Dorothea Puente: Killing for Profit
by Patrick Bellamy
A Gentle Man
Bert Montoya didn’t say much; in factt he seemed to prefer talking to trees. With his unkempt appearance and shabby clothes he was often labeled as a drunken bum. The irony was, Bert didn’t drink.
He could often be seen shuffling along the streets of Sacramento, California mumbling to himself. On the occasions that he did speak it was usually in Spanish, the language of his native Costa Rica but he had also been known to speak a little English. Bert spent his nights sleeping in a large shed in Front Street, which had been allocated to the V.O.A. (Volunteers of America) to be used to house and care for other homeless men who, unlike Bert, were mostly drunken drifters.
One volunteer aid worker, Judy Moise, was particularly taken with Bert’s gentle spirit and, realizing that he had no dependency on alcohol or drugs, set out to find him alternate accommodation, somewhere that he could be cared for. It took Judy almost a year to track down Bert’s official identification and social security number so that he could collect the benefit checks that he was entitled to. After contacting the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, she learned that Bert was born Alvaro José Rafael González Montoya on September 8, 1936 and had entered the U.S. legally in 1962 accompanied by his mother and sister.
With Bert’s identity established and his benefits in place, the next challenge for Judy was to find a suitable place for him to live, somewhere where his eccentricities would be tolerated and his needs met. The problem was solved when one of the other counselors suggested a boarding house on F Street that was run by a kindly widow who was experienced in the care of the homeless and was adept at dealing with the vagaries of the destitute and homeless.
On February 1, 1988, Judy and a friend arrived at 1426F Street, a blue and white, two-story Victorian house. An elderly woman with white hair and no teeth who introduced herself as Dorothea Puente met them at the door. After inviting them inside, the woman quickly apologized for her appearance explaining that she had ordered new dentures that weren’t quite ready. To Judy she seemed pleasant enough and appeared to run a clean and orderly house.
After a tour of the dwelling Puente offered them coffee and they raised the subject of Bert. Puente was more than happy to accept him and told the women that she was more than capable of ministering to his particular needs, as she was also Hispanic having originally come from Mexico. Two days later, Bert moved in.
Within weeks, Bert’s general condition and demeanor improved markedly. His hair was washed and combed, his nails clean and his clothes spotless. Under Puente’s supervision he began to take better care of himself and even resumed taking his anti-psychotic medication which made him more lucid and able to converse in whole sentences rather than his usual grunts and moans. To Judy, Dorothea Puente seemed to have a heart of gold. Not only had she accepted Bert into her house and cared for him, she had provided for him out of her own pocket for weeks until his social security payments had come through. Dorothea often went out and, on occasions, she took Bert with her so no one was surprised when on Thursday, March 31, 1988, she got him dressed and took him downtown. Their destination was the Social Security Administration building. After waiting her turn she patiently explained to a staff member that she was there on behalf of Mr. Montoya who was mentally retarded and, as such, was incapable of handling his own finances and wished her to be made payee for his benefits. Accepting her request as being quite reasonable, the staff member gave her a form to fill out on which she listed herself as Bert’s cousin. Bert’s mental disability was later confirmed by his psychiatrist as being “a psychosis which makes him non-participative in society and withdrawn - needing someone to watch out for him.” Before long, Puente’s application was approved and she became the recipient for $637 of Bert Montoya’s benefit each month, more than enough to take good care of him.
A Sweet Old Lady
Dorothea Helen Gray was born on January 9, 1929 in Redlands, San Bernardino County, California. Her parents were both drunks and spent what little money her father earned as a cotton-picker on cheap booze. From an early age she was abused by her parents and often had to scrounge for food. When she was four her father died. By the time she was six her mother was dead also and Dorothea was sent to an orphanage where she stayed until she was taken in by relatives in Fresno, California. Robbed of a “normal” childhood, Dorothea later created one for herself, telling anyone who would listen that she was one of eighteen children who had been born and raised in Mexico.
In 1946, she married for the first time but was widowed two years later when her husband died of a heart attack. Alone and in desperate need of money she tried forging checks. Eventually she was caught and sent to jail for a year but was paroled after six months. Soon after her release she fell pregnant to a man she hardly knew and gave birth to a baby girl which she gave up for adoption.
In 1952 she married a Swede named Axel Johanson. Her second husband prided himself on being tough and their fourteen years together were often peppered with violent brawls. Despite the turmoil, Dorothea thrived, only because she had developed a toughness of her own.
In 1960 she was arrested in a brothel. She claimed she was just visiting a friend but was given ninety days in Sacramento County Jail. Following her release she hit the streets and was picked up shortly after for vagrancy and given a further ninety days.
Although still married to Johanson, he was not prepared to support her so she attempted to fend for herself. As time wore on she became involved in various illegal activities that gradually became more serious and would probably have landed her in jail for a longer term had she not found work as a nurse’s aid, caring for the disabled and elderly in private homes. Soon after she began managing boarding houses.
In 1966, she divorced Johansen and married Robert Puente in Mexico City. The marriage was doomed from the start as Roberto, who was nineteen years younger than Dorothea, had trouble staying faithful to his new wife. Just before the end of the marriage two years later, Dorothea embarked on the biggest project of her career when she took control of a three-story, sixteen-bedroom care home at 2100F street. Built at the turn of the century, the house became a thriving business where Puente provided the best of care to the homeless and destitute. Although ruling her domain with a firm hand, Dorothea proved to be the consummate hostess, often throwing open her doors at Easter and Christmas to lavishly entertain, not only the poor and homeless, but also the social workers of the district whose endorsement would ensure her success.
