Robert Nelson and the Chatsworth Scandal
by Charles Platt
Many people today may be unfamiliar with details of Robert Nelson's central role in a scandal that seriously threatened the credibility of cryonics during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I have remained silent about this for the past decade, but since Mr. Nelson has chosen to "go public" with his memoir in The Immortalist, a response seems necessary.
I interviewed Mr. Nelson in person at his home in Norco, California, in 1992. During the same year I visited the Renaker Mortuary where I interviewed Joseph Klockgether, and I did a telephone interview with Michael Worthington, the attorney who represented plaintiffs seeking damages from Nelson and Klockgether. I have read court documents and interview transcripts provided for me by Mike Perry at Alcor Foundation, and have offered my text, below, to Mike Perry, to Mr. Nelson, and to his close friend Ken Bly, for fact checking.
In 1967, after Nelson participated in the cryopreservation of James Bedford, he saw a need for a friendly mortician in future cases. Nelson appealed for assistance in Mortuary Management magazine and in September received a noncommittal letter from Joseph Klockgether, who owned the Renaker Mortuary in Buena Park, California. Nelson replied to Klockgether claming to have received 147 other letters from mortuaries around the country, and stating that Klockgether's letter had made such a profound impression on him, it was the only one he was choosing to answer.
Klockgether seemed to accept this flattery without question. In fact his trusting nature and eagerness to help made him seem willing to go along with almost anything. Soon he found himself receiving the body of a woman whom Nelson had frozen previously. Since this patientwas completely unfunded, she was maintained in a container of dry ice that was kept at the mortuary.
The next year, in May, Klockgether found himself helping to freeze another woman who had virtually no money, and he ended up storing her the same way.
Finally, in September, 1968, a year after his initial contact with Nelson, Klockgether and Nelson froze a man named Russell Stanley, who had contributed a substantial sum for the procedure ($5,000 or $10,000, according to different sources). Since Nelson used that money to start building a storage facility, Stanley became the third person waiting on dry ice under Klockgether's reluctant supervision.
A California mortuary license allows only "temporary" storage of dead people on the premises, and dry ice is insufficiently cold to prevent long-term deterioration of human tissue. When I spoke to Klockgether years later, he recalled nagging Nelson, "Get your facility built, Bob. Build the facility, Bob. I have to get these people out of here!"
Although he had made virtually no progress toward establishing a cryonics facility, early in 1969 Nelson gave an interview to Cryonics Reports magazine describing it as if it already existed. He claimed that individual cryopatients were stored in pods "very similar to the units that were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey," and the pods were immersed in giant containers 14 feet in diameter, each capable of holding 15 to 20 people. "Units are moved by a series of stainless steel cables that guide them into position, and they can be introduced and retrieved at will," he told the magazine. None of these statements was true. Nelson subsequently circulated photographs of himself standing beside a tank with "Cryonic Interment" lettered on the side, but its location remains unknown, and since it was intended only for bulk storage of liquid nitrogen, it would have been unsuitable for maintaining cryonics patients accessibly.
Eventually he found an ingenious way around his problem. He had been in telephone contact with a woman from Michigan named Marie Bowers, who had tried to raise approximately $5,000 to have her father frozen at an ad-hoc enterprise run by a man named Ed Hope in Phoenix, Arizona. After refinancing her home and car and adding $500 from an insurance policy, $3,000 was the most she could come up with, but Hope allowed her to pay the remainder at $50 per month, plus $47 per month maintenance.
In April, 1969, according to court documents filed by her attorney, Ms. Bowers met Nelson at a cryonics conference where he showed her an artist's rendering of a new above-ground storage facility in which technicians wearing lab coats were standing in front of capsules fitted with viewing windows, gauges, and dials. Nelson convinced Ms. Bowers that if she moved the tank containing her father into his care, he would pay Hope the $1,100 that she still owed, and after that, she would only have to pay a small sum for liquid nitrogen on a monthly basis.
