The Dark Deeds of David Wayne Sconce and the Lamb Funeral Home Scandal


In their quiet moments of farewell, families entrust morticians with their loved ones, expecting care, respect and dignity. 

These professionals, often considered pillars of support in times of grief, play crucial roles in the mourning process. Beneath the surface of this trusted profession, however, lies a troubling reality. 

Some in the funeral industry, not immune to the vices of fraud and greed, see the vulnerability of grieving families as an opportunity for exploitation. 

In fact, some have called the industry a predatory one, squeezing upsold extravagances from vulnerable families who can’t afford them during their time of grief.

It’s no wonder the funeral market has gotten a bad name. In 1963 when Jessica Mitford’s revealing book, “American Way of Death” was published, the average funeral in the United States cost about $750, which translates to about $7,500 in 2024.

Funeral costs have risen far beyond the already steep rate of inflation, however. Today, the average funeral cost can be as high as $12,000 or more. 

Meanwhile, the cost of a funeral with cremation costs between $6,000 and $7,000.

With the rising costs of funeral services, the financial burden on mourning families has become a pressing concern, making them susceptible to deceit at a time when their judgment is clouded.

It was in this context of trust and vulnerability that David Wayne Sconce’s crimes occurred. Sconce’s saga, however, was far darker than mere exploitation. He abused the trust placed in him by clientele in a string of crimes that spanned decades.

The Family Business

Ironically, Sconce was born into the funeral industry. His great-grandfather established Pasadena Calif.’s  Lamb Funeral Home in 1929, and it had remained a family business ever since. Lamb also opened the Pasadena Crematorium.

By the time Sconce entered the picture, his mother Laurieanne Lamb Sconce and father Jerry Sconce were operating Lamb Funeral Home. David Sconce got his embalming license to work in the family business in 1982 before branching out and starting his own crematory, Coastal Cremations, Inc.

Sconce’s business plan involved advertising his crematory services to funeral homes that didn’t have access to their own crematoriums. Sconce offered his services for half of the industry standard cost – just $55 per body, including transport to and from the crematorium.

How was Sconce able to offer his services for such a discounted price? The answer is disturbing in the very least.

Unraveling a Scandal

The first hint of a scandal occurred in 1987 when the local fire department received an unsettling phone call. The caller reported dark clouds of smoke emitting from Oscar’s Ceramics Factory, and a smell the World War II veteran recalled as burning flesh. 

It didn’t take long for the fire department to discover Oscar’s Ceramics wasn’t manufacturing pottery at all, it was being used by Coastal Cremations to supplement its primary furnaces. Sconce was, however, illegally operating the business using a ceramics factory license.

Business had been so booming – by 1985 Sconce was cremating as many as 8,000 bodies each year – that the Pasadena Crematorium’s dual furnaces were operating 18 hours a day… and still couldn’t accommodate the volume of orders. 

The ceramics factory, too, couldn’t accommodate the influx of cremation requests – at least not legally. While California law demands cremations can only occur one body at a time, Sconce’s business flaunted the law and routinely conducted mass cremations. 

Employees later testified that they typically cremated about nine corpses at a time, but sometimes competed against one another to try and cram the most bodies – as many as 15 even – into a furnace together. 

Fire inspectors on the scene were horrified at what they found inside the makeshift crematorium. Upon opening one of the furnaces, a burning human foot immediately fell to the floor. Barrels of ashes were scattered about.

What happened to those barrels of ashes? Employees later testified they were instructed to scoop appropriate amounts from the barrels – specific weights for males and another amount for females.

Disrespecting the deceased and cremating more bodies than allowed by law was the very tip of the iceberg for Sconce’s criminal acts. As his business was investigated, more shady tactics were brought to light – particularly the theft of human remains.

Standard operating practice for Coastal Cremations involved inspecting every body for gold fillings. 

“Make the pliers sing,” an employee recalled Sconce instructing. The metal would later be melted down and sold to pawn shops. If the jaw was locked, Sconce had it opened using a screwdriver or even a crow bar. 

 

The scandal, however, doesn’t even end there. 

In 1986, Sconce and his parents launched a joint venture, Coastal International Eye and Tissue Bank, through which they would sell body parts obtained from the corpses they are paid to respect.

How were they able to profit from human tissues when California law requires signed consent form the next of kin? By forging the authorizations, of course! 

Over one 3-month period, Sconce and his team absconded 136 brains, 145 hearts and 100 lungs for use in medical schools. In one case, according to prosecutors, a family was prevented from viewing its loved one’s body because unbeknownst to them the eyes had already been taken.

While it wasn’t legal to sell the tissues outright, the company instead was paid for extraction and handling. 

Ultimately, the Lamb Funeral Home case led to a massive lawsuit involving 100 mortuaries that contracted with the Sconce and company  for cremations. The $15.5 million suit in 1991 involved 20,000 relatives of people cremated by the funeral home.

Sconce also pled guilty to 21 counts related to the illegal crematory operation in exchange for a 5 year sentence. It wasn’t his first time afoul the law, however.

Conspiracies to Silence Competitors

Think Sconce couldn’t sink lower than disrespecting and robbing the dead? Think again.

At the same time he was operating an illegal crematory operation, Sconce was taking action to protect his profitable venture. 

Competitors started taking note of Sconce’s prolific business, not only because of the bargain basement prices he charged, but also due to the volume he was able to accommodate. 

