 83-year-old retired dressmaker named Dora Kent, who in December 1987 was suffering from pneumonia and facing imminent death. According to documents posted on Alcor’s own website, “a fateful decision was made to bring her into the facility before she de-animated. This was medically sound but politically pretty dicey, as events proved.”
After Kent’s cryo-suspension, the coroner’s office autopsied the headless body and found traces of barbiturates. Several Alcor members were arrested on suspicion of homicide. Alcor calls it “the greatest crisis in the history of Alcor.” Charges were later dropped, and the case was settled in 1991.
The Dora Kent incident was not kept secret at Alcor. But after Johnson became an Alcor member, he learned about a second incident involving a terminally ill AIDS patient named John Dentinger, who was allegedly euthanized in the garage of his home by an Alcor employee.
In Johnson’s eyes, it was murder.
Alcor’s CEO at the time of Dentinger’s death, Carlos Mondragon, later publicly admitted that when allegations of an Alcor employee hastening a member’s death were brought to his attention, ties were severed with that employee. That employee is no longer associated with Alcor.
In the final month of Johnson’s employment at Alcor, he says he was able to record his conversations with two employees who discussed witnessing Dentinger’s premature death.
In a statement, Alcor says these conversations were recorded illegally and that the “alleged recordings cannot be independently verified.”
“It is important to note that Mr. Johnson came to Alcor with supposed medical experience, and he was paid and entrusted to improve procedures and ensure the safety and privacy of Alcor members,” the statement reads. “In his short tenure, Mr. Johnson misappropriated Alcor property for his own financial gain; he invaded the privacy of private individuals by secretly recording their conversations; he absconded with medical records and technical photographs… Mr. Johnson’s actions violated the trust of Alcor, breached the confidence of its members and damaged the reputation of the science of cryonics.”
Johnson went to police with the taped conversations, and the case was briefly investigated as a homicide but later dropped.
“They didn’t do a darn thing about it,” Johnson says.
Ultimately, Dentinger’s case was the reason Johnson decided to expose Alcor. He says he worried about the number of other Alcor patients that might have been prematurely de-animated.
Johnson says he never set out to become a whistleblower, contending he decided to write a tell-all book because the story needed to be told.
“People need to know about this,” he says. “That is the motivation for this book. People need to know.”
After going to the police and media, Johnson resigned his position at Alcor and claims he later began receiving death threats. He says he and his wife lived for several years in hiding at safe houses.
“Doing the right thing is not always easy,” he says.
Even today, six years after his brief employment at Alcor, Johnson says he still fears for his safety, and for that reason avoids planned book signings.
“I’m very, very concerned,” he says. “I’m very conscious, I’m very aware of my surroundings. It’s pretty unnerving.”
In a statement Alcor contends their members feel personally attacked by many of the allegations in Johnson’s book: “Alcor is a non-profit organization, a pioneer in the field of cryonics and categorically denies the false allegations contained in Mr. Johnson’s book.”