South Florida Church Pursues Eternal Life Through Cryonics, Inflaming Critics and the IRS
Illustration by Pete Ryan
Upstairs in a beige church on McKinley Street in Hollywood, a 60-year-old with a full head of dark hair launches into a PowerPoint presentation full of big ideas and a bigger vocabulary.
First, Bill Faloon gives a shoutout to Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine. "We need to put a pedestal up for him," Faloon argues. He moves on to slides about Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, a 19th-century Russian librarian who believed that man's common task is to bring the dead back to life and unite all of humanity; he is the "prophet" of the church. Faloon then tells the crowd that "cellular senescence," when mature cells stop reproducing, is the root cause of physical aging. If scientists could only prevent this, people could stay young forever.
"I never accepted death as being inevitable," Faloon says in a business-like tone. "Technology will advance to the point where death is rather optional."
The pews are sprinkled with about 60 people: middle-aged women, friends from a libertarian meetup group, and gray-haired couples intrigued by an ad for the church that had run in the obituary section of the daily paper. Cameramen from Vice News duck down in the aisles, filming Faloon for an episode that's likely to air in the fall. Faloon's family is here: his lanky 18- and 20-year-old sons as well as his blond wife, Debra, who is 58 but looks downright girlish in high heels and a floral dress, a hot-pink flower in her hair.
In 2013, Faloon and his longtime business partner, Saul Kent, bought, for $880,000, this building just north of downtown Hollywood that had formerly housed a Baptist congregation. They founded the Church of Perpetual Life, which hosts once-a-month meetings with a guest speaker and a social hour. Establishing the church is just the latest bold step in the duo's lifelong mission of trying to extend human lifespans.
Faloon and Kent are controversial figures in a controversial field. The so-called "immortalist" movement encompasses strategies of "life extension," from taking vitamins to receiving organ transplants. It also includes cryonics, the idea that corpses can be cooled to extremely low temperatures and someday, somehow, be returned to life.
For their work, Faloon and Kent have been both hailed as visionaries and derided as snake-oil salesmen. They've been raided by the feds and thrown in jail for importing unapproved drugs. They've bankrolled a slew of curious cryonics projects, from the freezing of dogs to experiments in an underground house. Kent even had his own mother's head detached and cryopreserved, then had to fend off a murder investigation. Now, they're battling the IRS over the foundation's tax-exempt status.
None of this seems to bother Faloon much. A huge round of investment from the global 1 percent is now bringing immortalist ideas out of the realm of science fiction. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal; Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius Radio; and Sergey Brin, CEO of Google, are just a few of the ultrarich who have recently begun to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into life-extension endeavors. Death, they are betting, is a scientific problem that can be solved.
Says Faloon: "What I had hoped would happen in 1977 is finally happening in 2015."
A folk band played "Forever Young" before a service in March.
Photo by Deirdra Funcheon
Bill Faloon can't pinpoint the time he first saw a dead body — it must have been a funeral when he was a kid — but, he says, "I remember wondering, Why isn't everybody in this room thinking of a way not to get in that predicament themselves? No one seemed to think they should be taking any affirmative action."
Faloon, born in 1954 to a Presbyterian family, remembers distinctly that "when I was 8 years old, I was told by my mother that everybody eventually dies. At that very moment, I refused to accept that concept."
When he was about 13, he read an article in the Pittsburgh Press, his city's afternoon newspaper, about Robert Ettinger, who had written a book called The Prospect of Immortality. Ettinger proposed that corpses could be preserved at low temperatures in hopes they could someday be revived. The physics and math professor, who had won a Purple Heart as an infantryman in World War II, would come to be known as the father of cryonics.
Saul Kent, 15 years older than Faloon, was 300 miles away in New York and likewise read about Ettinger — in the June 1964 issue of Playboy. Kent declined to be interviewed for this article but in 2000 described his early interest in cryonics for a documentary TV show called First Person. By August 1965, Kent had formed the Cryonics Society of New York with two other men.
"Kryos" is the Greek word for "cold," and "cryogenics" is a mainstream science that explores physics at low temperatures. But "the word 'cryonics,'?" Kent explained, was coined by one of his buddies, Karl Werner. "He just made it up, and about five years later, it was in the dictionary."
Kent explained the methodology: "Take a person at the point that he or she is dying and lower their body temperature to that of liquid nitrogen, about negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit. You take out the person's blood and replace it with a chemical solution that protects against freezing damage — sort of an antifreeze... Put them into something that looks a lot like a thermos bottle — except it's eight feet high... Then perhaps [in] 300 years, medicine will advance to a point where the patient could be thawed, the damage repaired, and the person brought back to life."
