The Mortician and the Murderer
The Mortician and the Murderer
Los Angeles in the 1980s was a lush, neon, dusty city. Valley girls took up residence at film-famous malls like the Sherman Oaks Galleria, and boys in metal bands snorted cocaine inside nightclubs up and down the Sunset Strip. A city of movie magic and Hollywood weirdos, the 33,000-square-mile Greater Los Angeles area was a sprawling film set, where the silhouettes of palm trees lay flat against a gradient wash of wide-angle sunsets. What lay behind the screen was more contentious and corrupt.
In March of 1985, “Careless Whisper” by George Michael was a Billboard hit single. The song’s maudlin sax solo wailed through the tinny speakers of corner liquor stores and poured from car stereos. A proliferation of people and cars had led to the city’s signature smog, and gridlock gripped the streets.
The LA smog also concealed the smoke that mortician David Sconce pumped from a makeshift crematorium—two ceramic kilns housed in a corrugated metal warehouse—way out in San Bernardino County. It blew over the mountains and nestled into the Los Angeles Basin, where it mingled with the air breathed in by kids smoking joints in Mustang convertibles in the parking lot of Hollywood High, and by linen-clad housewives watering their roses in the gardens of their San Fernando Valley mansions. What the authorities found when they raided the warehouse in January 1987 was beyond imagination: outside, a sludge pit of liquid human waste, mingled with dirt; inside, gallon cans filled with human ash, bone, and partially cremated body parts. All the work of a ruthless mortician who would stop at nothing to corner the market on death in the City of Angels.
It all began with the Lamb Family Funeral Home, a decades-old business that serviced its clientele from a gracious Spanish Revival building on busy Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, bounded by a strip mall on one side and a residential neighborhood on the other. Charles F. Lamb, then-president of the California Funeral Directors Association, oversaw the building of the structure in 1929. It was designed to be elegant but comfortable, filled with sofas and armchairs. “Slumber chambers” were available for families to rest in, if they so chose. (A brochure described the funeral home as “home in every sense of the word.”) Lamb had also had the foresight to purchase the Pasadena Crematorium a few years earlier; it was located a few miles away, in the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. A double-oven structure built in 1895, it was known among funeral directors as the oldest crematorium west of the Mississippi.
In 1985, Charles Lamb’s granddaughter Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, 49, scraped together $65,000 as a down payment and bought out the family business from her father, Lawrence, who had succeeded Charles. Laurieanne was a bright, cheerful, God-fearing woman once described as “movie-star beautiful” by a rival mortician, and who played the church organ and wrote gospel songs with her choral group, the Chapelbelles. As the director of the funeral home, Laurieanne was the first person to greet guests with a box of tissues and a comforting lilt. She loved funeral work, especially the task of beautifying the dead: applying makeup to the waxen skin of the embalmed. She thought it was crucial to look your best when you met your maker.
Laurieanne’s personal life was less charmed than her professional one. She’d dropped out of college to marry Jerry Sconce, a charismatic and gregarious six-foot, 200-pound football player at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whom she’d met at Sunday school. Laurieanne’s husband was considered a loser, a cheat, a layabout, and a hustler by her father, Lawrence; though Jerry had been gainfully employed as a football coach for a local Christian college, he quit the job in 1977 to run a sporting goods store, even though he had no previous experience in business. Laurieanne had given birth to her first child, a son, when she was just a few days shy of her 20th birthday, and it was this son, David, who would go on to both inherit Jerry’s charm and take his talent for scheming to an entirely new level.
David Wayne Sconce was a hothead and a creep—a golden boy turned failed college football player, with sparkling blue eyes that led some to compare him to Paul Newman. After graduating from high school in Glendora, he enrolled in Azusa Pacific, the Christian college where his father worked, with the hopes of becoming a football star and playing for the Seattle Seahawks. In 1974, as a freshman planning to major in business, he robbed a former girlfriend’s house twice—the second time on Christmas Eve, while she was at church with her family—as revenge for breaking up with him. David played defense on the Azusa Pacific football team, the Cougars, but they lost game after game, and David soon dropped out of college. Frustrated and bored, he and his friends egged houses and beat up homeless drunks for fun. Desperate for a job after leaving school, David found work as a dealer in a casino and as an usher at a hockey stadium. He even took the test to become a police officer, but was rejected when a vision test determined he was colorblind. In 1982, encouraged by Jerry and Laurieanne, the 26-year-old decided to obtain his embalming license and join the family business.
The history of funerary practices in America reflect a complex evolution of the relationship between death and money. Before the Civil War, most Americans died at home and were buried nearby, often in the local churchyard. But the war had young men dying far from home, and families of dead Union soldiers begged the army to embalm their sons and send them hundreds of miles north. The embalming business boomed. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, his embalmed corpse was beautified by Dr. Thomas Holmes, the “father of embalming,” and sent on tour across the nation. The dead body became an incorruptible image of a peaceful afterlife.
