True Crime: The Case of The Ghoulish California Crematorium Owner
The scandal that surrounded David Sconce back in the late 1980s has all of the hallmarks of a riveting true crime story: greed, corruption, theft, fraud, murder, strange plot twists, all centered around a fourth-generation family business. But what really sets this story apart is the thousands of dead bodies involved. No matter how weird you think a story about the funeral business could be, prepare to be surprised … and pretty grossed out.
The Family Business
David Sconce originally wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a football player. His dad, Jerry, had played for the University of California, Santa Barbara, and later became the head coach at Azusa Pacific College, where David enrolled in 1974. David didn’t last long in college, dropped out after his team’s losing streak started hurting his prospects. But that’s maybe not that surprising for a team that used nepotism as a recruitment tool.
After dropping out of college, David spent a few years working various jobs and mostly being a shiftless layabout. He had even tried to enlist in the police academy, but failed to get in when the vision test showed him to be colorblind. In 1982, his parents encouraged him to go back to school, become an embalmer and join the family business on his mother’s side: Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena, founded by David’s great-grandfather back in 1929.
David wasn’t too excited about embalming school, but he did see an opportunity to make money in the cremation business. In late 1982, he used the industry contacts and the two crematory furnaces from his family’s funeral home business to start his own company, Coastal Cremations Inc., even though he didn’t officially file the paperwork on the business until two years later. David Sconce preferring to burn things into oblivion rather than preserve them would turn out to be an odd bit of foreshadowing for both the company and his family legacy.
His Horrific Business Model
David’s big idea for generating business for Coastal Cremations Inc. was to offer the service for less than half what was considered the industry standard for the time. For just $55 per body, he was now offering lower prices than every other crematorium in the region, if not the entire country. You would think that any handling of human remains being offered at Burlington Coat Factory-level discounts would be an immediate red flag, but sadly no. Business started booming!
According to state law, standard procedure for cremating a dead body was that only one body could be burned at a time, a process that took several hours per body. The body would be burned, then wait for the oven to cool, collect the ashes, then the oven would have to be cleaned before moving on to the next one. By 1985, Coastal Cremations was burning over 8,000 bodies a year, they only had two furnaces at their location in Altadena, and those ovens were running upwards of 18 hours a day. We’ll spare you from doing the math. They were, for lack of a better term, working in bulk.
Sconce’s employees were cremating anywhere from five to eighteen bodies at a time … and that’s per furnace. They would then dump all of the ashes together in huge barrels. When it came time to collect the ashes for the families, employees were instructed to collect 3.5 to 5 pounds for female remains and 5 to 7 pounds for male.
But wait, it somehow gets worse! On November 23, 1986, the crematorium caught fire after two employees tried to break the company record by putting nineteen bodies in each furnace. It is believed that the fire was the result of the bodies being packed in there so tight that it clogged the chimney. Bear in mind that the inside of these furnaces were only slightly larger than a phone booth, and the world record for the number of live people stuffed into one of those is only fourteen.
So, the fire meant they were out of business, right? This nightmare was finally over, right?!? Not yet. David Sconce secretly set up a new crematorium about 70 miles away in a warehouse in Hesperia, California. He had to operate the new business under the license of a ceramics factory, because that’s what the massive diesel fueled kilns he was using were designed for. Another part of his cover story was that they were using the ovens to make heat shield tiles for the Space Shuttle.
Bodies were cremated there for two months until December 23, 1986 when a neighbor called in an air quality complaint over all of the horrible smoke the furnaces were belching out 24/7. When the neighbor was told it was just a ceramics factory, he shouted, “Don’t tell me I don’t know what burning bodies smell like! I was at the ovens at Auschwitz!”
When Assistant Fire Chief Will Wentworth went to investigate the facility, he found everything inside covered in soot, and trash cans filled to the brim with ashes and prosthetic devices. Just in case the universe hadn’t made it obvious enough what was really happening in that warehouse, when Wentworth opened one of the kilns, a human foot fell out… still burning.
His Side Hustles Were Even Worse
As if David Sconce’s special place in hell wasn’t already bought and paid for, he found other sick ways to squeeze every nickel out of the corpses. Many of his employees, nearly all of whom were paid under the table, later told authorities of Sconce gleefully pulling gold fillings out of the mouths of the bodies. He even used such colorful terms for this act as “popping chops” and “making the pliers sing.” He’d then sell the gold to a jeweler buddy of his, which reportedly netted him an additional $6,000 a month.
In July of 1986, David (along with his parents) created a new side business: Coastal International Eye and Tissue Bank. Tissue donations required the consent of the next of kin, so David’s mother Laurieanne was in charge of getting the deceased’s family members to sign the proper paperwork … or sometimes trick them into signing the paperwork … and if they refused, hell, they’d just forge the signatures anyway. It’s not like Sconce knew where or even how to draw the line on depravity at this point.