In 1984, Ron Hast, who published “Mortuary Management,” an industry newsletter, threatened to expose Sconce and his parents for performing multiple cremations. He wanted Laurieanne Sconce to state in writing that her cremations were done individually.

David Sconce, however, couldn’t permit such an oath to occur. He said he was going to have his “boys” pay the editor a visit.

Hast later recalled that he and a friend were attacked by two men posing as policemen, who threw ammonia and jalapeno sauce in their eyes. 

One of David’s “boys” later pled guilty to beating Hast, testifying that Sconce paid him $700 or $800 for the assault.

While assault is far from murder, Sconce’s crime spree wasn’t over. 

Tim Waters was a Burbank mortician with a reputation for honesty. However, he was unpopular among competitors in the cremation market because he aggressively took business away from them. 

Waters didn’t have his own cremation service or funeral home. Instead, he acted as a middle man, collecting bodies, taking them to crematorium and returning them. 

Waters spread rumors that the Sconces were cremating more than one body at a time. In 1985, Waters was attacked by a man who eventually testified that Sconce commissioned the assault and told him to make it look like a robbery, so he also stole Waters’ jewelry.

Two months later, however, after falling ill, Waters died of what was assumed to be a heart attack. It was only later that police began looking into the death… after Sconce was heard bragging about poisoning him. 

A Sconce employee later confessed that he had dropped something into Waters’ drink at a restaurant. The Ventura County coroner’s office re-examined tissues saved from Waters’ original autopsy, and it changed the cause of death to poisoning by oleander. 

As a result of these acts, conspiracy and assault charges were added to the litany of cremation-related charges Sconce and the Lamb Funeral Home faced in 1988. 

Charges, however, were later dropped when the judge found Sconce had attempted to withdraw from the conspiracy.

While the initial charges might have been levied in conjunction with the funeral business-related infractions, resulting in the same 5-year prison sentence, they didn’t spell the end of Sconce’s crime spree. In fact, his crimes would only escalate.

News Chronicle, April 5, 1991

Conspiracy to Commit Murder

If you thought Sconce’s crimes related only to protecting his illegal crematory business, you’d be mistaken. In fact, he would face serious charges before completing his 5-year prison sentence.

Indeed, prosecutors filed two new charges against Sconce, alleging he solicited the murder of Elie Estephan, owner of the Cremation Society of California. 

Who was Estaphan, and why did Sconce want him killed? 

Estephan was married to Cindy Strunk, daughter of a competitor funeral home. When the pair separated, Strunk began to date Sconce’s brother-in-law. 

During Strunk’s divorce proceedings, it was revealed that she was the beneficiary of a $250,000 life insurance policy on Estephan. In an effort to grab a chunk of that windfall, Sconce offered an employee $10,000 to murder Estephan. Fortunately for all involved, this murder never occurred. 

Because Sconce was still facing his other charges, he eventually was offered lifetime parole if he pled guilty to the latest conspiracy charge.

Later Legal Repercussions

Sconce was released from prison after serving just 2 ½ of his 5-year sentence. One might think he would be eager to stay under the radar – and stay out of prison. After all, Sconce still faced conspiracy charges, which ultimately led to lifetime probation in 1997, an unusual sentence in California.

After release, Sconce kept in touch with his parole office by mail, moving to multiple states including Nevada, Arizona and Montana. 

Eventually, however, Sconce must have let his guard down, because in 1994 he pled guilty to selling forged bus tickets while he was working as a bus driver in Arizona. He was again sentenced to a 5-year prison term for that charge.

Sconce ultimately ended up in Montana, where he received permission to move while caring for his ailing spouse. 

Sconce popped back up in the news in 2008, when he filed a complaint in federal court, alleging the Montana director of the Interstate Commission for Adult Offender Supervision violated his civil rights by listing him as a violent offender. 

This status, Sconce claimed, prevented him from obtaining employment as a school bus driver, work he said he’d done in three states while on probation

By 2011, Sconce was back in court for a firearms charge. 

The former mortician had “borrowed” a gun from a neighbor, and instead of returning it he tried to sell it at a pawn shop.

Because the firearms charge was a federal offense, it triggered an allegation that Sconce violated the lifetime probation term he had received in Los Angeles County. He was sentenced once again to 5 years in prison for the firearms charge.

Sconce wasn’t off the hook yet, however. The judge who had ordered lifetime probation for Sconce’s California crimes had warned of Sconce’s last chance. If he appeared again, it would be a 25-to-life sentence, and that’s what the ex-cremator received. 

As expected, prosecutors requested the full lifetime sentence in connection with the conspiracy to murder Estephan more than 20 years prior. Finally, the career criminal was behind bars. 

“Anyone who threatens his family or his business is in his bull’s eye target,” said court reporter Kathy Braidhill, who wrote a book, “Chop Shop” about Sconce’s illegal exploits.

“He had hired individuals to beat (rival mortician) Ron Hast and his companion because he threatened to tell about the multiple cremations. They were beaten bloody,” Braidhill told NBC Montana.

Where is Sonce today? He was released on parole in early 2023. With any luck, it’s the last anyone hears of him any time soon.

 

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Samantha Lile Samantha Lile is a staff writer for Small Business Trends as well as freelance writer and journalist who contributes to a variety of web publications from her home office in the heart of the Ozarks.

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