Ms. Bowers arranged for the tank containing her father to be delivered to the Renaker Mortuary. According to Klockgether, Nelson asked him to move the three patients waiting on dry ice into the metal cylinder, which they would share with Marie Bowers' father, even though the tank had been built to contain only one person. "We put this one in head first, that one in feet first," Klockgether stated. "It didn't look like there was room, but they fit."
The tank was welded shut, Nelson owned it free and clear, his charity cases were safely out of sight, and Marie Bowers would pay for the upkeep while remaining blissfully unaware that her father was wedged in beside three other bodies, leaving hardly any space for liquid nitrogen. The tank remained in Joe Klockgether's garage, since Nelson didn't have anywhere else to put it.
Ms. Bowers wrote to Nelson in July, 1970 saying that she couldn't afford to send him any more money. She hoped he would maintain her father anyway.
Meanwhile Nelson finally completed his storage facility. It consisted of two bare concrete vaults, each about 8 feet by 10, beneath a small plot measuring 10 feet by 20 at Oakwood Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California. There were no technicians holding clipboards, no gauges and dials--in fact, there was no building at all, just the vaults. The lot had been purchased in 1969 for $3,872.
Mortuary records show that on May 15th, 1970, four cryonics patients were moved there. The records don't mention that they were still squeezed together in a tank that had been built for one.
Soon after that, Nelson visited Iowa where two brothers, Terry and Dennis Harris, were concerned that their mother Mildred was dying, and they wanted to have her "perfectly preserved." Nelson promised to accommodate their wishes. He also agreed to add their father, Gaylord, who had died previously but could be disinterred from his burial plot for a suitable sum. The total payment was agreed to be $10,000 (or approximately $40,000 in 2005 dollars).
Mildred Harris died and was moved to California, where she was placed in the vault at the Chatsworth cemetery, packed in dry ice. Her late husband was disinterred, and he joined her subsequently. I have been unable to determine what happened to the $10,000; Nelson claims he used it to pay construction costs, but apparently it was not used for its promised purpose of buying a storage tank.
Mr. Nelson now accepted yet another case, an eight-year-old girl named Genevieve de la Poterie who died from cancer that took both her kidneys and spread to her lungs. Subsequently Nelson claimed a deep emotional bond. "I adopted her like my own child," he stated. "I loved her, and I watched her slowly get sicker and sicker. . . . I never saw this little girl smile till we took her to Disneyland. . . . I told her mother I was going to speak French to the little girl, to make her smile, and that was the only time I saw her smile. Heartbreaking."
She, too, ended up on dry ice after she died in January 1972. Once again, Nelson was embarrassingly short of storage capability, but he solved his dilemma with the same creative strategy that he had used before. A 24-year-old college student named Steven Jay Mandell had been frozen by the Cryonics Society of New York back in 1968. His mother, Pauline, had been paying for the upkeep ever since, but it was a financial burden, so Nelson said that if she would give him the tank, he'd charge her a reduced rate for liquid nitrogen.
"What I had in mind," he told me later, "is that this capsule could hold 3 or 4 people. Perhaps I misled her. But on the other hand, perhaps I didn't, you know? I told her I would do my very best to keep that capsule in operation, as long as I possibly could. What more could I promise her than that?"
The tank was shipped to California (Nelson didn't tell the shipping company that there was a body inside), and he trucked it down to Klockgether's mortuary. In another grueling session, Mildred Harris and Genevieve de la Poterie (the eight-year-old whom Nelson had "adopted like my own child") were pushed into the tank alongside Mandell. Then it was welded shut like its predecessor, and taken out to the mortuary at Chatsworth.
By October 1974 Nelson had quit as president of the Cryonics Society of California and, according to some sources, had stopped maintaining the two tanks. During a period in which he was experiencing marital and financial problems, he seems to have disappeared to Hawaii. Still, he denied that there was any cause for concern; in response to a letter from Marce Johnson, the former treasurer of The Cryonics Society of California, he wrote, "I feel no need or desire to hide from anyone. . . . I am maintaining the facility--have installed a new alarm system and ordered an additional capsule."
