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What Really Happened to Ted Williams

Aug. 18, 2003
Aug. 18, 2003

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Aug. 18, 2003

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Photo Credits: Tony Tomsic/Getty Images

What Really Happened to Ted Williams

A year after the jarring news that the Splendid Splinter was being frozen in a cryonics lab, new details, including a decapitation, suggest that one of America's greatest heroes may never rest in peace

By Tom Verducci Special Reporting By Lester Munson

Ted Williams lived a robust life that was unquestioned in its greatness, be it as the sweet-swinging Hall of Fame outfielder for the Boston Red Sox or the heroic fighter pilot serving his country in two wars. In death, however, Williams has been shrouded in unthinkable controversy. In the 13 months since his passing, his body has been suspended in liquid nitrogen at Alcor Life Extension Foundation of Scottsdale, Ariz., a cryonics company. According to Alcor internal documents, e-mails, photographs and tape recordings obtained by SI with the cooperation of the company's most recent chief operating officer, Larry Johnson, Williams's postmortem days have been bizarre and complicated beyond imagination.

This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2003 issue Original Layout

Williams's body is not resting upside down in a liquid-nitrogen tank at Alcor, as has been reported. Instead his head is stored in a liquid-nitrogen-filled steel can that resembles a lobster pot. The silver neuro-can, as it's know at Alcor, is marked in black with Williams's patient I.D. number, A-1949. His head has been shaved, drilled with holes, accidentally cracked as many as 10 times and moved among three receptacles.

The beheaded body of Williams is in the same room, resting upright in one of nine liquid-nitrogen-filled, nine-foot-tall cylindrical steel tanks that Alcor staffers refer to as Dewars, a wink at scotch-making barrels. Williams is in tank number 6. One Alcor board member has talked with ghoulish humor about using the body as "a bargaining chip" to collect $111,000 that John Henry Williams, Ted's son, still owes from the original $136,000 bill to put Williams into cryonic suspension, a deep-freezing process done in hopes that scientific advances someday will restore the dead to life.

SI's investigation cast deeper into doubt whether Williams ever intended to be placed in such a facility, the source of a bitter family feud that divided his three children. About a year before he died, for instance, Williams did not meet with Alcor employees when they visited his Hernando, Fla., home. According to a taped conversation between Johnson and Todd Soard, an Alcor representative who was there, a "disoriented" Williams was heard hollering from a back room while John Henry met with them. Moreover, Williams's seven-page Consent for Cryonic Suspension, a copy of which was obtained by SI, was submitted to Alcor after he had died, with the line for his signature blank (page 69).

The investigation also revealed evidence of careless and negligent business practices by Alcor (box, 70), behavior that prompted Johnson to cooperate with SI. Johnson resigned from his position this week in advance of the publication of this article. In an open letter that he showed SI and planned to post on his new website, freeted.com, which he expected to have up and running this week, Johnson explained that he felt obligated to speak out after learning of "facts relating to Alcor that are disturbing and egregious, both in the area of Ted Williams's confinement and other more broad-based activities surrounding this company that border on being horrific."

Alcor CEO Jerry Lemler, M.D., citing a policy of confidentiality, refused to answer any questions from SI about Williams. "We do not acknowledge that Ted Williams is a patient," he said.

John Henry, when asked by SI about his father's condition at Alcor in the past year, refused to answer questions. "I've got no comment. It's nobody's business," said Williams, 34, last Friday in Baton Rouge, where he is batting .257 as a righthanded-hitting first baseman for the independent Baton Rouge River Bats.

The only publically known documentation that indicates that Ted Williams wanted to be cryonically preserved is a piece of scrap paper, stained with motor oil and dated Nov. 2, 2000, bearing the signatures of John Henry, his sister, Claudia, and Ted and stating their desire to be put in "Bio-Stasis after we die" on the chance the three of them could "be together in the future." Williams's first-born child, Bobby-Jo Ferrell, as well as his health-care assistants, Frank Brothers and George Carter, claim the paper is a fraud. Almost three years since the pact to "be together," neither John Henry nor Claudia has signed a consent-for-suspension agreement with Alcor, according to minutes of the company's June 8, 2003, board meeting.

In the spring of 2001 John Henry walked into the Alcor building in an industrial park near the Scottsdale airport full of energy and optimism about cryonics and Alcor. His father, already weakened by two previous strokes, was in San Diego recuperating from open heart surgery. Lemler welcomed John Henry and gave him the full tour.

