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Fact check: Michael Jackson plasticized?

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image kabc"><span>KABC</span></div><span class="caption-text">Image from the Michael Jackson Public Memorial Service at Staples Center, July 7, 2009.</span></div>
July 8, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
"Jackson to have body stuffed by Doctor Death." That was the sensational headline in the Daily Star of London on March 15, 2009. ABC7.com has gathered information from a number of sources to determine how this story took on a life of its own and spun out of control, before and after his death.It seems almost too bizarre to be true, except the subject was the eccentric King of Pop, who also reportedly was interested in having his body cryogenically frozen in the hopes he could one day be brought back to life. Unknown at the time was the fact that Jackson had precious few days left to him.

The Daily Star quoted an unnamed source who reportedly said Jackson was a fan of Dr. Gunther von Hagens, creator of the controversial Body Worlds exhibitions, seen by more than 27 million people around the world.

Von Hagens developed a technique for preserving human bodies in plastic to display muscles, bones, internal organs and other parts of the human anatomy for educational purposes. Some critics have questioned whether it's ethical to put human corpses on public display.

The Daily Star's unidentified source reportedly said Jackson was fascinated with new technologies to cheat aging, death and decomposition, and "he's definitely up for undergoing the procedure when the time comes." Jackson was also said to be pleased that a Body Worlds exhibition would be on display at London's O2 Arena at the same time his concerts would be taking place there in July.

This led to a flurry of interest by the UK and German media. Dr. von Hagens, whose institute is based in Heidelberg, Germany, granted an exclusive interview to the German publication Bild two days later on March 17. He was clearly receptive to the idea.

Von Hagens told Bild, "I could give Michael the gift of physical immortality. As a plastinate he could continue to have his body shaped and changed as he did when he was alive." Referring to Jackson's reported plastic surgeries, he called his plastination laboratory a rejuvenation facility, "the post-mortem beauty salon of the modern age." Von Hagens suggested that Jackson could be placed next to a plastinated chimpanzee or giraffe, mentioning the exotic animals on the Neverland Ranch.

He offered to walk Jackson through the Body Worlds exhibition and suggest possible poses for him.

But the statement from von Hagens that elevated the story to something more than just speculation, was this: "I am not allowed to divulge the names of the people who donate their bodies to me, due to patient-doctor confidentiality. I will only say this: One of Michael Jackson's employees has made contact with us."

Von Hagens' interview with Bild triggered a series of new reports in the UK and German media. Some reports claimed erroneously that Jackson was on von Hagens' list.

The story then faded into the background, but within hours of Michael Jackson's death on June 25, it was ignited again, now raging out of control in the British and German press. Two sources were responsible for the new speculation. One was an apparent hoax, the other, a legitimate press release from von Hagens.

First, the hoax, as reported in the London Daily Mail and then quoted in several other UK publications. It came in the form of an authentic-looking e-mail, supposedly from an official with the London Body Worlds exhibit. It stated: "Von Hagens advised that he spoke with representatives of the Jackson family many months ago and it was agreed that his body will be plastinated." The message said Jackson would be placed next to his late pet monkey, "Bubbles," who, according to the e-mail, was plastinated a number of years ago and is currently exhibited at the London Body Worlds exhibit. It ended by saying: "It is hoped the exhibit will be unveiled towards the end of July for all fans to visit and pay their respects."

This triggered a strong response from Body Worlds officials. They immediately took all possible action to correct the erroneous report, notifying the Daily Mail and any other online source they found, using a Google Alert. Wherever it popped up, Body Worlds sought to post a correction on the appropriate Web site.

A copy of the hoax e-mail provided to ABC7.com by Body Worlds shows that the sender had a Yahoo e-mail address, not the "@plastination" address that would indicate a legitimate Body Worlds official. A Body Worlds spokesperson claims the Daily Mail ran the story without a proper fact-check, and now has chosen not to print a correction. ABC7.com has contacted the writer of the Daily Mail story, but has not yet received a response.

While Body Worlds was seeking to douse the flames from the spreading embers of the hoax e-mail, Dr. von Hagens was making his own statement. He said he's not sure now that the person who contacted Body Worlds months ago was in fact a spokesperson for Jackson.

At the same time however, he issued an invitation to the Jackson family to contact his U.S. office.

Here is von Hagens' press release, obtained by abc7.com from one of the German news outlets that received it. This one, with an @plastination address, sent by Body Worlds spokesperson Christiane Casott, is authentic.

Plastinator Gunther von Hagens on the sudden death of Michael Jackson, King of Pop:

"Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, who unexpectedly died yesterday, is most likely to be plastinated. About half a year ago, my personal assistant and medical student, Nadine Diwersi, was contacted by a member of the management team of Michael Jackson. During the phone conversation we were told about Michael Jackson's interest to become plastinated after his death. The contacting person wanted to stay anonymous so we did not see a reason to contact Michael Jackson from our end, especially since the donation forms for Plastination can be downloaded from our Web site at any time. We also cannot rule out that the contacting person did not or only insufficiently represent the management of Michael Jackson. This, however, is soon to be seen. Without a signed body donation form by Michael Jackson himself or by 'all' his family members I will not become active. Under this condition I can offer the family members of Michael Jackson a whole body plastination for a didactic eternity free of charge. The pose would be a dancing one, to be determined by the family in detail. The whereabouts of the plastinate would also to be discussed with the family. It is, however, essential for us that the plastinated body is put into a museum. This could also be one of our US BODY WORLDS exhibits. The family members can contact us at any time via our North American body donation representative Georgina Gomez. -- Gunther von Hagens (Plastinator)."

"Jackson wird wahrscheinlich plastiniert" ("Jackson becomes likely plastinated") proclaimed one German story in bold print, adding, "Three months ago circulated the first rumors. Now it becomes apparently concrete."

ABC7.com contacted Von Hagens press office in Germany, asking how he concluded that Jackson would "likely become plastinated." On Monday July 6, his spokesperson, Christiane Casott, replied: "In addition to this statement (of Friday June 26) Gunther von Hagens doesn't wish to comment on Michael Jackson at the present moment."

Did Michael Jackson in fact express an interest in plastination? That question will probably never be answered. We now know that Jackson told Lisa Marie Presley during their brief marriage that he did not expect to live long (like her father, Elvis Presley). So, maybe he would have looked into the possibility and visited Body Worlds during his London concerts. But this much is clear: The UK and German media, along with Gunther von Hagens (and one e-mail hoaxster) seized on the original report of March 15. It was then fed to a public that was all too ready, in many cases, to believe such a story about the eccentric King Of Pop.

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