For sixty years, families in Southern California trusted the Sconce-owned Lamb Funeral Home with their loved ones’ remains. That trust was betrayed in an extraordinary, horrifying fashion, as it was discovered that the family, seeing an opportunity, had been stealing gold fillings and harvesting the organs of the newly deceased, hiding the evidence by burning the bodies in their crematorium.
When the shocking acts came to light, a trial brought every gruesome detail to the forefront, and Ken Englade has—with even-handed, clear-eyed reporting—chronicled every chilling detail.
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David Sconce was in love.
The object of the thirty-year-old's affection was not a woman. He already had a woman. It was a town. And a most unlikely one at that.
It would have been perfectly understandable if David had fallen in love with any number of towns in Southern California, which, after all, is considered to be paradise by just about everyone. Verily, places like San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, Ventura, and Santa Barbara are eminently lovable, bearing little resemblance to the icebound bedroom communities of the Midwest or the Northeast, the rain-soaked towns of the Northwest, or the humidity-draped communities of the Deep South. But, just as all wine is grape juice but not all grape juice is wine, all of Southern California is not Santa Barbara. Take Hesperia for instance, which hardly anyone wants to do.
Definitely not your basic slice of Southern California Eden, Hesperia might as well be in the Persian Gulf. Unlike its more glamorous and infinitely more attractive neighbors, Hesperia is not on any tourist's must-see agenda. It has no beautiful harbor or gently curving beach to recommend it. Nor does it have a zoo, a eucalyptus grove, a lake, or a hillside carpeted with bright flowers. It doesn't have a skyscraper, an adobe-walled mission, a film studio, or a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building. It doesn't even boast a cloistered public garden. What it does have, situated as it is on the floor of the southwestern Mojave Desert, dozens of miles from nowhere, are thousands of weirdly shaped Joshua trees, a string of ugly power pylons, mounds of dirt generously referred to as the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, and a lot of cloudless, blazing sky.
Hesperia's principal and virtually singular attributes are sunshine, open space, and isolation, which are not unsubstantial qualities if those are the ones being sought. For many, however, they are not.
But Hesperia was exactly what David Sconce had been looking for. Where others saw brown, featureless desert, David saw green, the green of crisp currency. A century and three decades earlier, the Forty-niners and their cousins shunned the area because it yielded no gold. But David found an abundance of gold there, piles of fingernail-sized nuggets of the bright yellow material he drolly referred to by its chemical symbol, AU. The unimaginative saw Hesperia as a dead end; David saw it as a gateway to considerable and attainable riches, a place of virtually unlimited potential.
From the beginning, David was delighted with the town. He clasped it to his bosom with the enthusiasm of a handsome young husband embracing his homely but very rich wife. Unfortunately, it was a marriage that both the bride and the groom would come to regret. But that was later.
When David Sconce, with his wide, easy smile, blond, curly hair, Paul Newman-blue eyes, and broad, solid shoulders — weightlifter's shoulders with the arms and chest to go along — appeared in Hesperia in the sizzling summer of 1986, he was considered a remarkable catch for the community.
Always a fast-talker, he told anyone who would listen that he was a young businessman trying to make his fortune by investing in the future. And he was universally believed. After all, he was a personable guy. David could turn on the charm and appear as genuine as a newly-mined diamond. He had a line of patter that most salesmen would envy, and an active sense of humor, one that his friends called "quick" and his detractors "twisted." But everybody has a few enemies. At the time, David had no detractors in Hesperia.
David told Hesperians that he had been searching throughout Southern California for a location for a small manufacturing plant he planned to build. He was, he said, a manufacturer of heat-resistant tiles for the space shuttles, those little rectangles of ceramic material that cover the spacecraft like scales on a fish. After a lot of looking, he had decided that Hesperia was the place where he wanted to locate his production facility. Specifically, he had his eye on a site on Darwin Road in the community's industrial area, an isolated spot on an unpaved track in a neighborhood of auto and truck repair shops and salvage yards.
In October 1986 he secured a building permit from the city and erected a plain-looking oversized metal shed — his basic facility — which he surrounded with a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The only way to enter the site was through a gate secured by a sturdy padlock. The building itself was empty except for David's custom-made equipment: two industrial-sized kilns, which David said he needed to bake the space shuttle tiles. He christened the new business Oscar's Ceramics, naming it after his father-in-law.
That autumn Oscar's Ceramics went into production. But it wasn't making ceramic tiles.
At first no one suspected that David was anything but what he portrayed himself to be: a handsome, pleasant, bright and ambitious young entrepreneur, a Los Angeles yuppie who was intelligent enough to recognize Hesperia's potential.