But, Kent added, cryonics would always be a last resort: "My objective was not to be frozen and come back. What I really wanted to do was not to die at all."
Around the country, people influenced by Ettinger began trying to put his ideas into practice. Some opted to donate their bodies. A California TV repairman named Robert Nelson froze the first human — a 73-year-old psychology professor — in 1967, in dry ice and Styrofoam. Cryonics suffered a setback when some of the bodies Nelson had stored were found decomposing, but pioneers soldiered on.
Fred Chamberlain, an engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, along with his wife, Linda, founded a company called Alcor in 1972 and cryopreserved their first patient in 1976. Meanwhile, Ettinger, the father of this science, started the Cryonics Society of Michigan, which later became the Cryonics Institute, and preserved its first body — that of Ettinger's mother — in 1977. Today, Alcor and CI each hold about 130 patients, and each has more than 1,000 living people signed up. The only other cryonics facility in the world is in Russia, though one is getting started in Oregon.
Faloon decided his body would need to be shipped off to these pioneers. When he was about 15, he took out a life insurance policy, named his mother as beneficiary, and made her promise that if he died, she would pass them both the insurance benefits and his remains. When he finished high school, he completed a one-year program at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, figuring that "with my mortician's license I could cryopreserve."
During autopsies, "I would hold a human brain in my hands and think, This doesn't look any different than it did a few hours ago, yet we are about to cremate it... We were prematurely disposing of people."
The pre-internet days of 1974 were lonely for an immortalist in Pittsburgh, Faloon says. "People were very nice, but they didn't have their minds open to this," he says. He wrote to the National Funeral Directors Association and asked if anyone knew where there were active cryonics groups. In South Florida, about 15 people met once a month. Soon Faloon was here, setting up the Neptune Society, a cremation company.
Soon he met Kent, who had moved to Hollywood and wrote for medical magazines. Faloon says, "I volunteered to do whatever he needed done."
The pair established the Florida Cryonics Association in 1977 as a public charity with the stated purpose of promoting cryobiology research. (They changed the name to Life Extension Foundation Inc. in 2000.)
They recommended that people buy supplements from foreign countries "to save money and get around the FDA," Faloon says, alleging he was trying to save humanity. And they pushed metformin — a then-unapproved but now-standard drug — to combat diabetes. "We were telling people, 'Buy it wherever you can, but get that drug in your body!'?" Faloon says. "Maybe even healthy people should take it."
Then, he says, "Something wonderful happened: Merv Griffin called."
In 1982, Griffin, a talk-show host, was "as powerful as Oprah — more, because there were only four channels," he explains. Kent was asked to appear on an episode about aging research.
"That's what lifted us out of poverty, so to speak," Faloon recalls. "After we got on Merv, there were 10,000 people writing us. We said, 'Well, if you want to get updates, subscribe to the newsletter for $27 a year.'?"
Soon, they began manufacturing and distributing vitamins, Faloon says: "We'd go to the health-food store and couldn't find [certain supplements], so we'd say, 'Guess we should make those unique ones.' We fell into the business side."
Around that time, an eccentric rich cryonicist named Stephen Ruddel offered them the lower floors of his building at 995 Hollywood Blvd. They opened a supplement store on the ground floor, an "immortalist museum" — one friend's collection of cryonics articles and memorabilia — on the second, a cryonics lab on the third, and on the fourth, they experimented with small animals, seeing if diets would affect their lifespans. They also ran a mail-order arm of their business out of a Dania office. Faloon says he didn't get a paycheck until January 1983.
Ruddel's apartment on the top floor was raided in August 1986. He later pleaded guilty to dealing cocaine.
A few months later, the feds came around again. On February 26, 1987, Bill Faloon was at the Dania office when he got a call from one of his employees: "Marshals are kicking in the door!"
"Well, you should open the door because we're going to have to replace the door," Faloon says he responded. When Faloon arrived on the scene, the entire place was a shambles.
Twenty-five federal agents had stormed in and seized all their vitamins, memorabilia, and seven or eight research projects, Faloon remembers. They lined up employees against the wall while the office was searched. At the same time, a nearby warehouse was also being raided. "It was like we were selling narcotics or something," Faloon says.
The Food and Drug Administration alleged that Kent and Faloon used fake names and P.O. boxes to illegally import and sell drugs that were not approved for sale in the United States. Substances like L-dopa and Parlodel, they said, were known to affect neurotransmitters in the brain and could be lethal.
While Faloon and Kent contested the legality of the raid, "they threatened to arrest us for years," Faloon says. "They thought we were the most dangerous people in South Florida."