According to a follow-up letter from Lemler dated June 12, during the visit John Henry peppered Lemler with ideas and suggestions for upgrading Alcor--everything from improving security in the main storage area to having people answer the phones before the third ring to rearranging and tidying up the wall hangings. Lemler, known around Alcor as Dr. Feelgood for his mellow manner, signed his letter with the closing, "Sooner AND Later."

On the same afternoon that Lemler finished composing the letter, John Henry telephoned him from San Diego, where he had returned to be with his father. John Henry and Lemler talked about the possibility of announcing Ted as an Alcor member before he died. After the conversation Lemler returned to his letter and added a postscript. His excitement about such an announcement jumped off the page--"it would be huge," Lemler wrote. He concluded the postscript with this: "Stated bluntly, the Williams name can be expected to provide Alcor with a fund-raising and membership-enhancing leverage wedge it has never possessed."

Sometime that same day John Henry also telephoned Bobby-Jo in Florida. (They have different mothers; Bobby-Jo was born to Ted's first wife, and John Henry and Claudia to his third.) According to Bobby-Jo's written account of the conversation, which she released to reporters last year, John Henry asked her if she had ever heard about cryonics and said that he thought it would be "a great idea to do this to Dad." Bobby-Jo replied that her father's wishes had always been to be cremated.

"But wouldn't it be neat to sell Dad's DNA?" John Henry said. "There are lots of people who would pay big bucks to have little Ted Williams running around."

The next night, Bobby-Jo wrote, John Henry invited her to tour Alcor. She refused. Thereafter, she wrote, John Henry used his power of attorney over his father to push her out of Ted's life. She would see her father for the last time on Aug. 27, 2001.

By that time Alcor's field representatives, one of them Soard, had paid their unsuccessful visit to Ted's home in Florida, talking only to John Henry. When Johnson and Soard eventually discussed the Florida visit, Johnson told Soard he understood that Ted could be heard hollering in another room. Soard replied, "Yeah, that's all he was doing, you know, and he was disoriented."

Asked by SI about the meeting with John Henry, Soard replied, "I can neither confirm it or deny it," citing a confidentiality agreement he signed with John Henry.

Williams was blessed with the gifts of strength, athleticism and famously keen eyesight, but the last remnants of those gifts were failing him in 2002. His body was giving out. On the morning of July 5, 2002, Bobby-Jo received a telephone call from a friend at Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, Fla. Her father was dead. The death was recorded at 8:49 a.m. Within a few hours an Alcor response team was in action, pumping Williams's body with blood thinners, slipping it into an ice-filled body bag and shipping it by private jet to Scottsdale.

Sometime after Williams's death, a fax from Florida spit out of the machine at Alcor. It was Ted's consent form. The line for Signature of Member was blank. John Henry had signed the document at 2:44 p.m. on the line that says, "Responsible person if Member is unable to sign or is an unemancipated minor or otherwise incompetent." Beneath that, on the line for Relationship or Authority, John Henry wrote "Son/POA," referring to power of attorney. That legal power to make decisions on behalf of another person ends, however, upon the person's death.

Two witnesses, David Hayes and Howard Lopez, had also signed the form at 2:44 p.m. The agreement states that witnesses must not be "officers, directors or agents of Alcor." Hayes was Alcor's on-site response team leader at the time. His understanding was that John Henry wanted a full-body suspension for Ted, for which the younger Williams would be billed $120,000 (head-only suspensions, known at Alcor as neuros--neuroseparation is the procedure of cutting off the head--run $50,000). Another $16,000 would be added to the bill for the air transport to Scottsdale.

x

But wouldn't it be neat to sell Dad's DNA? There are lots of people who would pay big bucks to have little Ted Williams running around.

John Henry Williams
x

By about 11:30 p.m. EDT--8:30 p.m. in Scottsdale--Williams's body was on an operating table at Alcor. In addition to a surgeon, a small crowd had gathered. Former Alcor COO Charles Platt, in a 27-page petition to the company board last month calling for Lemler to resign as CEO, recounted what happened next.

"When the patient arrived, the surgeon prepared to do a neuroseparation," Platt wrote. Just as the surgeon, scalpel in hand, was about to cut off Williams's head, according to Platt, "Dave Hayes intervened, claiming the patient's son had been told that no neuroseparation would occur."

Platt went on to explain how Lemler placed "a hasty phone call to the son to resolve this fundamental issue." Neither Lemler nor John Henry will discuss the call, but the operation went forward.