He was reclusive, but in those reaches of Southern California, very few people find fault with a desire for privacy. And he may have seemed a bit of an oddball, as evidenced by the license plate on his white 1982 Corvette, the one which read I BRN 4U, the meaning of which escaped most people. But then California is the nation's capital for eccentrics and abstruse vanity plates.
David kept to himself, causing no trouble, attracting no unnecessary attention. There were a few workers who came and went as quietly as the owner, usually in station wagons or vans, which everyone believed were carrying cargo designed to support the tile manufacturing business. The fact that most of the manufacturing seemed to be done at night did not seem unusual; at least, it was not extraordinary enough to cause concern.
But there was one thing that was odd, and that was the smell. On occasion the odor that drifted down from Oscar's Ceramics was incredibly foul. At times a nauseating, black smoke belched from the company's chimney and settled over that section of the community like a cloud from hell. The smell was downright repulsive; sometimes it seemed strong enough to shrivel a yucca. When asked about this stench, David would shrug, flash his lopsided grin and apologize, explaining that he found it offensive, too, but it was one of the unfavorable by-products of his manufacturing process. "Nothing I can do about it," he'd say. "Sorry."
Almost all of those who operated businesses in the area grudgingly accepted David's explanation. They weren't happy with it — no one had told them that ceramics manufacturing was such a noisome process — but there appeared to be nothing they could do.
However, there was one neighbor who didn't buy David's story. To him, the smell portrayed something far more sinister. When he had been a young soldier in World War Two, his unit had been part of the American army spearhead into Germany. As a result, he had been among the first to arrive in some of Hitler's death camps. In some cases the ovens that had been used to incinerate the Jews were still burning, and that made a terrifying, lasting impression upon the young soldier. Seeing the emaciated bodies of the survivors and the stacks of corpses had struck him to his soul, but the thing he remembered most vividly about that experience was the smell. It was something he never forgot.
It came back to him years later, the first time he got a deep whiff of the smoke billowing from Oscar's Ceramics. David Sconce could say what he wanted, but the veteran was certain that the odor he smelled was not that of ceramics being produced; it was the stink of corpses being cremated.
Angrily, he began a search for someone who would believe he knew what he was talking about.
Actually, he was not alone. Others, although lacking the veteran's certainty, were nevertheless highly suspicious.
One of those with deep reservations about what was going on at Oscar's Ceramics was Wilbur W. Wentworth, Hesperia's fire marshal and assistant fire chief. A veteran of a different sort — a man with twenty years experience fighting and investigating fires — Wentworth was not unfamiliar with Oscar's Ceramics.
Since part of his job was to inspect new facilities, Wentworth had toured the facility in October 1986, soon after it was completed. In addition to the building permit, David also had to apply for a certificate to operate the kilns, and it was Wentworth's job to certify that the equipment met the community's fire safety standards.
At the time of his initial inspection, Wentworth found nothing to make him suspicious. But less than a month later he was back after one of the neighbors complained about the smoke belching from the small smokestack. As fire marshal, Wentworth had the authority to demand to inspect the facility, but both times he had been there he had not found it necessary to use pressure since David invited him inside and generally seemed anxious to cooperate. Other times when he went in response to complaints about the odor it had dissipated or the flames had died down by the time he arrived.
In December 1986, however, two days before Christmas, Wentworth made still another visit to Oscar's Ceramics — an unannounced one. Unlike the others, this one occurred in the middle of the night. It came about after a neighbor complained about flames leaping from the chimney.
Wentworth and three firemen answered the alarm, but when they arrived there was no one to let them in. Undeterred, they used a pair of bolt cutters on the padlock, forced their way into the building and doused the flames, which were pouring out of the kilns as well as the chimney. After the fire was extinguished, the firemen shut off the fuel supply to the ovens and prepared to leave. But as he was walking out the door, Wentworth detoured briefly to a corner of the room and peeked into one of several large metal barrels stacked there. The drum was filled with coarse ash and what appeared to be pieces of bone.
Curious, Wentworth pocketed some of the material. The next day, he took it to the sheriff's office and asked if they could have someone identify it. A few days later a deputy called him and told him not to worry: the bones were animal, not human. Wentworth was not convinced, but what could he do? The experts had spoken and he was in no position to contradict them.
However, his suspicions were aroused again a few weeks later. On January 20, 1987, less than a month after the fire, a man named Richard Wales telephoned. Identifying himself as an air quality engineer with the San Bernardino County Air Pollution Control District, Wales told Wentworth he would like to meet with him.
"What about?" Wentworth asked affably.
"About Oscar's Ceramics," Wales replied.
Not long before, a man had called Wales and told the engineer that he thought Oscar's Ceramics was being used as a crematorium.
Wales, caught totally off guard, was not sure how to respond.
"I don't believe so," he had stammered.
But the man refused to accept that answer.
"Don't tell me I don't know what burning bodies smell like," the caller had shouted. "I was at the ovens at Auschwitz and I know that smell."