As grand jury proceedings dragged on, the feds in 1991 raided Life Extension's Arizona shipping facility. Finally, the two men were indicted on more than two dozen counts of conspiring, importing unapproved drugs, and disguising drugs as supplements.
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They turned themselves in at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale and were taken to a holding cell for the day before bonding out.
"We were indicted on November 7, 1991 — my birthday," Faloon says. "People in jail were so apologetic, but I said, 'My birthday is the worst day of the year. You people are making it fun. Now I don't have to have people wishing me a happy one-year-closer-to-death.'?"
By 1996, the U.S. Attorney's Office, apparently unable to build a strong case, dropped all of the charges. "They had a whole list [of potential witnesses] but couldn't find one to say, 'I had a problem after taking the supplements.' To the contrary — they were extremely hostile toward the FDA for denying lifesaving medications."
In the meantime, another drama brought them national fame. Kent in December 1987 had brought his ailing mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer's and pneumonia, to the Alcor facility in Riverside, California, where she died — or as cryonicists say, "deanimated." She was injected with drugs to preserve her tissues, then surgically beheaded, becoming the eighth patient to be cryopreserved in a vacuum flask, in hopes that future scientists could revive her using her brain matter. (Cryonics patients can opt to freeze only their heads, which costs $80,000 as opposed to $200,000 for the whole body. Head-only patients are called "neuros.")
The Riverside County coroner's office autopsied what remained of Dora Kent and initially ruled the cause of death as pneumonia. But weeks later, when toxicology tests showed barbiturates throughout Dora Kent's blood, the coroner feared she might have been alive when she was injected.
Alcor explained that after a patient's legal death, its teams administer barbiturates to slow metabolism and perform air and chest compressions, as in CPR, to keep oxygen and the drugs circulating so that the tissues remain in an optimal state. But coroner Ray Carillo demanded to autopsy the head and examine the other bodies at Alcor. The cryonicists refused. A SWAT team raided the facility, but ultimately no charges were brought.
The final resting place of Dora Kent's head remains a piece of immortalist legend today. Cryonics insiders say she is at Alcor, but Kent refused to confirm it when he appeared on camera in the 2009 documentary, lest it open a can of worms: "There's no statute of limitations for murder."
After Saul Kent hid his mother's decapitated head from coroners, he made headlines and was interviewed by Larry King — who signed up for cryonics himself.
Screenshot via YouTube
In 1998, a dejected Saul Kent lamented in an online forum, "Cryonics has failed."
Millionaires had opted to die "the old-fashioned way." Few young people were joining the movement. Diehards couldn't win over mainstream scientists, and they faced ridicule for — as one critic said — thinking that they could "turn hamburger back into a cow."
Faloon says their legal battle had cost about $1.2 million.
Life Extension had come close to being rendered insolvent. But he and Kent soldiered on with their supplement business, though they had been forced to move to a small storefront on Griffin Road. They set up an "FDA Holocaust Museum" inside to commemorate the "reign of terror that the FDA had perpetrated against Americans."
The raid had brought one good thing: publicity. Their mailing list grew from 4,000 to 25,000 subscribers. "Thank God melatonin was approved for sale!" Faloon says. They "sold a lot of bottles" of the suddenly common supplement, said to induce sleep, for $8 a bottle.
As the mail-order supplement business grew successful, Faloon and Kent founded a separate corporation — the for-profit Life Extension Buyer's Club. If customers paid for a membership, they would receive the Life Extension monthly publication (now a glossy magazine) and steep discounts on supplements. Most of the membership money went to the foundation.
These funds — $110 million since 1996, according to Life Extension's court documents — were used to fund dozens of projects.
A few thousand dollars was spent on experiments by various researchers to determine whether worms could "become younger," whether lights disrupt sleep patterns in rats, and whether "extracellular hyaluranon" (molecules found in connective tissue) retards aging in mole rats.
A half million dollars went to Dr. Paul Wand of Coral Springs to do a human trial on whether the drug Enbrel could reverse Alzheimer's disease. (Wand had faced discipline in 2002 for having sexual relations with a patient and in 2012 for overprescribing narcotics.) Eight hundred thousand dollars went to Dr. Diptharine Maharaj in Boynton Beach for an experiment on whether stem cells from young donors could be injected into older patients to "reverse" aging. "We [thought we] could turn a 90-year-old into a 60-year-old," says Faloon. "This could be the game-changer."
Twenty-nine million dollars went to Stasis, a separate nonprofit whose mission is to build a six-acre structure called "The Timeship" on 645 acres in San Antonio. The facility is touted as the "Fort Knox of biological materials," built to withstand climate change and terror attacks. Here, its leaders intend to store DNA of extinct species, organ banks, and cryopreserved human remains.
