The opening scene in what promises to be the most bizarre and sensational murder trial in recent Ventura County history was acted out at the county courthouse on Monday.
Within a Municipal Court chamber, Judge Barry B. Klopfer assigned a public defender to represent David Wayne Sconce, 33, a Pasadena funeral home worker charged with what prosecutors say is the nation's first murder by oleander poisoning. Arraignment was set for March 13. Preliminary hearing is expected by June and trial, if necessary, next year.
Outside the courtroom, Sconce's parents--themselves charged with stealing body parts, the mingling of human remains and the removal of gold teeth from cadavers at the family's funeral home--made the case for their son.
As television cameras captured the moment, Laurieanne Lamb Sconce and Jerry Sconce distributed a flyer asking a crowd of reporters to "Remember the McMARTIN MEDIA MISTAKES."
The parents claimed that reporters were manipulated by prosecutors after the McMartin Pre-School child molestation case broke in Manhattan Beach in 1984. The defendants were eventually acquitted of most charges and a Los Angeles jury hung this year on the remaining 13 counts.
"We just want the truth to be known, so we'll be handing out releases each day," said Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, 53, a former church organist who took control of the Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena in the late 1970s, when it was a respected old-style mortuary.
She and her husband, a former Bible college football coach, are accused felons and bankrupt, reduced to accepting $330 a month in general relief to survive, they said.
"Our family is being destroyed by a vendetta" pursued by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, Jerry Sconce said.
Not far away, down the same hallway, Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Harvey Giss was also talking with reporters.
Giss, who has worked some of Los Angeles County's most important criminal trials, said that David Sconce methodically planned the murder of Timothy R. Waters, 24, a rival mortician who died of oleander poisoning in 1985.
"He slipped oleander into Waters' drink," Giss said. "We can't say we have anyone who saw him do it. But we can paint a complete picture" around that one omission, he said.
Sconce, who is serving a five-year prison sentence, pleaded guilty last April to 21 criminal counts, most of them connected to activities at the funeral home. He also admitted to hiring thugs to beat up three competing morticians, including Waters.
"How's that for circumstantial evidence," Giss said to reporters.
Witnesses, including the two men who admit beating Waters, will testify that Sconce bragged to them that he poisoned Waters, Giss said. That admission was allegedly made shortly after the Ventura County coroner's office ruled that the death was due to the obesity of the 300-pound victim.
"Sconce told them that everybody thought Waters died of a heart attack, but that he had poisoned him," Giss said.
The Los Angeles County district attorney is prosecuting Sconce because that office is most familiar with the case, and because a lengthy trial would place a financial burden on Ventura County, Giss said. It is being tried in Ventura because Waters died in the Camarillo home of his mother, Mary Lou Waters, the prosecutor said.
The hallway questioning of Giss and the Sconces continued for half an hour, as veterans of the courthouse watched with interest.
"This is a highly unusual case for us," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald C. Janes, a local prosecutor for 17 years. "You'll go several years before you see something like that again."
Janes said that the news media have not made this kind of fuss over a Ventura County case since 1978, when 2-year-old Amy Sue Seitz of Camarillo was murdered by convicted sex offender Theodore Frank shortly after he was released as cured from a state mental hospital.
During the brief court proceedings, David Sconce spoke only to ask that attorney Roger Jon Diamond of Santa Monica be assigned to his defense team. Since he faces the death penalty and is indigent, he is entitled to representation by two court-appointed lawyers.
"It's my life and I want Mr. Diamond to represent me," said the tanned and muscular defendant--a former defensive back for the college football team coached by his father. Klopfer denied the request, instead appointing Ventura County Deputy Public Defender Susan Olson.
For Olson, the task will be daunting. She has already received 2,000 pages of documents for review and prosecutors say they will send hundreds more.
The Sconce family scandal broke in 1987, when authorities discovered an illegal family-run crematory in Hesperia. The crematory business, which was run by David Sconce, had processed 8,000 bodies in 1986--three times more than any other funeral home in California, state records showed.
Prosecutors say the business was so successful because it charged mortuaries far less than rivals to cremate bodies. It could charge less because it burned many bodies at once, instead of one at a time as the law requires. The Sconces also sold the eyes, brains and gold-filled teeth from corpses without the knowledge of relatives, according to the criminal complaints.
Timothy Waters ran the rival Alpha Society cremation service in Burbank, and prosecutors say that David Sconce killed him to keep him from exposing Sconce's activities.
Waters died in agony in April, 1985, after suffering from what prosecutors say are the symptoms of oleander poisoning--sweatiness, vomiting and diarrhea.
It was not until 1988, however, during the eight-month preliminary hearing for all three Sconces, that David Sconce was first publicly linked to Waters' death.
David Edwards, a former Lamb employee, testified that Sconce borrowed a book from him--"The Poor Man's James Bond"--to learn how to poison a neighbor's dog. The book explains the virtues of oleander leaves as a hard-to-detect and fatal poison. Edwards said the book was never returned.
Edwards said that in March, 1985, Sconce went to a restaurant where Waters was eating and dropped poison into Water's mixed drink when he left the table.
Sconce allegedly told several cellmates at Los Angeles County jail that he had to poison Waters a second time. Cellmate David Gearhardt testified that Sconce told him that Waters suffered a heart attack after another dose of poison and said, "I know it's the poison I gave him."
Giss said he would not call inmates to testify during the murder trial. Several cases prosecuted by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office are being challenged because jailhouse informants who testified now say they perjured themselves.
A murder charge was not filed against Sconce until last month, prosecutor Giss said, because it took a year for toxicologists to conclude that oleander poisoning caused Waters death, and to rule out any other possible cause.
Sconce also faces charges of soliciting the murder of his grandparents and of Deputy Dist. Atty. Walter Lewis, the first prosecutor in his case.