VENTURA — Failure to find evidence of poison in the exhumed remains of a suspected murder victim will bring freedom today for funeral director David M. Sconce, accused of murdering a rival, prosecutors said.
Charges against Sconce will be dropped this morning in Ventura Superior Court because new tests have failed to show that oleander poisoning caused the death of mortician Timothy Waters, 24, at his mother's Camarillo home in 1985, Deputy Ventura County Dist. Atty. Kevin DeNoce said.
Prosecutors accused Sconce, a former Azusa Pacific College football player who lives in Glendora, of poisoning the 300-pound Waters to keep him from telling police that Sconce was conducting mass cremations and stealing gold from the teeth of corpses at his family's crematorium in Altadena.
The case, which went to trial Tuesday, was filed last year after informants told police that Sconce had bragged about the killing, and after a Pennsylvania toxicologist said he found evidence of oleander--the plant's poisonous juice--in Waters' remains.
However, DeNoce said late Wednesday that a New York chemist, conducting more sophisticated tests, reported finding no traces of oleander, oleandrin or the byproducts created when they break down.
"We feel that even though the first expert concluded that oleandrin was there, the discrepancy creates a reasonable doubt that warrants a dismissal of the charges," DeNoce said.
Sconce's lawyer, Roger Jon Diamond, could not be reached for comment.
In 1989, Sconce pleaded guilty in Los Angeles County to 21 criminal counts, mostly involving operations at the Pasadena Crematorium in Altadena and at the Sconce family's Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena.
He also pleaded guilty to hiring thugs to beat up three morticians at rival businesses and was sentenced to five years in prison. With time served and time credited for good behavior, Sconce, 35, was freed in October.
Waters' death was initially attributed to his weight. But after informants alleged that Sconce had bragged about killing Waters with a poisoned drink, the case was reopened.
A former employee at the Lamb Funeral Home said Sconce borrowed a book entitled "The Poor Man's James Bond" to learn how to poison a neighbor's dog. Among other things, the book describes oleander leaves as a hard-to-detect poison.
Earlier this year, defense attorney Diamond obtained a court order to exhume Waters' body for further tests. Diamond said he learned that Cornell University Prof. Jack Henion had the most sophisticated equipment available and sent him samples of Waters' remains.
Meanwhile, DeNoce became concerned about the legal and scientific validity of the earlier oleander tests conducted by the Pennsylvania toxicologist, Dr. Frederick Rieders. DeNoce and Diamond agreed to share the costs of the new tests, estimated at more than $20,000.
Henion reported last week that he had found no signs of oleandrin, but he said he was still looking for substances created when oleandrin breaks down in the body. After trial recessed Wednesday, Henion telephoned with his results: no evidence of poison.
Rieders, reached at his home near Philadelphia, said he could not account for the difference between his findings and Henion's.
"In science," Rieders said, "nothing is unquestionable."