Still, a cryonics activist named Mike Darwin couldn't see how Nelson was continuing to pay for liquid nitrogen deliveries, and he managed to meet with Nelson. "He was visibly nervous," Darwin recalls. "One eye kept twitching the whole time. I asked him more and more questions, and he got more and more evasive." According to Darwin, when he asked which company was supplying the liquid nitrogen, Nelson said he didn't have a formal arrangement with any suppliers. He claimed he'd become friendly with some delivery-truck drivers, and at the end of the day they'd simply give him "whatever was left over." When Darwin tried to confirm this story with local suppliers, he recalls that they laughed at the idea.
In 1979 the situation finally began to fall apart. The father of Genevieve de la Poterie started wondering openly if his child was being properly preserved.  Klockgether, to his credit, told him that these suspicions might be justified. On April 2, 1979, Mr. Klockgether supervised the unhappy business of disinterment, even though his obligations as a mortician had ended long ago.
Little Genevieve had decomposed. A local journalist picked up the awful story. It reached Terry and Dennis Harris, and now events took a bizarre twist. On a beach in Acapulco, where he was vacationing at the time, Dennis Harris started telling his tale to a stranger who turned out to be brother-in-law of an attorney named Michael Worthington--who knew nothing about cryonics but had been trying to collect a debt from Robert Nelson. When Worthington heard about the Chatsworth situation, he saw immediate possibilities.
In June 1979, staff at Oak Park Cemetery were shocked when Worthington and a news team descended upon them without warning, and someone smashed the lock on the door to Nelson's vault. Since some of the bodies had been disinterred, it wasn't a pretty sight. As for the smell--as one journalist put it, "The stench near the crypt is disarming, strips away all defenses, spins the stomach into a thousand dizzying somersaults." Subsequently Nelson claimed that he had only offered to maintain his cryopatients in storage as long as it was practical. He was quoted as saying, "I never promised anyone anything. They were told they would be frozen for a period of time. . . . Five minutes is a period of time." Nelson also claimed that the news reports were outrageously exaggerated. "They had cameras and would zero in, maybe, on a fly on top of the vault, and say, Oh, the stench! But there was no stench whatsoever." Another observer, who claims to have photographs of the scene, states that because the bodies were disinterred, the smell was overpowering and the bodies had "sludged down into what I can best describe as a kind of a black goo."
In December, Worthington filed a complaint on behalf of Terry and Dennis Harris, and also Marie Bowers, who said that even though she had stopped sending money for liquid nitrogen almost ten years previously, she had always assumed that her father was still frozen. All in all, Worthington said he wanted more than $2.5 million for breach of contract and $10 million in punitive damages. Nelson almost certainly could not pay, but the new suit also named Joseph Klockgether, who had malpractice insurance.
The case went to trial at the end of April, 1981 and lasted just over a month. Nelson was doomed from the start: He recalls that the judge was hostile, the jury looked at him with fear and loathing, and his own attorney was a manic-depressive who was taking either Thorazine or Lithium, fell asleep in the court room, and had to be woken by the judge three times. (Michael Worthington subsequently alleged that Nelson's attorney had been behaving erratically with the deliberate intention of causing a mistrial.)
Worst of all, the Harrises proved to be brilliant on the witness stand. Terry broke down and cried as he remembered his shock and panic when he learned the fate of his mother. Later it was alleged that Terry was a professional actor, but still the jury felt his pain. They awarded Terry and Dennis damages of $400,000 each, half of it to come from Nelson (who couldn't pay), the other half from Klockgether (whose insurance could pay, and did). Marie Bowers was less fortunate; Klockgether was judged not guilty in her case, and Nelson was ordered to pay her slightly over $60,000, which she seemed unlikely to collect.