The tissue harvesting itself was, unsurprisingly, not handled delicately. Sconce and his employees used crowbars, screwdrivers, pliers, or any other common hardware tool they had handy to extract the organs they planned to sell. In court, it was revealed that over a three-month period, they had sold 136 brains (at about $80 each), 145 hearts ($95 each), and 100 lungs ($60 each) for use in medical schools. There was no information about how much more money they had made selling parts on the black market, because people in those circles aren’t that keen on paper trails. (And lest you think stuff like this was confined to the barbaric past, uh, we have bad news.
Just … How?
How in the world did David Sconce manage to get away with this for so long? Well, for one, Sconce had no reason to fear any serious repercussions. The risk of getting busted was low on account that California only had two state inspectors overseeing the funeral and cremation industry at the time.
Sure, the inspectors had their suspicions that something wasn’t right, but every time they tried to inspect the facility, they were turned away and told to come back with a warrant, which was hard to acquire because all of Coastal Cremations’ (forged) paperwork made everything appear legit. Honestly, if it weren’t for one Holocaust survivor’s sense memory and a call to the Air Quality Control hotline, there’s no telling how much longer and further David Sconce would’ve taken this scam.
Another reason: The low, low prices weren't all that was helping Sconce corner the SoCal cremation market. He employed many of his old football buddies as muscle, not just to transport and handle the dead bodies, but also to intimidate funeral home directors into doing business with Coastal Cremations and scare/beat the crap out of anyone who could potentially expose their misdeeds. For years, thousands of bereaved family members dealing with funeral plans for their loved ones had no idea that a Scorsese movie was taking place behind the scenes.
When the editor of a mortuary industry newsletter started asking too many questions about the company’s business practices, Sconce sent two of his “boys” over to the man’s house dressed as policemen. They then attacked the man and threw jalapeno sauce and ammonia into his eyes. One of the attackers later pleaded guilty to the assault and testified that Sconce paid him to do it, but there’s no record of him explaining what the hell kind of message he was trying to send with the jalapeno sauce.
In February of 1985, Sconce sent another one of his thugs, this time an 245-pound ex-football player, to beat up a rival crematorium owner Timothy Waters, who had been threatening to spill all of the tea on Sconce’s operation. Two months later, Waters was dead, presumably of a heart attack. The autopsy report found traces of the heart medication digoxin in his bloodstream, only Waters was not on any heart medication. Cue dramatic organ music.
However, one substance that closely mimics the effects of digoxin is oleander, a poisonous tree commonly found in California. During David Sconce’s trial for the mass cremations and corpse mutilations in 1989, one of his associates testified that Sconce had bragged about slipping something into Waters’ drink at a restaurant shortly before he died. This led the state to charge Sconce with poisoning Waters the following year, but those charges were dropped after multiple experts failed to agree on whether or not oleander was actually present in Waters’ system. Reasonable doubt can be a real dick punch sometimes.
Verdicts And Aftermath
David’s parents, Jerry and Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, were convicted in 1995 on ten counts each of “unlawfully authorizing the removal of eyes, hearts, lungs, and brains from bodies prior to cremation.” They were each sentenced to three years and eight months in prison, and were left penniless after settling a $15.4 million lawsuit from the victims’ families. They had initially faced 67 charges total, including charges relating to the mass cremations, but they escaped most of those counts after throwing David completely under the bus and then throwing that bus under a bigger bus.
David Sconce pleaded guilty to 21 charges of conducting mass cremations, mutilating corpses, and the aforementioned assaults-for-hire. He was sentenced to five years in prison and released in 1991 after serving two and a half years. He also pleaded guilty to soliciting a hit man to murder another rival, and was given the bizarre sentence of lifetime probation, a legal ruling many scholars might refer to as “a pretty valid argument for burning this goddamn place to the ground.”
In 2006, Sconce violated his probation by selling forged bus tickets in Arizona, moving to Montana without permission, and stealing/pawning a neighbor’s rifle. Either those crimes were all unrelated to each other, or that was one hell of a road trip. After being extradited back to California, he was sentenced to 25 to life and will be eligible for parole in 2022, just in time to appear on a new show we’re pitching called Where Are They Now? (No, Seriously. This Guy Might Be Up To Something).
The impact David Sconce left on the funeral business is still being felt today. California passed new laws (and may have inspired other states to follow suit) that expanded the resources for state inspectors and authorized them to be able to inspect these facilities on demand. That was a great step towards preventing another disaster like this from ever happening again, or at the very least ensuring it would be detected long before it could even remotely get this bad. Perhaps David Sconce’s most effective legacy in the funeral industry is being the boogeyman; the kind of monster that no funeral home director would ever want to be compared to. Better run your business honestly, because you don’t want the media to mention you alongside that guy!
When Dan Fritschie isn’t reminding everyone that monsters still exist in this world, he can occasionally be seen performing stand-up comedy somewhere. You can find him being mistaken on Google Search for a hockey player whose name is one letter off from his, or you can find him on Twitter.