Over the next century, the American funeral industry would upsell grieving families with services such as embalming and makeup, mahogany caskets, expensive headstones, and elaborate funerals—a practice later exposed by journalist and activist Jessica Mitford in her groundbreaking 1963 book, The American Way of Death. At the time Mitford’s book was first published, the average bill from an undertaker was $750 ($6,300 today); by 1991, when the book was updated and revised, the cost had risen to $7,800 (now $14,500). For many, cremation was becoming a cheaper and more attractive option. (Before Mitford died in 1996, she requested to be cremated, and had the bill for $475 sent to the corporate headquarters of a funeral home chain.)
The first crematorium in the United States was built in 1876 in Pennsylvania. By 1913, when the Cremation Association of America was founded, there were 52 crematoriums across the nation, including the Pasadena Crematorium, which would later be purchased by the Lamb family. Cremation was once a niche business. But, thanks in part to the success of Mitford’s book, the number of people cremated in the United States in the decade after its publication rose by nearly 80 percent. By 1982, 32 percent of people who died in California were cremated, the highest rate in the nation.
Sensing an opportunity, David Sconce set out to command the market. He found embalming school to be boring, and that wasn’t where the money was anyway. He told his parents that he wanted to start his own cremation company, working as an affiliate to the family funeral home.
His business plan was simple enough: Sconce would obtain a license from the Department of Health to operate a crematorium. His company, Coastal Cremations Inc., would advertise itself to funeral homes in Los Angeles that didn’t have access to a crematorium. Sconce would arrange to pick up a body, transfer it to the Lamb family’s crematorium in Altadena, wait the two hours it took to cremate a single body—one hour to burn, one hour to cool the oven—and bring the ashes back to the funeral home. And Sconce would charge the funeral homes the low, low price of $55 per body, half of what his competitors offered.
The cost benefit for Coastal Cremations came with the sheer number of bodies Sconce intended to burn: he would keep the fires going all day, planning to burn multiple bodies at once, sometimes five or six at a time—a misdemeanor in the state of California. Although he began his cremations in mid-1982, he didn’t start his business on paper until 1984, doubling the number of bodies he cremated each year. By 1985, the man who journalist Ken Englade would later dub “the Cremation King of California” displayed his sick sense of humor with a vanity plate on his Corvette that read “I BRN 4 U,” while Coastal Cremations employees zipped up and down the coast, shoving bodies packed in cardboard into the back of company vans and station wagons. Between 1985 and 1986, Coastal Cremations gross income from cremations would top over $1 million.
Kathy Braidhill, then a crime reporter for the Pasadena Star-News, followed the story of David Sconce’s crimes, and wrote a 1993 book, Chop Shop, about his cremation scheme. “Anyone who would look at Sconce at that time saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed, a kind of athletic physique, a very handsome, outgoing, kind of smarmy, and charming guy,” says Braidhill. “He was a little too slick in my opinion, but some people are attracted to that. I’m certain that he used his good looks to sort of offset any suspicion about what he was up to.”
In addition to his effective salesmanship, David Sconce was also ruthless and intimidating. His employees called him “Little Hitler” because of the number of bodies he burned. “David Sconce was a bully,” says mortician Jay Brown, who started working at his own family’s business, Mountain View Mortuary in Altadena, in 1971, when he was 12. Brown witnessed David Sconce’s downfall in closer proximity than most—the Lamb family crematorium shared property lines with Mountain View. “He was a nasty, horrible individual to have any interaction with.”
Obsessed with fellow morticians, whom he regarded as business rivals, Sconce assembled a team of beefcake lackeys that he met at LA Kings hockey games—a group of ex-football players he called his “boys.” They were tasked with traveling throughout Southern California, ferrying bodies to the crematorium, running errands, and roughing up other morticians to discourage them from competing with Sconce’s business.
Sconce’s main competitor was Timothy R. Waters, who owned the Alpha Society, a Burbank-based cremation service, and who had a reputation for stealing business from other morticians. Waters demonstrated his success with flamboyance, appointing his thick fingers with bejeweled rings and draping his neck with gold chains. He knew what Sconce was up to with his cremation racket, and threatened to out him in the industry newsletter, Mortuary Management, which was run by a fellow mortician, Ron Hast, and published local gossip and stories about the latest trends in the funeral business.