When I contacted Michael Worthington at his office in 1992, he remembered the case clearly and said that justice was done. He also had a clear recollection of Robert Nelson, whom he described as "a reprobate and a bum." He was a little kinder to Klockgether: "He was young and misguided, I guess, and left too much to Nelson. But he's a mortician, he should have known the rules. He was involved in the deception because he didn't try to stop it."
To Klockgether, the case was "the worst thing that ever happened to me in my whole life." He never received any payment for his years of favors and services to Nelson, and wasn't even reimbursed for his expenses. He told me he did everything simply to please grieving relatives. "I still think about it, almost daily," he said when I spoke to him. "I'm so very careful in this business to make everything go right, so that people like what I'm doing and they're thankful and appreciative."
At the time of the law suit, he recalls being so upset that he even considered killing himself. Mr. Klockgether subsequently has been of great help to legitimate cryonics organizations, working in an ethical and entirely professional capacity.
As for Nelson, he never saw that he'd done anything wrong. Looking back, he says, "I gave it my maximum effort, I did a h*ll of a good job, and everyone else was just full of sh*t. Where were they? There was nobody to give me any help."
By 1992 his TV repair business was supporting him comfortably in a suburb in California where he married a young Cambodian woman whom he met at a local donut shop. He showed me a file folder of yellowed news clippings, including the issue of Life magazine that glorified his freezing of James Bedford, but he had few pleasant memories of cryonics.
He recalled temperamental tanks with vacuum pumps that had to run day and night, requiring constant attention--which they didn't always receive. Week after week, he would drive to Klockgather's mortuary or the Chatsworth cemetery carrying 200 pounds of dry ice on the back seat of his Porsche. He said it really ruined the upholstery.
Why did he do it? Apparently he thought that cryonics was going to sweep the world, and saw himself playing an important role in this grand crusade against mortality. He believed that if he could hold things together somehow for maybe five years, money would start flowing in, and he could hand over responsibilities to people who were better funded.
Unfortunately, this blind optimism created consequences which confirmed many people's suspicions that cryonics was nothing but a scam, and the credibility of cryonics remained impaired for many years afterward.
In two instances, words which could have been offensive to some readers were modified at the request of IS President York Porter
 Personal correspondence from Bob Nelson dated September 23, 1967, now in the archives under custody of Mike Perry at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.
 Harrington, Alan: The Immortalist. New York, Random House, 1969.
 Perry, R. Michael: "Table of Cryonics Suspension Patients," compiled June, 1992. Supplied to the author as laserprinted document.
 Personal interview with Robert Nelson in Norco, California, June 2, 1992, conducted by the author.
 Cryonics Reports magazine, vol 3 no 6, June 1968. Archived at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.
 Cryonics Reports magazine, vol 3 no 10, October 1968. Archived at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.
 Personal interview with Joseph Klockgether in the Renaker Mortuary, Buena Park, California, September 10, 1992, conducted by the author.
 Cryonics Reports magazine, April-May 1969. Archived at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.
 Detroit News magazine, July 15, 1969. Archived at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona. Also court records documenting the case of Bob Nelson, at Alcor.
 Perry, Michael: "Nelson, Nisco, and the 'Cryotorium'." Cryonics magazine, #140, March 1992.
 Court records: Summary of the original case prepared by appellants Richard Lang and Sandra Stanley, plus answering summary from Michael Worthington, when the case was appealed to Superior Court. Documents now in the archives under custody of Mike Perry at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.
 Personal interview with Joseph Klockgether in the Renaker Mortuary, Buena Park, California, April 18th, 1991, conducted by Mike Perry of Alcor Foundation.
 Garnett, Molly: "Survivors Sue . . . ." Newspaper, title unknown, April 20, 1980. Fragment archived at Alcor Foundation.
 Pizer, David, and Perry, Mike: "Robert Nelson Speaks: An Exclusive Interview with David Pizer and Mike Perry, part 2 of 3." Venturist Monthly News. August, 1990.