Wales wrote him off as a crank, but he decided to keep an eye on Oscar's.
The engineer, in fact, had been receiving complaints about Oscar's Ceramics since mid-October, which was shortly after David set up his equipment. Soon after that first complaint, David let him onto the premises and, although Wales found no evidence of air pollution violations, he noticed a decidedly unpleasant odor. In his notebook he later wrote that the building smelled like "decaying material." He did not know how close he was to the truth.
Despite his visit and similar ones from Wentworth, David continued to operate as though he were above the law. Twice Wales cited David for operating a source of pollution without a permit. After the second citation, David grudgingly applied for a license. He was issued a temporary permit but it was scheduled to expire the day after the irate resident telephoned Wales.
There was, however, a more pressing reason than the expiration of David's permit that prompted Wales to get in touch with Wentworth: a third person had entered the equation, and what he had to say gave substance to Wales's and Wentworth's suspicions.
"It's not just me," Wales told the fire marshal. "There's someone else who has an interesting story to tell, someone I think you'd be interested in talking to."
Meeting in Wentworth's cramped office, Wales introduced himself and the two men who accompanied him. One was Joseph Westall, an investigator for the state Cemetery Board, and the other was an official from the state Funeral Board named John Gallagher. Westall did most of the talking, and what he had to say greatly troubled the fire marshal.
According to Westall, David Sconce, before he came to Hesperia, had been operating a licensed crematorium in Altadena, near Pasadena, in suburban Los Angeles about seventy miles from Hesperia. The previous autumn, about the time David began building Oscar's Ceramics, Westall had become skeptical about the Altadena operation because of the extraordinary number of cremations that David was reporting he performed there. Westall was sure something was fishy because his records showed the Altadena crematorium had only two ovens, and with only two ovens David could not possibly be performing as many cremations as he said he was, at least not legally.
Determined to get to the bottom of it, Westall paid an unannounced visit to the Altadena facility and asked to be allowed inside so he could inspect the operation. Since Westall had no legal authority to demand such an inspection, David turned him away. Frustrated, Westall went back to his office to ponder his next move.
Less than a month later, however, before Westall could take further action, a fire destroyed the Altadena facility. In one respect the news cheered Westall. If the Altadena crematorium was out of business, it meant a probable end to any possible illegal activity. The fact that Westall probably would never know exactly what had been occurring there was of little consequence. At least whatever had been happening would stop. Except it did not.
Not long after the fire at Altadena — beyond the point at which Westall would have expected to stop receiving cremation reports from David — he got another summary indicating that David was cremating just as many bodies as he had been before the fire. To Westall that meant only one thing: David had opened an illegal crematorium. Of that he had no doubt; David's own reports substantiated it. The big question was where. Although David continued to report cremations, he had not applied to the state for a permit to construct a new facility, and his reports did not indicate where he was operating from. Instinctively Westall knew that David was still in Southern California. Still, that was a big area and finding him would not be easy. But Westall resolved to try.
From another state agency he secured a list of all the air pollution control districts in that part of California. Methodically, one by one, he began calling them, asking each if a man named David Sconce had applied for a permit to operate any kind of facility in their area. When he got an affirmative answer from San Bernardino, he swung into action.CHAPTER 2
Early in January, Westall drove to Hesperia to see for himself what Oscar's Ceramics looked like. Parking across the road and far enough away to prevent arousing David's suspicion, Westall studied the facility. What he saw was an unremarkable metal building some forty feet wide and fifty feet long, painted a light green. There were no windows and only one door, which was closed, so Westall had no clue of what the interior might contain. He had no hope of getting a closer look because of the tall chain-link fence surrounding the building, a fence with only one gate, which was secured with a formidable-looking padlock.
What particularly interested him, however, was the chimney. There were no large smokestacks such as would be necessary for a proper crematorium. Under ordinary circumstances large smokestacks would be essential in controlling emissions. Instead, Oscar's was equipped with only one small pipe. That was curious, Westall told himself, since if the chimney he could see was the only exhaust, it meant that either David was not using the facility as a crematorium or, if he was, the smell would be horrendous because the smoke would not be properly filtered.
On the first day he was there, there were no cars parked inside the fence and no smoke coming from the chimney, which told Westall that he had not picked a time when cremations were in progress. He came back several times after that, always in the daytime, and each time he was there, Oscar's Ceramics appeared deserted. Yet David's reports of cremations kept coming in.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Family Business"
Copyright © 1992 Ken Englade.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: Oscar's Ceramics,
Part Two: The Family the Business,
Part Three: The Victims,
Part Four: The Road to Ventura,
Part Five: Accused of Murder,
Part Six: Full Circle,
An Abbreviated Chronology of Events,
More from Ken Englade,