Assistant Hesperia Fire Chief Will Wentworth listened incredulously as a caller complained that the noxious black smoke pouring from a nondescript building in the desert carried the sickeningly sweet smell of burning human flesh.
“I don’t think so, it’s a ceramics shop,” Wentworth replied.
“Don’t tell me they’re not burning bodies. I was at the ovens at Auschwitz,” the man said chillingly, Wentworth recalled.
Wentworth was still skeptical when he drove out to Oscar Ceramics and opened one of the massive brick furnaces. A burning foot fell out. Scattered around the interior, caked black with the accumulated bodily grime from the brick ovens, were trash cans brimming with human ashes and prosthetic devices.
The grisly discoveries on Jan. 20, 1987, have touched off one of the most bizarre scandals in the history of the California funeral industry. A respected industry family is tangled in a ghoulish, still-unfolding tale of organ theft and, perhaps, homicide. The revelations have also prompted a new state law making it easier to police crematories and lawsuits against scores of other mortuaries that sent bodies to the Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena, attracted by its bargain-basement prices.
“This is probably the worst scandal I’ve ever seen, or that I could ever imagine,” said John W. Gill, executive officer of California’s Cemetery Board.
The Lamb Funeral Home was the essence of an old-style mortuary, operated by a family that was the All-American stuff of advertising copy. In fact, the family once appeared in magazine ads, flanking their old reliable Maytag washer while dad’s football team uniforms flapped in the breeze.
There was jovial Jerry Sconce, 55, the Bible college football coach, his church organist wife, Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, 52, and their son David, 32, a charming ex-football player who had plans to grab a big piece of California’s booming cremation industry.
Now, they are facing trial Jan. 23 on 69 criminal counts--including “unlawful removal of body parts from human remains,” “multiple cremation of human remains” and assault on rival morticians--that depict their family business as a cut-rate body factory in which the dead were mined like ore deposits. Eyes, brains and gold-filled teeth were sold without the knowledge of relatives, while workers competed to see who could stuff the most bodies into the ancient crematory ovens, according to witnesses.
By the time of the Hesperia raid, the Sconces had built a business empire collecting human remains from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
“What they did is, they tried to corner the market,” said Joe Estephan, funeral director of the Cremation Society of California.
By all accounts, Charles F. Lamb had no such grand designs in 1929 when he built the Lamb Funeral Home on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena. The drawing room chapel of his Spanish mission-style building was filled with comfortable sofas and arm chairs. In the slumber rooms, families were encouraged to “make themselves as much at home as though they were in their own residence,” according to an old company brochure. “It is a home in every sense of the word.”
Lamb served as president of the state Funeral Directors Assn. and passed on the business to his son, Lawrence, who became president of the Pasadena school board.
Laurieanne, one of Lawrence’s two daughters, was bright and so pretty that a rival mortician would describe her as “movie star beautiful.” She carried herself with a touch of gentility befitting the family’s position in the community, sprinkled her conversations liberally with Biblical quotations and wrote sacred songs for her own gospel group, “The Chapelbelles.” Her father’s favorite, she demonstrated a gift for consoling survivors at the mortuary, some of whom gave her money to save for their own funerals.
With the help of her husband, a glad-handing former football coach at Azusa-Pacific College, Laurieanne began taking control of the business from her parents about a decade ago, just as the public’s interest in cremation blossomed. Twenty years ago, only 10% of the dead were cremated. But in recent years, as people searched for less expensive funeral arrangements, the figure has risen to nearly 40%, setting off a scramble for customers.
“A very aggressive market came about,” said the Cemetery Board’s Gill. This was especially true in Southern California, he said, where “price competitiveness in low-cost cremation was fierce.”
Coastal Cremations Inc., of which David Sconce was president, dealt mainly as a wholesaler to other mortuaries, charging only $55 for each cremation, about half what competitors charged. In addition, there was no extra charge for picking up a body and returning the ashes. The mortuaries, in turn, would charge customers anywhere from $265 to $1,000 for cremation services.
Soon, the two ovens at the family crematory in Altadena, the oldest cremation furnaces west of the Mississippi, were running 16 to 18 hours a day.
In David’s first year in the operation, cremations went up nearly 1,000%, from 194 to 1,675. They doubled and redoubled, reaching 8,173 in 1985, as a fleet of vans, station wagons and trucks fanned out, picking up cadavers throughout Southern California.
Packed in Ovens
Up to 100 bodies would lie in the mortuary’s cold room awaiting transportation to the crematory, where David used a wood 2-by-4 to pack them into the ovens like cordwood, according to witnesses at the Sconces’ preliminary hearing, which ended earlier this year. Under the state Health and Safety Code, it is a misdemeanor to cremate more than one body at a time.