 Mortuary records, now in the archives under custody of Mike Perry at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.
 Court records: Judgment dated June 5, 1981, now in the archives under custody of Mike Perry at Alcor Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona.
 Quaife, Art: "Cryonic Interment Patients Abandoned." The Cryonicist! magazine, issue #11, October 1979.
 Declaration by attorney Michael Worthington representing plaintiffs Claire Halpert etc. in their suit against Robert F. Nelson et. al, before the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles. Case number C 161 229. Ex Parte date July 7, 1980. Hearing date July 29, 1980. Document supplied to Mike Perry at Alcor Foundation.
 Walker, David: "Valley Cryonic Crypt Desecrated, Untended." Valley News newspaper, June 1979.
 Oliver, Myrna: "Ex-Cryonics Chief Denies Fraud Claims." Los Angeles Times newspaper, May 5, 1981.
 Oliver, Myrna: "Jury Rules Body Freezers Must Pay $1 Million for Thaw." The Sacramento Bee newspaper, June 6, 1981.
 Telephone interview with Michael Worthington in Encino, California, September 11, 1992, conducted by the author.
 Personal communication between the author and Mike Darwin.
And now, for the rest of the story.
By Kenneth Bly - October 2005
About the author - I worked for Bob Nelson for over seven years and have been close friends with him for nearly ten. Until recently I only knew that he was involved in the first cryonic suspension. When he retired from his TV repair business last year, he talked about writing a book detailing his experiences. Out of curiosity I did a Google search of Robert Nelson/cryonics and was stunned by what I found. His name was synonymous with disaster, swindler and even murderer. This was not the Bob Nelson I had known for so many years. Much of what I had read was told from the plaintiff's statements in the trial, some facts, and a lot of speculation. I was amazed by the inconsistency of the "facts" from one article to another. The one thing I found consistent, though, was a complete lack of reporting of events from Bob's perspective. That's something I've set out to remedy.
Since then I've conducted extensive research in a quest to uncover the full story of what took place with the Cryonics Society of California (CSC) under Robert Nelson's leadership, and the vault at Chatsworth. Since Bob had closed his mind to cryonics for over twenty-three years, his memory has at times been flawed. At my request, he opened a large chest he kept stored in his garage containing court documents from the trial in '81, correspondences, newspaper articles, etc. He hadn't opened this chest since he packed it shortly after the trial. He has given me unimpeded access to its contents, and I have spent countless hours pouring over them. I've interviewed and challenged Bob extensively. I've also corresponded with Mike Perry and had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Joseph Klockgether. I've done extensive online research. I believe that I'm uniquely qualified to discuss Bob Nelson's involvement in early cryonics with an element of completeness that has been sorely lacking.
Many thanks to the Immortalist Society leadership for allowing this response to be published here.
The subject of Robert Nelson and the Chatsworth affair tends to bring up bitter feelings, even after all these years, as evidenced by the article written by Charles Platt in this issue of The Immoralist. Some of this is understandable. The trial in 1981 gave cryonics a "black eye" as described by Curtis Henderson, the former president of the Cryonics Society of New York (CSNY). Cryonicists understandably dove for cover and did all they could to distance themselves from Bob and the CSC. Fred and Linda Chamberlain in particular had reason to be bitter, as Bob unintentionally implicated them in an interrogatory prior to the trial, resulting in their having to endure legal expenses and hassles they didn't deserve. What specifically was Bob guilty of? Was he guilty of being reckless? Yes. Bob is an optimist of the highest order. He froze three patients who had no funding, believing that the fledgling cryonics industry would boom, and eventually the CSC would be able to suspend them perpetually, free of charge. He froze and suspended two patients for less than he should have; ten thousand dollars each. Five of the patients he stored had family members who committed to pay monthly maintenance fees, four of whom failed to follow through.