The neuroseparation on Williams began at 8:40 p.m. PDT, according to the handwritten operating room notes, which are riddled with juvenile spelling mistakes. Platt wrote that in the room "many people" snapped pictures of Alcor's most famous patient, some of which were shown to SI.

"None of [those people] signed any nondisclosure form," Platt wrote in his petition. "None of them agreed that Alcor would own the pictures.... Security in the operating room during this case was grossly negligent."

It took 37 minutes before the operating-room scribe wrote, "The head was completely detouched [sic]."

Two burr holes about the size of dimes were drilled into the head to observe the brain condition and, more important, to insert sensors that could detect cracks in the head during the freezing process (microscopic fissures are not uncommon). First the head was placed in a rectangular machine called a Cryostar, which looks like the kind of storage freezer that has a hinged door on top. The Cryostar is an intermediary holding device that chills the head, preparing it for immersion in liquid nitrogen. Wires ran from Williams's head to a monitoring device called the crack phone, a device that would monitor the head for cracking. From one of the wires hung a tag with A-1949 written on it.

Unaware of the condition of her father's body, Bobby-Jo fought John Henry and Claudia in mediation and in the media over the dispensation of Ted's remains for almost three weeks. She was armed with two signed documents from Ted--a 1991 letter to his lawyer and his 1996 will--both of which specified that he wished to be cremated and his ashes spread "off the coast of Florida where the water is very deep." He signed the documents Theodore S. Williams, his practice for such legal papers, according to Bobby-Jo.

Then, on July 15--10 days after Ted's death and two weeks before John Henry wrote a $25,000 check to Alcor--John Henry and Claudia produced the oil-stained piece of scrap paper, which John Henry claimed to have just found in the trunk of his car. Williams had signed it "Ted Williams." It was dated Nov. 2, 2000--a time when Williams was hospitalized and some eight months before John Henry first met with Lemler.

Brothers and Carter, Williams's health-care assistants, are troubled by Claudia's signature on the scrap of paper, given the date. Brothers, according to a notarized statement he made and signed on July 14, 2003, was with Williams at his home near midnight on Oct. 31, 2000, when he experienced trouble breathing. Brothers telephoned Carter, a nursing assistant, for help. Shortly after he arrived, according to Brothers's statement, Carter called John Henry and said Williams needed to go to the hospital. Brothers and Carter drove him there, and John Henry followed in his own car. Not long after Williams was admitted in the early hours of Nov. 1, Carter asked John Henry if he should inform Claudia. "No, I'll take care of it," John Henry replied. Brothers and Carter took turns staying with Williams in 12-hour shifts.

Then, Brothers wrote, "on or around Nov. 4th or 5th," Claudia called Carter and "accused [him] of not being her friend because she just now found out that her father was in the hospital." Carter confirmed to SI the same scenario Brothers described--that Claudia found out days later that Ted was in the hospital.

"My question," Brothers wrote, "is then, how could Claudia have signed that piece of paper on Nov. 2nd?"

Claudia provided an affidavit to a Florida court attesting to her signature. Al Cassidy, a longtime Williams family friend and the executor of Ted's estate, accepted the veracity of the note and sided with Claudia and John Henry. In early October 2002, having spent $87,000 in legal fees, Bobby-Jo reached a settlement with her two siblings. Under terms of the settlement, John Henry agreed not to sell any of his father's DNA or tissue, and Bobby-Jo agreed to refrain from public comment on the disposition of Ted's remains. John Henry and Claudia (who did not return messages from SI seeking comment) agreed to release to Bobby-Jo $200,000, her share of an insurance trust that Cassidy could have withheld for up to 10 years.

"I feel like they've perpetuated a fraud upon the courts of Florida and upon Bobby-Jo," Mark Ferrell, Bobby-Jo's husband, told SI, referring to John Henry and Claudia. John Heer, Bobby-Jo's (and Larry Johnson's) lawyer, has petitioned the state attorney's office to investigate the matter.

With the family dispute settled, Alcor stepped up its efforts to collect the $111,000 balance, leaving a paper trail of fruitless attempts. On Jan. 24 of this year, Lemler sent John Henry an invoice for $111,000 (page 72); on March 18 a Phoenix law firm working on behalf of Alcor asked a Florida firm to begin preparing a complaint against John Henry and Claudia; under the heading "Old Business" Alcor's May 10 board meeting agenda included: "111k receivable from Patient A-1949 update"; on June 8, according to minutes from a board meeting that day, "the sense of the Board was for Dr. Jerry Lemler to contact the son and daughter, informing them that their application for Alcor membership would likely be rejected" because of the nonpayment.

