Oleander is a familiar sight to Southern Californians. A dark green shrub with pink, red or white flowers, it brightens up freeway landscapes and sprouts gaily in suburban back yards.
What's lesser-known is that every inch of this photogenic plant harbors a hard-to-detect and potentially fatal poison for which there is no sure antidote.
Kurt Saxon knows. He wrote about the lethal properties of oleander in a sinister 1971 book called "The Poor Man's James Bond." The self-published text, which law enforcement officials have long deplored, tells readers how to kill people, commit arson and build bombs.
Earlier this year, both the ancient plant and the atomic-age book came under new scrutiny after witnesses at a preliminary hearing testified that Pasadena funeral home operator David Sconce said he poisoned Burbank mortician Timothy Waters.
Until May, when toxicological tests turned up traces of oleander in Waters' blood and tissue, it had been thought that the 24-year-old mortician--who weighed more than 300 pounds and died April 8, 1985, at Camarillo's Pleasant Valley Hospital--perished of natural causes brought on by obesity.
The Ventura County district attorney's office is reviewing the new evidence but has not determined whether to charge the 32-year-old Sconce in Waters' death. Sconce is awaiting trial in Pasadena Superior Court along with his parents, Jerry and Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, on 67 felony and misdemeanor charges regarding the operation of Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena.
The charges range from mutilating corpses to selling body parts. David Sconce also faces charges of soliciting the murders of his grandparents and of a deputy district attorney who was the prosecutor in the preliminary hearing. The Sconces have denied all the charges against them.
Nonetheless, the revelation of death by poisoning sent coroners, prosecutors and police investigators scurrying to learn more about the 12 or so known cases of oleander poisoning and to obtain copies of "The Poor Man's James Bond," which is not widely available in Los Angeles area libraries or bookstores but is stocked in some survivalist shops.
It also raised concerns that texts such as Saxon's could prove dangerous in the hands of violent, mentally unstable individuals and sparked debate on censorship vs. freedom of the press.
Neil Livingstone, a Georgetown University professor who wrote "The War Against Terrorism," called Saxon's book "an atrocious piece of literature that serves no public interest." He wants it banned.
"Kurt's books teach people how to kill cops and teach children how to blow themselves up," he added. "I don't think the First Amendment ought to protect you if you write a book on how to murder someone."
Law enforcement officials dub books such as Saxon's "mayhem manuals" and say they often find such texts when they raid illegal explosives labs, drug labs and terrorist hide-outs. Although it is difficult to tie violent incidents directly to the books, police psychologists say the manuals are dangerous because they encourage disturbed people to act out paranoid rage and murder fantasies.
Lt. Don Beasley, who heads the Los Angeles Police Department's explosives squad, says criminals often photocopy and pass around pages of "The Poor Man's James Bond" and "The Anarchist Cookbook," another such tome that was popular in the 1960s.
The police say danger also arises because the books occasionally print inaccurate chemical formulas or do not indicate proper safety procedures. Livingstone said this is especially true of "The Poor Man's James Bond."
"We get an average of six kids a year who blow themselves up, and when we get to their house, we always find these manuals," said San Diego County Sheriff's Sgt. Conrad Grayson of the bomb and arson squad.
Last year, the squad raided an Escondido house after a 17-year-old boy blew himself up with homemade explosives. Ten pipe bombs and a how-to text titled "Improvised Munitions Black Book" were found.
Even those most staunchly committed to press freedom and the public's right to bear arms recoil at some aspects of Saxon's book, which includes a chatty section on how to test homemade poison concoctions on homeless winos.
"That's pretty sick," said Jim Graves, managing editor of Soldier of Fortune, the guns-and-adventure magazine.
Saxon claims his book has sold 60,000 copies, many of them via mail order. Few mainstream bookstores stock "The Poor Man's James Bond"; some bookshop owners interviewed say they don't want it on their shelves.
"I'm torn two ways. It's a free speech issue on one hand and deplorable on the other," said Dosier Hammond, the former president of the Southern California Booksellers' Assn. and the trade-book manager at the UCLA student bookstore, which does not carry the book.
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