So, he was guilty of recklessness on two counts, freezing underfunded or nonfunded patients, and for freezing/suspending patients on a promise that their families would make monthly payments. Three of his "charity cases" (as Charles Platt refers to them) were friends who were instrumental in founding and supporting the CSC, Marie Sweet, Helen Kline and Russ Stanley. He did this because he cared about them and he knew they wanted badly to be frozen and suspended.
Was he guilty of being secretive? Yes, and that turned out to be a blessing for the corporate board members of the CSC, as he was the only member sued in the long run (Klockgether was not a member). The board members rarely inquired into the freezing and storage operations. They pretty much left that to Bob. He didn't tell anyone when he stopped filling the first capsule because he knew such an incident could blow up and possibly destroy the CSC. Plus he had another patient who was depending on him to maintain the vault (Mildred Harris). He had no way of contacting the families of the four patients in that capsule, Louis Nisco, Marie Sweet, Helen Kline and Russ Stanley. He considered them to be properly interred in their capsule, underground at a cemetery, a point Joseph Klockgether agrees with.
This is a point of contention with many cryonicists, though, because he marketed his vault as a viable cryonics facility while bodies were "rotting" inside, but that was the point of having an underground vault at a cemetery in the first place. Cryonics was an evolving enterprise, new and untested. If a suspension failure occurred, as it did, the bodies would already be legally interred. Though grim, this was pragmatic thinking on Bob's part.
Was he guilty of misrepresenting or over-representing his facilities? A little, but not to the degree that he is accused of. A lot has been made of the CSC's newsletter article in which Marshal Neel announces the opening of the "World's First Cryotorium." Most of the article was true. The untrue statement was that the facility was complete. The vault had been built, but Bob was running into problems getting power to it and water was seeping in. A large part of the article was taken up with describing a large liquid nitrogen storage tank. Charles Platt insinuates that this tank was a mere prop used to mislead people into thinking he had a facility. He contends that it could not have been used to store patients because there was no access for easy entrance and removal of patients, as
Bob stated in an interview for the CSNY's newsletter. While the tank was designed to store liquid nitrogen, it had a re-sealable hatch on the top that would indeed allow access for adding and removing patients. In fact, Bob and a few others went inside the tank through that hatch themselves. The tank's specifications actually surpassed those of the Cryo-Care Equipment capsule, making it an attractive option for the long-term storage of patients. It was stored in the heavy equipment yard at Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth. Bob's goal was to attract enough paying patients to get the large tank operational, then transfer his current patients into it.
Bob is accused of flat-out lying about the extent of his facilities in an interview for the CSNY's newsletter, Cryonics Reports. But Bob did not write that article. Read it carefully. The interview was conducted by the CSNY and the article was written by the CSNY, even though it is based on what Bob actually said and is presented in the form of a transcription. Though the actual writer no doubt had good intentions, there was room for confusion and it unfortunately took its toll. The article was written in a way that made a lot of Bob's conceptualizing appear to be a reality at that time. Bob would have to have been completely insane to claim he had everything in that article, then invite Robert Ettinger and other prominent cryonicists to visit the facility. He gave dozens of people tours of the facility during a cryonics conference in 1970.
In the interview, he was envisioning a future facility where he would house multiple tanks underground and have an above-ground administrative building built over it. He made it clear, however, that currently, "the entire building is completely below ground." He did have one of the large tanks mentioned in the article in his possession. He and Marshal Neel also had already had one of the "individual metal containers" built. Marshal Neel devised the system using stainless steel cables to move the containers into place in the large tank. This was the beginning of what he hoped to build in the future. That wasn't made clear. Bob's use of present tense while describing the future facility confuses the writer into blurring the lines between fact and conceptualization. But it was not used deliberately with the intention of deceiving anyone; Bob was not actually being dishonest.
Was he guilty of swindling people out of their money? Absolutely not! That insinuation is ridiculous. He never made any money in this venture. To the contrary, he ended up putting in more money than he took out to keep the suspensions going as long as he could. Remember that his biggest mistake was in taking on nonfunded and underfunded suspensions. It can't work both ways. The swindling of money was Worthington's invention, and he skillfully managed to convince the jury that it was true.