Faloon says they are currently doing research on what temperature requirements will be needed inside. They'll need to raise $350 million more to build it. Stasis' board of directors consists of employees from the other labs run by Life Extension, and its public disclosure forms acknowledge bank accounts in Switzerland.
More than $28 million went to two California firms that do experiments on rabbits, pigs, and dogs — largely replacing the animals' blood with "vitrification fluid" that can withstand cold temperatures without the crystalline damage that usually comes from freezing, then seeing if organs are still viable after freezing.
According to an employee's affidavit, dogs get anesthetized, then are placed into cardiac arrest with an AC heart-fibrillating shock. The "major focus has been work directed toward safe and effective lavage of the lungs in dogs with various perfluorocarbons which are available on the market for other uses [usually as solvents in the electronics industry]," Faloon says. "We've had dogs down for seven hours, just above freezing temperatures — no EKG or EEG," and brought them back to normal. He says they've done the same with rabbit brains.
Their biggest accomplishment, he says, was to cryopreserve a rabbit kidney that was then successfully transplanted into another rabbit. He says this could have implications for human organ banking. One Life Extension employee wrote in a report submitted to the court, "Life Extension Foundation is providing private sector funding for research that is critical to the national interest but is not being funded from more traditional sources."
Faloon would not divulge the total income of the Buyers Club, but according to the IRS, Life Extension's membership fees alone brought in more than $7 million each year from 2006 to 2008. Kent was able to buy a beachfront Fort Lauderdale condo for more than $700,000 in 2001. Faloon snatched up a $1.2 million Boca Raton pad in 2004, though he says his wife lives in it and he usually stays in a small apartment — better for him to work. He says he has few vices, his kids go to public school, and they won't receive a dime of inheritance because it all needs to go into research.
"How could I enjoy a yacht if I know we're all going to die and disappear?"
Faloon says people join Life Extension not because "it makes me very wealthy or supports medical research but because it could support their own lives. People are hoping to live into their 90s and beyond."
He and Kent mostly stayed out of the news until May 2013, when the IRS, acting on a whistleblower complaint and an audit they'd been doing since 2010, revoked Life Extension Foundation's nonprofit status. The government alleged the foundation was pushing health products to benefit Faloon and Kent's for-profit business.
Kent and Faloon filed suit that August to get the nonprofit status reinstated.
That November, the Church of Perpetual Life held its first service, because, he says, people needed a place to congregate and feel like their movement was deeper than a meetup group. (Churches generally don't pay taxes or file financial disclosure forms.)
Faloon stresses that he doesn't advertise the church through his business or vice versa, but he hopes it attracts intelligent people.
"Churches have a history of providing that sense of belonging, that fellowship, a structure. If we wind up surviving, it's something for people to belong to."
Alcor patients wear medical bracelets so their bodies can be quickly prepped for cryonics in case of an accident.
Photo by Deirdra Funcheon
At midday on a recent Thursday, customers seemed eager to part with their money at the Life Extension retail store, now housed in a spacious standalone building on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Bottle after bright-white bottle with Life Extension's blue logo fills the aisles. One wall was stacked with Faloon's books: a 1,500-page medical reference guide, his 2010 collection of columns called FDA: Failure, Deception, Abuse, and its updated version, Pharmocracy. The entire Suzanne Somers oeuvre, book after book about anti-aging by the former Three's Company actor, takes up two shelves.
In two small rooms in the back, "health advisers" sitting beneath disclaimers that read "Life Extension cannot give you any medical advice" could be overheard in talks with clients. "Have you ever taken magnesium?" an adviser asks a man with diabetes. "I would recommend the whole dose." In an aisle, two women gush over "youth serum" and organic soaps.
Not only are Faloon and Kent making big money but tech-industry billionaires are picking up the torch. They fund new technologies, both on a micro level (developing robots that can swim in your blood and repair cells) and a macro one (building colonies in space).
Martine Rothblatt, transgender founder of Sirius Radio, now runs a publicly traded biotech company called United Therapeutics, a $7.8 billion company that's working on growing organs for transplants. Rothblatt is known as a big thinker who weaves futuristic ideas and obscure philosophers into her speeches and books.
She too started a religion, called Terasem, which has an "ashram" in Melbourne Beach. She visited Faloon and Kent's Church of Perpetual Life last fall. "[My wife] and I are huge fans of Bill Faloon," she said warmly, pacing the stage in a dark-blue blazer, a long ponytail trailing down her back, "and everything he has done to enable joyful immortality for everybody... We were so excited when he formed the Church of Perpetual Life."
