Court Gives Custody of Grandmother's Frozen Head to Cryonics Company

Colorado family vows to appeal court ruling, wants body kept intact.

February 22, 2010, 2:54 PM

March 1, 2010— -- A Colorado probate judge has ruled that custody of a deceased grandmother's head will go to an Arizona-based cryonics company, not her family.

The legal battle over Mary Robbins' head has been building since her death on Feb. 9 from cancer. Her children, led by her daughter, Darlene Robbins, lost their argument today that their mother's contract with the non-profit Alcor Life Extension Foundation was voided in the days before her death.

Mary Robbins signed a contract with Alcor in 2006, giving the group the right to freeze her head in hopes of bringing it back to life some time in the future.

The family had argued that Mary Robbins changed her mind in her final days, but the court said she never put her request to cancel the contract in writing. That is required by Colorado law, the court said as part of its decision.

The family says it will appeal the judge's ruling, which, according to the Pueblo Chieftan, includes a 72-hour stay for Robbins' children to formally take the case to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Alcor, which is based in Arizona, is the same company that took possession of baseball great Ted Williams' head after a legal battle between his children over whether Williams really wanted his head frozen. The company was also accused of mishandling and damaging Williams' head once it had custody.

"We are very pleased that the written desires of Ms. Robbins will be fulfilled," Alcor attorney Eric Bentley said in a written statement released shortly after the hearing. "This case has always been about the written intentions of Ms. Robbins."

Robert Scranton, a lawyer for Darlene Robbins, said before today's ruling that he took on the case after receiving a frantic phone call from the funeral home that Alcor representatives were looking to collect the woman's head.

He argued in court that Robbins, a 71-year-old retired nurse and grandmother of 10, verbally dissolved her agreement with the company in the days before she died, realizing she could not, in her weakened state, follow through with the protocols required by Alcor.

He questioned whether the original agreement, though bearing a valid signature, was even legal, calling it "vague."

"It's kind of this general idea that we'll freeze you, we'll do the best we can," Scranton said. "It's not like freezing a chicken to thaw it out later and cook it."

Fast-Moving Cancer Scrubbed Grandmother's Plans for Cryonics

Clifford Wolff, an attorney for Alcor, told last month that Colorado law is very clear -- all anatomical gifts must be spelled out in writing and must be canceled in writing. He insisted the company was battling with the Robbins family to preserve their mother's wishes, not to recoup any financial losses.

"The issue of money is not the issue in this lawsuit," he said. "The issue is fulfilling the written desire of Ms. Robbins."

Alcor has repeatedly asked the Robbins family for any sort of written proof that Robbins changed her mind, but never received any such documents, he said.

"What they want with the body, I have no idea," Darlene Robbins said last month. "It has to just be for money. I can't think of any other reason why they would pursue her body."

Scranton said Robbins had long planned on freezing her head in hopes technology would one day allow her to be revived. When she signed up with Alcor in 2006, she took out a $50,000 annuity and named Alcor as the beneficiary to cover the harvesting and storage.

"She was always fascinated by those types of things," he said. "I think it's been said that she had a desire that if she could live again she would come back as a scientist or a researcher."

Robbins was diagnosed with cervical cancer in December and tests showed that the cancer had spread to most of her vital organs, but not her brain.

She began radiation and signed up for a cancer-treatment study. But too weak to participate in the treatment, Robbins resigned herself to the fact that she was going to lose her battle and contacted Alcor.

Darlene Robbins said Alcor told her mother that they wanted her to move to Phoenix to die, something Robbins did not want to do. She asked that Alcor send personnel to assist her, Darlene Robbins said, but Alcor suggested her hospice carry out the lengthy list of after-death protocols that the company requires to prep the body for freezing, including administering a cocktail of medications and performing CPR once death has already occurred to keep oxygen flowing.

"Hospice said it was not within their power to do that. They didn't have the medications," Darlene Robbins said. "It's against their charter, which is to help people die with dignity and peace."

Two days before she died, Robbins changed the beneficiary on her annuity policy so the money would go to her family, an act witnessesed by family and non-family, Scranton said. The lawyer said that others heard Robbins say that she no longer wished for her head to be frozen.

Darlene Robbins said she contacted Alcor to let them know her mother had changed her mind and "they hung up on me."

Alcor, Scranton said, rejected Robbins' verbal cancellation of the contract, "saying oral revocations don't count. That it has to be in writing."

Besides battling the Robbins family over the contract to preserve her head, Wolf said recently that Alcor could not rule out a legal effort to have the original $50,000 annuity reinstated as well.

Family Fights Cryonics Company to Keep Mother's Head

Once the family realized Alcor was going to fight them for their mother's head, they agreed to allow the head to be packed in ice, while the rest of the body was refrigerated per normal post-mortem storage. The body remains intact.

But even that is questionable, Scranton said, because the ice wasn't brought in until about 24 hours after Robbins had died.

By Alcor's own list of lengthy procedures to ensure proper freezing after death, Darlene Robbins said, Mary Robbins' body is no longer viable because it was not prepared according to those guidelines.

"What they are going to do with the body I have no idea," she said. ""What are they going to do, put her in a box and just drive her down to Arizona?"

Wolff said that even though the company's preferred preservation techniques were not followed in the hours after Robbins death, the company's scientists have said cryopreservation is still possible.

"She's been on dry ice at a super-cooled temperature, which allows for cryopreservation," he said.

Alcor and the whole idea of cryonics has been mired in controversy for years. The company was the subject of the 2009 book "Frozen: My Journey Into the World of Cryonics, Deception and Death," by former Alcor employee Larry Johnson.

Johnson charged that Alcor employes whacked Williams' head with a monkey wrench like they were hitting a baseball.

Last year, Johnson told "Nightline" that he was horrified to have watched Alcor employees in the operating room, working on a deceased client.

"It was barbaric ... the third suspension that I witnessed, they actually used a hammer and a chisel," he said. "I actually witnessed them remove her head with a chisel and a hammer."

Alcor has denounced Johnson's interview with "Nightline" and his book, calling his actions "inexcusable and indefensible" in a statement on the company Web site.

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