Mr. Platt contends that Bob lured Marie Bowers away from Ed Hope's Cryocare company with the artist's rendering of a "new above-ground storage facility in which technicians wearing lab coats were standing in front of capsules fitted with viewing windows, gauges, and dials." First off, Marie Bowers came to Bob out of desperation because Ed Hope was threatening to put her father's capsule out into the street if she didn't come up with the money she owed him. Second, in the same month that Bob supposedly deceived Marie Bowers with that artist's rendering, he stated publicly in the Cryonics Reports interview that the above-ground facility didn't exist yet, Completely debunking the deception theory.
Mr. Platt writes, "I have been unable to determine what happened to the $10,000; Nelson claims he used it to pay construction costs." That $10,000 paid to have Robert Ettinger, Joseph Klockgether and Bob flown out to Iowa to perform an onsite perfusion. It paid to ship Mrs. Harris's body to California. It paid to maintain her on dry ice over a long period of time, which was not cheap. It paid for the liquid nitrogen once she was in the Mandell capsule. Bear in mind that the Harris children (Dennis and Terry) never fulfilled their commitment to make monthly payments.
Mr. Platt states, "The father of Genevieve de la Poterie started wondering openly if his child was being properly preserved." This is not true. Guy De La Poterie already knew about the failed suspension of his daughter. After the initial failure occurred in 1974, Bob flew to Canada and told him face-to face, as he did with Dennis Harris. Both De La Poterie and Harris told Bob to refill the capsule and continue the suspensions. Bob thought it was crazy, but he did as they asked, and maintained the capsule for several more years until he finally abandoned it. When he did, he wrote De La Poterie and Harris, telling them what had happened.
There was a third capsule maintained in the vault at Chatsworth, an upright MVE. It belonged to an Orange County Assistant District Attorney, and it contained his six-year-old son and a cosmetic preservation, Pedro Ledesma. When Bob gave up on the Mandell capsule, he told the ADA about it and gave him the key to the vault so he could continue to maintain his son's suspension. The ADA eventually decided to have his son disinterred and given a conventional burial. The ADA also had Genevieve disinterred and buried. He contacted Guy the day after the disinterment and informed him of the burial scheduled for the next day. Guy expressed his gratitude in a letter he sent to Joseph Klockether thanking him for his help.
Michael Worthington and a news crew broke into the vault after the disinterment. Mr. Platt writes, "Since some of the bodies had been disinterred, it wasn't a pretty sight. As for the smell-as one journalist put it, 'The stench near the crypt is disarming, strips away all defenses, spins the stomach into a thousand dizzying somersaults.'" This statement was made to sensationalize the story and was untrue. I spoke with Joseph Klockgether, who did the disinterment. Genevieve and the DA's son were removed from the vault. Mildred Harris, Steven Mandell and Pedro Ledesma were placed in sealed containers. There would have been no smell.
Mr. Platt quotes an unnamed source as saying, "because the bodies were disinterred, the smell was overpowering and the bodies had 'sludged down into what I can best describe as a kind of a black goo.'" This is untrue. The bodies were still wrapped and intact. They were placed in sealed containers. There was no smell and there was no "black goo" according to Joseph Klockgether. It's possible this unnamed source was talking about the Deblasio capsule in New York. Bob helped Deblasio build a vault to house Deblasio's wife's capsule at a cemetery. That capsule, under Deblasio's care, eventually failed. Mike Darwin was involved in removing the human remains, and described the scene much as Mr. Platt's unnamed source describes the scene at Chatsworth.