“What difference does it make?” a witness recalled David Sconce saying. “They’re dead.”
To many who knew him, David Sconce was the model youth, a one-time defensive back for his father at Azusa-Pacific with a surfer’s wave of blond hair. But he had been in some trouble, notably when he admitted to police that he had broken into the house of a girlfriend’s parents when she refused to go out with him anymore. After stealing their stereo equipment, he coolly joined them in their pew at church. Although he was caught, he avoided jail after leading police to the stolen equipment.
Accumulating the emblems of success as his business took off, David flashed wads of money and cruised around in a candy-apple-red Mercedes-Benz and a white Corvette with a personalized license plate that displayed his macabre sense of humor. “I BRN 4U,” it read.
He liked to attend hockey games with a bunch of beefy, ex-football players that he called his “boys.” Sconce’s boys testified that they listened to his boasts, ran his errands and roughed up his enemies. They anointed their boss with a grandiose nickname: “Little Hitler.”
David Sconce used to test his strength, according to one former employee, by heaving bodies in their cardboard boxes around the mortuary like bags of grain.
A businessman recalled that David looked him up and down one day and declared him a “one-hander.” That meant David wouldn’t even need two hands to sling his small body into the oven.
Depicted by friends of his parents as the mastermind behind the assembly-line cremations, David Sconce is being held without bail. The only family member accused in the strong-arm tactics allegedly used against competitors, he is charged among other things with plotting to kill the prosecuting attorney, Walt Lewis.
In a lengthy conversation at County Jail, David conceded that he wrote “Lewis will die” on the wall of the jail but insisted it was part of a larger message, intended as a joke, that was erased by jail snitches. He said the full message was, “Lewis will die of AIDS.”
“It was stupid but it was funny,” he said.
Last week, prosecutors filed two new charges against David Sconce, accusing him of soliciting the murder of Elie Estephan, owner of the Cremation Society of California. Prosecutors declined to discuss the evidence, but Estephan said that before he took over the business in 1986, Sconce had been negotiating for it with the intention of moving more aggressively into the retail end of the cremation business. The society has 5,000 members, who pay the society to arrange their cremations.
Estephan said he never had any run-ins with David Sconce. But he recalled that on the night the business was transferred to him, several people broke into the offices. The previous owner, Frank Strunk, who lived on the premises in Los Angeles, drove them off by shouting that he had a gun, he said.
A polite, articulate man with penetrating blue eyes, David Sconce complained in the jailhouse interview that the case against him and his family was trumped up by prosecutors and funeral industry bigwigs, “people with big places, expensive caskets,” who want to squash innovators.
He denounced his industry as the “most in-fighting, back-biting, rumor-spreading, lecherous, treacherous people you’d ever want to meet in your life. Twenty percent of them.”
While family friends blame David Sconce for the scandal, employees at the preliminary hearing also implicated his parents--who are free pending trial on several dozen counts--in the operation of the tissue bank. The bank, run out of the Pasadena funeral home, in a three-month period sold 136 brains, 145 hearts and 100 lungs to a North Carolina firm supplying organs for research to medical schools, according to records presented at the preliminary hearing.
A handwriting expert hired by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said Laurieanne Sconce had signed the names of survivors on some of the forms permitting organ removal; it is a felony to take organs without permission. In one case, according to prosecutors, survivors were prevented from viewing their loved one’s body because the eyes had already been taken.
Dorothy Stegeman, a former bookkeeper, testified that David Sconce told her that he made $5,000 to $6,000 a month pulling gold teeth and selling them to a Glendora jeweler. This was an indelicate, bone-shattering operation that David allegedly referred to as “making the pliers sing.”
In the rear of the funeral home was the so-called “Ash Palace,” where employee Jim Dame testified that he sifted ashes trucked in from the crematory in big barrels. Jerry Sconce told him to put in 3 1/2 to 5 pounds of ash if the deceased was a female and 5 to 7 pounds for a male, Dame said. He said he never put the ashes from just one body in the urns that were returned to families.
As the business grew, rumors spread through the industry. Ron Hast, editor of a newsletter called Mortuary Management, whose Los Angeles mortuary used the Sconces, asked Laurieanne Sconce to state in writing in 1984 that her cremations were done individually.