But Life Extension also has its critics. It's listed as a "questionable organization" on the blog Quackwatch — "due to claims made in writings and ads," says site proprietor Stephen Barrett, though he could not recall specifics.
Some have argued that the entire cryonics industry is a cult and that cryogenics is a Ponzi scheme, requiring indefinite investments from future customers to keep its original members cold.
Perhaps the best-known frozen corpse is that of Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams, who died and whose head was stored at Alcor in 2002. Larry Johnson, who worked briefly at Alcor that year, wrote a book in 2009 called Frozen that alleged Alcor staff kept Williams' head perched inside its cooler atop a tuna fish can and that they once hit it with a wrench. Alcor sued Johnson for defamation, but the litigation ended when Johnson declared bankruptcy.
Melody Maxim is another critic. In the mid-2000s, she says, she was paid $70,000 per year as a perfusionist — a specialist in using heart-lung machines for bypass surgery — at Suspended Animation in Boynton Beach, another of the organizations funded by Life Extension Foundation. (It got $11 million.) Suspended Animation trains teams to respond to the scene when a cryonics patient has died.
Maxim says that once hired, she was alarmed her colleagues seemed poorly trained. It was, she says, "like a bunch of high school kids building stuff in the garage... like a bunch of teenagers playing with corpses." She says she warned Faloon, whom she'd met once, in a letter but received no response.
Reached by phone between surgeries at a hospital in another state, she quips: "I do real medicine now." She says more regulation is needed. Currently, facilities like Alcor rely on the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act — the law that lets people donate their bodies to science — to obtain custody of the patients' human remains, she explains. Beyond that, there's not much oversight. "If you want to be kept head down, feet up in the desert in Jell-O, that's your business," Maxim says. But people who sign up "should know exactly what they're getting."
Regulation, of course, is not generally a cryonicist's favorite topic.
After Alcor patients die, their bodies or heads are cryopreserved in thermos-like tanks.
Photo by Deirdra Funcheon
If Bill Faloon deanimates suddenly, first responders will find a metal bracelet on his wrist that instructs them to inject him with heparin, an anticoagulant, and then call an 800 number for Alcor. A team will whisk him away to Scottsdale, Arizona, where Alcor just suspended its 135th patient.
During a social hour in a downstairs room at the end of a March service at the Hollywood church, the founder's 20-year-old son, Chance, sipped a Bud Light and pulled up a sleeve to reveal his own Alcor bracelet. "My dad signed me up within an hour of being alive," he says. But he's pretty sure he'll never need to be frozen. "Science is prevailing so much."
Faloon's 18-year-old son, Chase, likewise has a bracelet and imagines a bright future. He has no fear of nuclear holocaust or overpopulation. "That's all been debunked," he says matter-of-factly.
Bill Faloon's sons, Chase (left) and Chance, think they'll live ultralong lives but are also signed up to be cryopreserved.
Photo by Deirdra Funcheon
For all his efforts to extend his life, Bill Faloon insists he has no concrete vision of what the world might look like in 2115, when he would be 160. He hopes that Google will advance immortalist projects by then "so I can take a day off." His goal now is to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his career.
To that end, Faloon takes 100 supplements a day, sleeps from about 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. (largely, he contends, because he is on the phone all night with scientists around the world), and eats just a third of the calories that an average man does, since caloric restriction has been shown to extend the lives of worms and mice.
In April, Faloon traveled to Alcor's sixth-annual Teens and Twenties conference — a "young cryonicists" gathering — in Las Vegas, for which his foundation provided 40 scholarships and airfare. Attendees visited the "Underground House" — a $1.15 million property that was built as a Cold War bunker and that Faloon and Kent bought through yet another nonprofit they set up, called "Society for the Preservation of Near-Extinct Species."
Below the surface, there is a putting green, a swimming pool, Jacuzzis, and a lighting system that can mimic dawn through dusk. They're in the midst of renovating it but say they could use it as a backup cryonics storage facility or for life-extension experiments on endangered animals.
In the next few months, things should look up for Faloon. A truce between the IRS and the Life Extension Foundation is on the horizon. Court pleadings state that the parties "are pleased to report that they continue to make substantial progress toward a settlement." A joint status report is due in June.
On May 28, the Church of Perpetual Life will host Alcor CEO Max More. Ultimately, Faloon says, what separates his church from others — perhaps what sets his whole life's mission apart from others — is its optimism. "Some feel that good things are going to happen after you die," he says. "We're stating that great things are happening right here."
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