A Ventura County Municipal Court judge on Wednesday ordered a murder trial for David Wayne Sconce, the former Pasadena undertaker accused of poisoning rival mortician Timothy Waters with oleander in 1985.
The 24-year-old Waters died April 8, 1985, in his parents' home in Camarillo after suffering a bout of nausea and diarrhea on Easter weekend, according to witnesses' testimony.
Prosecutors have alleged that Sconce, now 34, spiked Waters' drink with oleander at an unnamed restaurant. But they admitted Wednesday that they have no proof the men saw each other about the time of his death.
Despite that admission and new testimony that the grossly overweight Waters was already dying of an overworked heart, flabby liver and fluid-filled lungs, Judge John J. Hunter ordered Sconce to be arraigned in Superior Court on Oct. 24.
Dr. John Holloway, the former assistant Ventura County coroner who conducted an autopsy on Waters' body in 1985, testified Wednesday that Waters' weight of more than 270 pounds had weakened his organs, making him "more susceptible to what for others would be a nontoxic amount of oleander."
Holloway's testimony and the order for a trial came less than a week after Sconce finished a prison term for charges surrounding the illegal operation of his family's Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena. Sconce was jailed for pleading guilty in 1989 to charges that he conducted mass cremations and sold gold teeth he took from bodies, and that he paid two men to beat Waters for spreading word of the violations among Los Angeles County undertakers.
Sconce killed Waters to silence him, argued Deputy Dist. Atty. Harvey Giss, one of the Los Angeles County prosecutors assigned to the case because of their familiarity with Sconce's criminal record. Sconce also bragged about the killing to two men he once hired to beat up Waters and another rival, Giss said.
The conduct at the Lamb Funeral Home "was beyond unethical and beyond irreligious," Giss said during a closing argument that capped the 6 1/2-day preliminary hearing. "The defendant had a guilty mind. People knew his secrets. He feared very much being found out."
Giss cited testimony by Daniel Galambos and David Edwards, who said Sconce paid them to beat Waters and another rival in late 1984 and early 1985. The two testified that Sconce bragged that he killed Waters by slipping poison into his drink during a meal.
And Giss recalled Sconce's own admission to police that he had read "The Poor Man's James Bond," a 1972 book describing homemade weapons and hard-to-detect poisons such as oleander.
"I think this is very powerful and overwhelming circumstantial evidence," Giss said.
But court-appointed defense attorney Roger J. Diamond told the court that Galambos and Edwards got reduced sentences in the beatings in exchange for testifying against Sconce.
"The bottom line is this: There is not one witness who can place Mr. Sconce with Mr. Waters at any critical time prior to Mr. Waters' demise," Diamond said, pleading for Sconce's release. "It's such a gigantic hole that I believe it would be an abuse of discretion of this court to hold him to answer on the state of this evidence."
Hunter said, "I find that Timothy Waters, who appears to have been a dying man, was poisoned by oleander, and that is the cause of death in this case and the death was a homicide, and statements made by the defendant are sufficient to give this court reason to believe he is guilty of this crime. The defendant is held to answer."
Hunter denied a motion by Diamond to move the trial to Los Angeles. Diamond argued that the victim, defendant and witnesses all come from there.
Waters' mother, Mary Lou Waters, testified Wednesday that she would not try to stop Diamond from having her son's body exhumed for more toxicology tests.