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Couple Blame Son in Funeral Home Scandal : Trial: Attorney tells jurors that violations did take place at family's Pasadena business. But he says former operators had no knowledge.

April 17, 1992|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The former operators of a respected Pasadena funeral home, who are on trial in a bizarre scandal that rocked their industry five years ago, are trying to shift the blame to their son.

Attorney Edward A. Rucker, representing Laurieanne Sconce, has told jurors that mass cremations, commingling of ashes and dental gold extractions did take place at the family's businesses. But, he said, "these acts were done by their son, David. 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."

Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, 55, and her husband, Jerry, 58, former operators of the Lamb Funeral Home, are standing trial on nine criminal charges alleging that they conducted mass cremations, mixed ashes and unlawfully removed gold teeth and other body parts.

The accusations, which surfaced in 1987, led to a new state law that allows crematory inspections on demand. It triggered a class-action lawsuit involving the families of 5,000 deceased people, which was settled this year.

The scandal also ensnared the couple's son, David, 36. He served about half of a five-year sentence after pleading guilty to 21 counts involving funeral home and crematory operations. Another allegation, that he murdered a rival mortician with poison, has been dropped.

The criminal trial of his parents, long delayed by complex legal disputes, began last week in Pasadena Superior Court. It is expected to continue for another month. The testimony is focusing attention again on the practices at the Lamb Funeral Home, founded by Laurieanne Sconce's grandfather, and its affiliated cremation and tissue procurement businesses.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Elliott Alhadeff said he will show that David Sconce did not engage in the illegal activities alone. "He operated with the assistance of his parents," Alhadeff said.

On Tuesday, he questioned a New Jersey woman, Rosemary Schmitz, who said she went to the Lamb Funeral Home on Sept. 18, 1986. Schmitz said she met with Laurieanne Sconce to make arrangements for her sister, Helen Turner of Pasadena, who had died the day before.

Asked if she had granted permission for removal of her sister's organs, Schmitz replied: "Absolutely not."

Later, Alhadeff read a transcript of 1987 testimony by Clarence Turner, the dead woman's husband. Turner, now deceased, said he had never met with Laurieanne Sconce, had made no arrangements at the funeral home and had not granted permission for removal of his wife's organs.

Alhadeff displayed an enlarged copy of a Coastal International Eye and Tissue Bank organ removal authorization form, carrying Clarence Turner's signature and dated Sept. 17, 1986--one day before Schmitz made arrangements at Lamb Funeral Home. According to his transcript, Turner never signed the form.

Edwin Lonnie Marshall, who worked as a technician at Coastal International during 1986, testified that the form authorized the staff to remove Helen Turner's heart, to be sold for medical research.

Marshall, who is an eye bank coordinator at UC Irvine Medical Center, said Coastal International was based at the Lamb Funeral Home during his first months with the firm. Marshall testified that David Sconce ran the tissue service.

The Turner consent form appeared to carry Laurieanne Sconce's signature as a witness. Marshall testified that Laurieanne Sconce regularly met with family members to obtain organ removal consent.

The prosecutor has accused Laurieanne Sconce of forging authorization forms to allow the removal of eyes and hearts without a family member's permission. She is facing nine criminal counts.

Three counts also target her husband. If convicted of all counts, Laurieanne Sconce faces up to six years in prison, and Jerry Sconce faces up to five years, Alhadeff said.

While awaiting a verdict, the two have remained free on their own recognizance.

The Sconces have been described as unlikely candidates to be at the center of such allegations. While operating the funeral home, Jerry Sconce served as a Bible school football coach, and his wife was a church organist.

The family's legal troubles began in early 1987, when investigators found human remains at a remote Hesperia business that was licensed as a ceramics factory. Authorities said the site was a cremation center run by David Sconce.

Investigators alleged that the Sconce family was seeking to dominate the cremation industry, and kept its prices low by illegally cremating bodies together and removing gold teeth and organs for sale.

By 1986, the family's cremation business, run by David Sconce, was processing 8,000 bodies a year--far more than any other such business in California, authorities said.

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