But Sconce beat Waters to the punch, quite literally. On February 12, 1985, Sconce sent a 265-pound ex-football player who carried a business card that read “Big Men Unlimited” to rob Waters and beat him to a pulp. Sconce’s thugs had also gone after Ron Hast and his partner Stephen Nimz the year before at their home in the Hollywood Hills. As the story goes, Nimz opened the door to two large men posing as policemen who sprayed him in the eyes with a mixture of jalapeño juice and ammonia; they hoped to blind him, so they could beat him up without being identified. But they had aimed at Nimz’s glass eye, foiling the plot, and at least one of Sconce’s associates later pleaded guilty to assault.
Two months after Waters was assaulted, he mysteriously died at his mother’s home in Camarillo while he was visiting for Easter. At 300 pounds, the 24-year-old was considered morbidly obese. A coroner attributed the official cause of death to buildup of fatty tissue in Waters’s kidneys. The autopsy also discovered digoxin, a common heart medication, in Waters’s blood—though Waters didn’t take heart medication. However, there’s something else that can mimic digoxin in the bloodstream: oleander, one of the most common and most poisonous trees in Southern California.
One of Sconce’s “boys” would later testify in court that Sconce had bragged to him about putting something in Waters’s drink in a restaurant, leading the state to charge Sconce with the poisoning in 1990. After looking into similar poisonings, the Ventura County coroner drafted an official report for the prosecution: “If an individual were poisoned with an oleander leaf [or an alcoholic beverage in which an oleander leaf had been soaked], he could die from this, and the findings in the blood of digoxin would be about that of the blood level of Mr. Waters.”
At the Lamb Family Funeral Home, Laurieanne was the kindly, motherly face of David’s morbid scheme. Skilled in consoling the grief-stricken, she had customers sign complicated and sometimes forged documents which enabled her son to mine the bodies of their recently deceased for organs, which could then be sold to medical schools and research centers. In 1985, David, Laurieanne, and Jerry set up Coastal International Eye and Tissue Bank, in order to help their son traffic organs; later, in court, former employees revealed that, over a three-month period between 1985 and 1986, the Lambs had sold 136 brains, 145 hearts, and 100 lungs to a firm supplying organs for research to medical schools. At the time, brains could sold for about $80, hearts for $95, lungs for $60.
After families signed paperwork with Laurieanne, the bodies of their loved ones were sent to the Altadena crematorium and housed in an elaborate refrigeration facility that Sconce called the “cold room,” where he and his cash-paid team—including a medical student he recruited from a tissue bank—slipped rings off fingers and harvested organs to sell on the black market. They pulled out eyeballs, plopping them unceremoniously into Coke cans and paper towels. A crowbar cracked open sternums in order to access organs. A former employee testified that Sconce used a flathead screwdriver to pry open jaws to get to the gold fillings, a process he called “making the pliers sing” and “popping chops.” Sconce sold this gold to a company called Gold, Gold, Gold—helmed by one of his friends—netting upwards of $6,000 a month.
After Sconce took what he wanted from cadavers, he overloaded the old Altadena crematorium, whose stone, single-body retorts had been built at the turn of the century. Meant to fit one body at a time, Sconce and his associates often filled the retorts with up to 18 bodies. After burning, cremains were sifted together according to weight in what was called the “ash palace,” a dusty room that was also filled with trash cans full of human fat and spare dental parts such as bridges or dentures.
Sconce burned bodies 24 hours a day, churning out so much black smoke that neighbors routinely called the fire department, thinking the mortuary was on fire. “Literally flames and whatnot would be coming out of their chimney,” says Jay Brown, whose family’s mortuary was next to the Lamb crematory. On the morning of Sunday, November 23, 1986, the Altadena crematorium burned down after employees tried cramming in a record 38 bodies at once. “I was driving home from church and the fire department was there,” explains Brown. “I could see smoke from a mile and a half away.”
Luckily, Sconce had already scouted a second crematory location, and he quickly reassembled his operation in a corrugated metal warehouse in Hesperia, a way-out desert town populated mostly by veterans and retirees, located in San Bernardino County, some 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Sconce told locals he ran a ceramics studio, and claimed he was making tiles for space shuttles for NASA under a company he called Oscar Ceramics. To make the company seem official, he and his cronies rigged up a telephone line that they attached directly to a nearby phone pole, stretching a long wire to a receiver on the dashboard of a car, from which they took calls. For two months, Sconce cremated bodies with diesel fuel in industrial-size ceramic kilns. At the peak of his business in 1986, according to state cemetery board reports, Sconce burned 8,000 bodies a year.
On January 20, 1987, Richard Wales, an air quality engineer with the San Bernardino Air Pollution Control District, called the Hesperia fire marshal and assistant fire chief, Wilbur Wentworth, and asked him to meet about the situation at Oscar Ceramics. Wales had received a call from a neighbor, a veteran of World War II, who complained about the smell of the smoke coming out of the factory. “Don’t tell me I don’t know what burning bodies smell like!” the man had reportedly yelled. “I was at the ovens at Auschwitz!” Wentworth, Wales, and investigators from California’s Cemetery and Funeral Boards drove over to Oscar Ceramics to investigate. At the warehouse, the soles of their shoes stuck to floors slick with human fluids, and when they pried open one of the hinged doors of Sconce’s kilns, the remains of a human foot fell out, engulfed in flames.
