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A Mortuary Tangled in the Macabre : In a scandal that has rocked the state's funeral industry, three members of an All-American family face trial in Pasadena in a case that promises to tell a ghoulish : tale of organ theft and--perhaps--homicide.

December 30, 1988|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

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.

Old-Style Mortuary

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.

Timely Takeover

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.

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