Ever protective of his mother, David Sconce became angry and said he was going to have his “boys” pay the editor a visit, Dame said. Hast recalled that he and a friend were attacked by two men posing as policemen, who threw ammonia and jalapeno sauce in their eyes. One of David’s “boys,” David Edwards, pleaded guilty to beating Hast, testifying that the younger Sconce had paid him $700 or $800 to do so.
Tim Waters was a 300-pound Burbank mortician who had a reputation for honesty but was unpopular among competitors in the cremation trade because he aggressively took business away from them. He spread rumors that the Sconces were cremating more than one body at a time, according to Richard Gray, who runs Aftercare Funeral Service in Van Nuys.
On Feb. 12, 1985, Waters was bloodied by Danny Galambos, a 245-pound ex-football player who carried business cards reading “Big Men Unlimited.” Galambos, who eventually pleaded guilty to assault, testified that David Sconce told him to make it look like a robbery, so he also stole Waters’ jewelry.
Two months later, after spending Easter ill in bed at his mother’s house in Camarillo, Waters died of what was assumed to be a heart attack. Only much later did police begin looking into the death after David Sconce was heard bragging about poisoning him. Edwards testified that Sconce told him he had dropped something into Waters’ drink at a restaurant--authorities later decided it was in Simi Valley--a month before the Burbank mortician died. Sconce said his words were misinterpreted.
The Ventura County coroner’s office re-examined tissues saved from the original autopsy of Waters and changed the cause of death to poisoning by oleander, a common plant in California. Simi Valley police plan soon to turned the case over to Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury with the recommendation that David Sconce be prosecuted, a spokesman said.
The final chapter in the story opened Nov. 23, 1986, when a fire destroyed the crematory in Altadena. That morning, employee John Hallinan said, he and another worker loaded 38 bodies into the two furnaces, each measuring 3.5 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long. That broke the previous record of 18 bodies in one furnace, the employee said. Hallinan said he had to break the leg of one body to get it in and that it might have blocked up the chimney, starting the blaze.
His facility destroyed, David Sconce quietly moved the operation to Hesperia, 20 miles north of San Bernardino in the high desert, where he had installed ovens for what was listed on business permits as a ceramics factory. They ran for two months before authorities became suspicious that the business was not what it seemed.
Other funeral homes bear some blame for not being more wary of the low-cost, high-volume operation, according to representatives of the families who were shocked to learn what happened to their deceased relatives. Six law firms, including Melvin Belli’s in San Francisco, have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of relatives of 16,000 decedents, accusing 100 mortuaries of sending bodies to the Sconces despite indications that something was wrong.
Several funeral directors named in the lawsuit said they were reassured by the sterling Lamb name. But Dr. Thomas Weber, owner of the Telephase Society, a pioneer in the field of low-cost burial, said the deal was too good to be true.
“If somebody offers you a new Ford for $8,000 and I’m paying $16,000 . . . something’s not right,” he said.
Gill said the state investigator in Southern California was suspicious of the Sconce crematory and began trying to find out how the cremations were being done. But he was denied entrance to the Altadena facility because he did not have a search warrant. Later, when investigators from several agencies showed up in Hesperia, only one employee was around and he let them in.
New Law Passed
As a result of the case, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing inspection of crematories on demand, and it was signed by Gov. George Deukmejian at the end of the summer session.
Should authorities have uncovered the family’s activities sooner than they did? “Perhaps,” Gill said. But with only two investigators covering 180 cemeteries and 45 crematories, they had a lot of other work.
Traditionally, Cemetery Board investigators have spent more time looking at audits than on enforcement, Gill said. More scrutiny is being given to the handling of bodies, however, in the wake of the Sconce revelations and two other scandals in recent years, including a Northern California case involving a firm hired to drop ashes over the Sierra. Instead, the ashes were scattered in a vacant lot in the foothills.
Today, Laurieanne Sconce’s two brothers, Kirk and Bruce Lamb, are attempting to restore the business to its original purpose as a quiet family funeral home. They say they do not believe all of the accusations, but they admit that there is too much evidence to deny something went very wrong at the funeral home.
The brothers, who have not been accused of any wrongdoing, are left to wrestle with a conundrum: How could the ingredients for an American success story, ambition, hard work and a professed respect for family and God, be twisted into a tragedy of such perverse dimensions?
Their conclusion so far is that large transgressions begin with small concessions. “Compromise is the language of the devil,” Bruce Lamb said.
With the family reputation tarnished, the Lamb brothers have agreed to surrender the funeral home’s current license, and they have applied for another one to operate under a new name, the Pasadena Funeral Home.
“We would like to get out of the Lamb Funeral Home business,” Bruce Lamb said. “We would like to just close it.”