According to Johnson and his taped conversations, a board member and an adviser joked about "throwing [Williams's] body away," posting it on eBay or sending it in a "frosted cardboard box" C.O.D. to John Henry's doorstep, to persuade him to pay the bill. "That was the last straw," Johnson says, describing his decision to go public with his concerns.

The Cryostar, meanwhile, that intermediate freezer containing Ted's head, wasn't faring much better than Alcor's bill collectors. According to several internal e-mails the Cryostar was having temperature-fluctuation problems, and in a taped conversation Johnson and Platt discussed it as being unreliable.

On April 8, according to the monitoring device connected to Williams's head, what Johnson called "a huge crack" occurred. On July 17 Johnson logged a handwritten note that said a colleague "reports cracking occurred 9 times in A-1949 within the last 15 hours." The next day, according to Johnson, Alcor moved Williams's head from the Cryostar to another container, the LR-40, a two-foot-diameter barrel-shaped machine into which liquid nitrogen is slowly pumped. This was where the hard freezing took place. After two or three days, the head was put into the neuro-can, sealed and stored in a neuro-vault.

The Ferrells did not know until last week the details of what had happened to Williams's body at Alcor. Mark Ferrell, who was not included in the gag order as part of the October settlement, said that Johnson's decision to reveal the information has strengthened his and his wife's quest to have Ted's remains cremated and spread over the waters he loved to fish.

"He was not only my father-in-law for 28 years, he was my friend," Ferrell said. "I'm going to fight until they let that body go."

 

Tip of the Iceberg?

Questions and allegations about the Alcor Life Extension Foundation extend beyond the Williams case

In a blue building in an industrial park near the airport in Scottsdale, Ariz., Ted Williams is one of about 60 corpses--or patients, as the Alcor Life Extension Foundation calls them--awaiting an uncertain future. Alcor does not guarantee that the frozen remains will one day be brought back to life. Alcor is simply in the preservation business.

SI's investigation into the Williams case turned up allegations of sloppy procedures and ethical violations. Among them:

* Eight DNA samples of the 182 recorded by Alcor as having been taken from Williams are missing without explanation, according to a taped conversation between former company COO Larry Johnson and a board adviser who reviewed an inventory list.

* Johnson, then director of clinical services, warned CEO Jerry Lemler, M.D., in a June 18, 2003, memo that the company had potentially violated federal and state laws by dumping "biohazardous medical waste," including waste water that contained human blood, down a public sewer drain behind the Alcor building. Johnson says that an angry COO Charles Platt told him to shred the memo and erase the original from his hard drive.

In a taped conversation about the dumping, Platt told Johnson, "Every time it happens, it makes me very nervous because you know there could be some National Enquirer photographer with infrared film." Asked by SI about the dumping allegations, Platt said he didn't recall the June 18 memo and that "this is not the kind of thing I want to comment on."

Johnson has contacted authorities from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality about the alleged violations. Lemler, when asked about dumping hazardous waste, said, "We are not doing anything like that. We have had no difficulty with any EPA on any issue. I am not sure where you would have received such information."

* On March 12, 2001, Lemler, a licensed medical doctor, was placed on two years probation and fined $1,000 by the Tennessee Department of Health for unprofessional conduct related to his operation of a weight-loss program between 1997 and 2000.

Platt, independent of Johnson's cooperation with SI, wrote a 27-page petition to Alcor board members, dated July 30, 2003, asking Lemler to resign as CEO, a copy of which was obtained by SI. Platt wrote that Alcor officials learned of Lemler's probation "only through a chance search on the Net. Full disclosure is an obvious ethical requirement for anyone who takes the sensitive job as Alcor's CEO." Lemler told SI that he informed Alcor about his probation during the hiring process.

Alcor was established in 1972 as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. Some of its 60 or so patients are full-body suspensions in which the patient is intact upside down; some, including small pets, are head-only suspensions, or "neuros," in which the bodies have been cremated; and a few, like Williams, are "half-and-half" suspensions, in which the head and the body are preserved separately. There are more than 630 living Alcor members who pay monthly dues. These future patients are apparently not deterred by the disclaimer on the consent form that Alcor members must sign: "Many physicians, cryobiologists and scientists in other disciplines discount any reasonable possibility that cryonic suspension will be successful." --T.V.