Of the trial, Mr. Platt writes, "Nelson was doomed from the start." That contradicts what Mr. Platt himself wrote in a letter in March 1993 taken from the Cryonet archives. He wrote, "The case was not quite as clear-cut as it sounds, because almost all of the patients at Chatsworth had been financed either by donations or by their relatives, and all of the relatives had stopped paying for upkeep at least a year before the "meltdown" was discovered. Nelson was able to show that he had begged and threatened the relatives, demanding money for upkeep, without response.
However, these same relatives were more than ready to sue him when they discovered he had failed to maintain their next of kin." Bob actually had a very good case. That's why Joseph Klockgether's attorney declined a pretrial settlement offer of $30,000. Each patient was donated to the CSC under the UAGA. Bowers and Mandell's capsules were donated to the CSC in writing. Even Joseph Klockgether was surprised by and impressed with the documentation Bob had on these patients. Unfortunately, the judge disallowed the UAGA, and the jury ignored the signed documents donating the bodies and capsules to the CSC.
The trial was a travesty. Nelson and Klockgether were not on trial, cryonics as a concept was. Michael Worthington was an ambulance chaser who ended up being disbarred, partly because of his treatment of Nelson. He tried to bring everyone in, especially those with deep pockets. Bob Nelson and Joseph Klockgether weren't sued because Bob was secretive, nor because he misrepresented his facilities, nor because he put three or four patients into one capsule. They were sued because suspension failures had taken place and Worthington saw an opportunity to make money. Worthington argues in court that the very premise of cryonics was fraudulent, and the jury bought it.
In conclusion, Bob Nelson, a young man then, was enthusiastic, passionate and optimistic about the field of cryonics. His big mistake was in taking on patients without the funding to follow through. His motivation was compassion, as witnessed by the fact that his first two patients contributed nothing. He was dedicated to following through on those suspensions.
For years he dragged dry ice out to the Renaker mortuary and to the vault every week. He didn't put multiple patients into capsules meant for one because he wanted them "safely out of sight," as Charles Platt assumes. He did it as a temporary means of continuing those suspensions until he could get enough paying patients to operate the large tank. It's been suggested that he should have performed neuro separations on his patients and stored the heads in one capsule. Bob considered that to be a more drastic move than letting them thaw. In hindsight it seems like a reasonable solution, but at the time, Bob didn't consider it as an option.
In the long run he failed. He got in over his head and he ran out of resources. The cryonics boom he was expecting, and worked so hard for, didn't materialize. An opportunistic lawyer took advantage of the unfortunate situation, and a trial resulted, giving cryonics it's "black eye."
Since the trial over the Chatsworth affair has received so much attention, Bob's real contributions to the field of cryonics have been overlooked. He brought a group of talented people together and orchestrated the freezing of Dr. James Bedford, the first true cryonic suspension. He worked tirelessly to promote cryonics, traveling around the country to speak, and organizing conferences. He attracted brilliant people like the Chamberlains, Dick Jones, Dante Brunol, and Robert Prehoda.
The CSC was a positive force for cryonics for years. The science of cryonics was greatly improved under the umbrella of the CSC. Try as they may to distance themselves from Robert Nelson and the CSC, the Chamberlains made major contributions to cryonics as CSC members under the leadership of Robert Nelson. The CSC was the first to use the UAGA, which is still used by cryonics organizations today. Finally, even the failure had a beneficial effect by showing mistakes to be avoided in the future.
No one is one hundred percent good or one hundred percent bad. I think Bob has been unfairly villainized by a handful of people who want desperately to separate him and the Chatsworth affair from themselves and the rest of cryonics. Bob Nelson was imperfect, but he was driven to do the right thing, and in the process he helped launch cryonics into the future.
There is much to be learned from Robert Nelson's experiences in early cryonics, both good and bad. However, the only way the cryonics community can benefit from Bob's story is if it's told as accurately, as completely, and as honestly as possible. I believe that by allowing this rebuttal to be published, the leadership of the Immortalist Society has taken a huge step in that direction.
Reference : Cryonics Reports, April-May 1969. The 5 pages containing Robert Nelson's interview article are available via the web at the following URLs.
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