In May 1988, David Sconce, Jerry Sconce, and Laurieanne Lamb Sconce were together charged with 67 felony and misdemeanor counts, including, the Los Angeles Times reported, “illegally harvesting eyes, hearts, lungs, and brains for sale to a scientific supply company, conducting mass cremations, falsifying death certificates, and embezzling funeral trust account funds.” David was also charged separately with “assaulting three morticians who voiced suspicions about the family’s cremation operation.”
“It was horrific,” says Jay Brown. “For the following year we had about 1,500 to 2,000 people calling us to find out if Mountain View or the Lamb Family had cremated their loved ones.” The investigators’ findings at both Oscar Ceramics and Sconce’s former Glendora home, about a 30-minute drive east from Pasadena, led to a class-action lawsuit filed by the relatives of 5,000 deceased people against the Lamb Family Funeral Home and other funeral homes that used its services; the lawsuit was settled out of court in 1992 for $15.4 million.
The soles of their shoes stuck to floors slick with human fluids, and when they pried open one of the hinged doors of Sconce’s kilns, the remains of a human foot fell out, engulfed in flame.
As the Sconces awaited arraignment, the police made another morbid discovery. In May 1988, a pile of charred bones, teeth, and prosthetic devices was found in the crawl space beneath David Sconce’s former rental home in Glendora, where he had lived until early 1987. Furniture salesman Ed Shain, who rented the house after Sconce’s departure, discovered the remains while replacing the screen on the crawl space and called the authorities, who then spent two days filling two large boxes full of bones, dentures, bridges, bits of skull, pacemaker wires, and a soda can packed with molars. Sconce had bulldozed the front- and backyards of the house before leaving town, but he hadn’t completely covered his tracks.
On September 1, 1989, Sconce was sentenced to a five-year prison term after pleading guilty to 21 charges, including mutilating corpses, conducting mass cremations, and hiring hit men to attack the competing morticians Ron Hast, his partner Stephen Nimz, and Timothy Waters. In 1990, while Sconce was still in prison, new charges were brought against him for Waters’s death, but the case was ultimately dismissed after three separate toxicologists, including Dr. Fredric Rieders—who later testified in the O. J. Simpson case—could not agree if there was oleander poison in Waters’s blood. Due to various plea deals, Sconce would ultimately serve only two and a half years of his sentence. He was released in 1991.
In April 1992, five years after their arrest, Laurieanne and Jerry Sconce, now 55 and 58, retired and living penniless in Arizona, walked through the doors of the Pasadena Superior Court to stand trial for their part in the conspiracy—in particular, the forging of authorization forms to remove organs from the dead. “These acts were done by their son, David,” began Laurieanne’s defense attorney in his opening statement, describing the mass cremations and stealing of gold teeth. “It was done without their permission or knowledge. It’s resulted in a great tragedy for them, for a third-generation business and for the families of the deceased.” During the questioning, the couple threw their son under the bus, blaming him for the cremation conspiracy. Thirty-six charges had already been dismissed before the trial, and the couple was acquitted of three charges and a mistrial was declared for the other six. But two years later, 34 of the original charges were reinstated by a state appellate court, and in 1995 the Sconces convicted with ten counts between them of “unlawfully authorizing the removal of eyes, hearts, lungs, and brains from bodies prior to cremation,” reported the Los Angeles Times. They were each sentenced to three years and eight months in prison.
As for David Sconce, he would return again and again to court, with new charges and new parole violations. In 1994, he was found guilty of selling fake bus tickets in Arizona. In 1997, Sconce pleaded guilty to a 1989 charge of soliciting a hit man to murder a potential buyer of a rival funeral home, and was given the unusual sentence of lifetime probation in California. He violated this probation by moving to Montana without permission in 2006, and again by stealing a neighbor’s rifle in 2012. Charged with four felonies, he was extradited to California, and sentenced to 25 years to life. He is currently incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, and is eligible for parole in 2022.
The Lamb Family Funeral Home still stands on the corner of Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena. It was purchased by another funeral home, and then sat abandoned for years, and is today a showroom and storage space for a light bulb distributor. In the winter of 2018, the owners saw an opportunity for the second floor of the building. The floors were laid with new wood and a kitchen was added, with white granite countertops, a subzero fridge, and a wine cooler. The three bedrooms available for rent in the former funeral home were given walk-in closets, and the master bedroom outfitted with a freestanding soaking tub. The cost? Just $4,700 a month, a little more than the average cost of a cremation nowadays.