A fraught, multi-million-dollar legal battle over the frozen head of a now-deceased biochemist escalated into fraud claims this week, after four years of wild allegations that at one point involved talk of a wax dummy head and an alleged hidden will.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Until his death, Dr. Laurence Pilgeram, a biochemist and medical school professor, was a longtime proponent of the Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s cryonics program. The company claims it can effectively save lives “by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today’s medicine can be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health.” (To be clear, cryonics is not the same as cryogenics, which is a branch of physics that studies the effects of very low temperatures.)
Alcor’s facilities offer both whole-body preservation and head-only neuropreservation, which might one day serve to “restore the patient to health by regrowing a new body around the brain using future tissue regeneration technology,” according to the company’s website. The same company has already cryopreserved baseball icon Ted Williams, even if that might seem like something out of Don Delillo’s Zero K or a sci-fi film.
Pilgeram had been giving talks at cryonics conferences since 1971. Then he died suddenly in 2015, at the age of 90, after collapsing on the sidewalk outside of his Goleta, California, home. His body was released to a mortuary, where it was covered in dry ice. Alcor employees later performed a “neuro separation” to begin the cryonics process. Pilgeram’s head was cryopreserved, and the rest of his body was cremated and sent to his family. (Alcor has said in court documents that Pilgeram’s body was “medically unable to be preserved” in its entirety because it sat for two days at a medical examiner’s office.)
Pilgeram’s head has since been preserved at the Arizona facility in liquid nitrogen at -196 C (-320 F). But Alcor has not been paid for the service, and now it’s trying to strip Pilgeram’s son of his inheritance for allegedly betraying his father’s wishes. It’s a long, complicated legal fight that shows how abundant wealth and a lifelong obsession with theoretically life-altering technology might tear a family apart.
Before his death, Pilgeram took out a six-figure insurance policy to pay for his contract fee with Alcor, David J. Tappeiner, who represented Pilgeram’s son Kurt, said in 2018. Tappeiner told The Daily Beast at the time that Pilgeram’s agreement with Alcor called for the company to “preserve his whole body.” In a civil suit filed in 2018, Kurt Pilgeram claimed that, by cremating the bulk of his father’s body, which he was aghast to receive at his home two weeks after his father’s death, Alcor breached its contract and dashed any hopes “of bringing his head ‘back to life.’”
“They chopped his head off, burned his body, put it in a box and sent it to my house,” he told The Great Falls Tribune.
Alcor responded at the time by claiming that Laurence’s agreement with the company made clear his desire that it “place into suspension any biological remains whatsoever that they may be able to recover, regardless of the severity of the damage to my human remains from such causes as fire, decomposition, autopsy, embalming, or other causes.”
To be clear, using cryonics to bring someone back from the dead is not yet possible and has been, to put it gently, met with skepticism by many in the scientific community. Advocates, however, argue that new discoveries have made the movement promising for the future.
“In the future medicine will learn to master growth and development programs within the human body,” Alcor claims on its website. “Cells will be reprogrammed to heal severed spinal cords, regrow lost limbs, and even regenerate new organs. This kind of tissue regeneration already occurs naturally in children that lose fingertips, and in organs such as the liver.”
Pilgeram’s sons began a tangled, lengthy legal dispute with Alcor over the rights to their father’s insurance money in the weeks after he died, Tappeiner said in 2018. In a 2015 settlement, all parties agreed to place the money in escrow until the dispute could be handled.
But more than a year later, Pilgeram’s sons asked that Alcor return their father’s head to their family and release the insurance money being held in escrow, according to their attorney. In response, Alcor filed a lawsuit in November 2017 in the Superior Court of California in Santa Barbara County claiming breach of contract. The “cephalon” (head) was theirs, they argued, along with a generous payout.
Kurt Pilgeram filed a counter-complaint in 2018 in which he said he suffered “extreme emotional distress” after Alcor sent him the box of cremated remains without warning and that the nonprofit acted in bad faith when it severed his father’s head from his body.
Alcor has said, in response, that Pilgeram spent his life studying cryonics and enrolled in Alcor’s program many years before his death. James Arrowood, one of the nonprofit’s attorneys, told the Tribune last year: “Imagine if you made a contract as an adult, and you are of sound mind, and then one of your kids pops up and said, ‘I don’t like that agreement you made’?”
Things somehow escalated even further this week. After more than four years of back-and-forths between the parties, Alcor accused Kurt Pilgeram of fraud. In legal documents filed on Tuesday, the company claimed that, in Kurt’s alleged pursuit of his father’s fortune, he had concealed documents that reflected Laurence’s posthumous wishes.
The 90-page filing by Alcor seeks to vacate the court’s previous release of the elder Pilgeram’s estate to his beneficiaries, including Kurt, potentially leaving him with just $1. (Kurt’s brother and fellow beneficiary Karl is not named as a respondent in the suit.)
“He not only signed up for his remains to be preserved by Alcor, but he also signed a codicil to his will that said that if family member challenged his wish to be cryo-preserved, they would be disinherited and only receive a dollar,” Diane Cafferata, who represents Alcor, told The Daily Beast on Friday.
“After Pilgeram died in 2015, his son hid this codicil and all his father’s testamentary documents from the probate court and falsely claimed his father died intestate,” landing Kurt and his brother about $16 million, alleged Cafferata. “He also blocked Alcor’s right to receive the $80,000 of life insurance money that Dr. Pilgeram had set aside to fund his preservation.”
At one point, Kurt accused Alcor of preserving a wax dummy instead of his dad’s actual head, and the nonprofit sent him photographic evidence to combat that claim, according to Cafferata.
“Kurt’s goal was to destroy us,” Cafferata said, accusing him of “just lying,” when in reality Pilgeram had left a will. “We were getting stiffed in discovery—no pun intended,” she told The Daily Beast.
The company claims that a will, which Alcor has said dates back to at least 1980, was “allegedly yet conveniently just very recently discovered” and that by hiding it, his son “violated his duty as an administrator of the estate.”
Tappeiner did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Kurt and Karl Pilgeram did not respond to voicemails from The Daily Beast on Friday.
Through the legal fight with Alcor, the company maintains, Kurt Pilgeram “acted directly contrary” to his father’s desires and is “entitled to no more than a dollar,” according to the filing, which also alleges that Alcor has accrued millions of dollars of damages in defending itself from a “frivolous and malicious lawsuit.”
Cafferata said that Alcor has asked the court to appoint a “private, professional fiduciary” to gather the proceeds of the estate and then put them into a constructive trust “for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the estate, whoever they turn out to be.”
“We don’t take a lot of things with us in death, but we have a pretty solid rule in California that you get to say what happens to your body,” said Cafferata, adding, “This is not a light-hearted thing that people do. They’re very serious about it when it they sign up, and people need to believe that Alcor will fight for them.”
The matter was set for a September trial before Judge Donna Geck in Santa Barbara, according to Litigation Daily.