While giving the outward appearance of providing the best of care to her charges, Dorothea was also involved in some mysterious activities. With the assistance of a man known only as Chief, a homeless drunk she had “adopted” and appointed as her handyman, Puente made many unusual changes around the house. She had Chief digging in the basement and carting away soil and rubbish in a wheelbarrow. Later it was covered with a concrete floor. Later still, a garage in the backyard was pulled down followed by more digging before another concrete “patio” slab took its place. Not long after, Chief disappeared without a trace.
In 1976, Puente married for the third time but again her choice of partner was less than desirable. Pedro Montalvo was a worthless lay about who became physically abusive when fuelled by alcohol, which was often. Unable to control him, she turned her attention to the care of her tenants and, although she provided them with the most basic of care, they were content.
Within months, Montalvo was gone and Puente consoled herself by spending time in bars looking for male company. She preferred older men, preferably those who were receiving benefits. They, in turn, were attracted to her snappy clothes and warm, caring manner. Her system was simple; she would win her victims over with her charms, steal their benefit checks and cash them by forging their signatures. The plan worked well for a while but eventually she was caught and charged with thirty-four counts of treasury fraud. Instead of curtailing her plans, her arrest was just a brief interruption as she continued to ply her trade while still on probation.
It was at this point that strange things began to occur at her boarding house. In April 1982, a new tenant arrived. Ruth Monroe was sixty-one when she moved in and was instantly overwhelmed by Puente's caring nature. Seventeen days later she was dead from an overdose of Codeine and Tylenol. Puente explained to the detectives investigating her death that Ruth had been deeply depressed over her terminally ill husband. The police accepted her story and determined Ruth had taken her own life.
Weeks later they were back, following up on allegations that Puente had been drugging men she met in bars and robbing them. One of the complainants was a seventy-four-year-old pensioner named Malcolm McKenzie. He told police that he had met Puente at a local bar called the Zebra Club. They had several drinks together after which he invited her back to his apartment. Soon after they arrived, however, he became dizzy and, although conscious, was unable to move. He could only sit and watch as Puente searched the house for valuables, taking his rare penny collection and a diamond ring that she forcefully removed from his finger.
On August 18, 1982, Puente went before the courts and was convicted on three charges of theft and sentenced to five years imprisonment. In a surprising decision, however, Judge Roger Warren refused to take into account other similar charges that had been made against her, a decision which almost certainly saved her from a much longer jail term.
Dorothea Puente was no stranger to prison and quickly adapted herself to the regimen of Sacramento County. She was a talker who constantly regaled the other inmates with stories of her exploits and achievements. On one occasion she broke the unspoken rule of life inside by telling a guard who was responsible for an attack on a fellow prisoner, an error of judgment that earned her a savage beating. As a result of the attack, she was transferred to protective custody. While in her new accommodation, she received a letter that was to change the direction of her life.
It was sent by a seventy-seven-year-old retiree named Everson Gillmouth who made a habit of writing letters to women in prison. Given Puente's name, he began corresponding with her on a regular basis from his home in Oregon. She responded in kind and an intimate relationship soon developed. For Puente, Everson Gillmouth was more than kind words and heart felt emotions, he was her ticket out of the cloistered world that she had built for herself. She wanted money and respectability and he had both. Everson, on the other hand, had become completely besotted by Dorothea to the point that, when she was released in September 1985 after just three years in prison, he was there to meet her in his red 1980 Ford pickup.
Also in attendance was her old friend, Ricardo Odorica, the owner of a boarding house at 1426F street where she took a room for just $200 a month. Following her release, the relationship with Everson developed rapidly and they were soon making wedding plans. She found him undemanding as a lover and more than willing to do her bidding. He opened a bank account in both their names and soon after she offered Odorica $600 a month to rent the whole house. Her dream of running her own boarding house had become a reality.
The Box in the River
In November 1985, Dorothea Puente hired a local handyman, Ismael Florez, to put up some wood paneling in her house. It was a good deal. For just $800 and the paneling job, Ismael had bought a red 1980 Ford pickup from her in good condition. Puente told him the truck had belonged to her boyfriend in Los Angeles who no longer had a need for it. Ismael was more than happy with the exchange so when Puente asked him to do one last job he was happy to oblige.
She needed a box built, she told him, to store books and other items. It had to be 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep. If he ever wondered about its strange dimensions, he never said a word and followed her instructions to the letter. The following day when he returned, the box had been filled, moved to an upstairs room and nailed shut. She needed just one last favor, to have it transported to a storage depot. Again he obliged and, with the help of a neighbor, loaded it onto his pickup.
When he left for the depot, Puente went with him for the ride. On the way to the depot, she abruptly changed her mind and had Ismael stop just off the Garden Highway in Sutter County and dump the box by the river bank. He questioned her decision but she quickly explained that the contents were mainly junk and should have been dumped anyway. He accepted her explanation and they returned home where they shared a few beers.
On New Year's day, 1986, two fishermen found the foul smelling box that was now half-submerged in the river. They informed the local police who attended the scene and pried open the box. Inside they found the remains of Everson Gillmouth. He was dressed in his underwear, wrapped in a white bed sheet and bound with black electrician's tape. The body showed no signs of wounding and was decomposed beyond the point of recognition. The only distinguishing feature was a wristwatch with a metallic band that still clung to the corpses left wrist.
With no identifiable characteristics to go on, the police soon added another "John Doe" to their list of unsolved homicides where it was to remain unidentified for three years. With Gillmouth gone, Dorothea continued to collect his pension and wrote letters to his family, explaining away his absence and lack of contact as being due to ill health.
Undaunted, Puente expanded her operation and took on forty new tenants who were mostly drunks and drug addicts. She was earning good money but she was also squandering most of it on her lavish lifestyle and went back to cruising bars looking for new customers. With her house full of paying guests she devised a plan whereby she collected all the mail and opened it before the tenants saw it. She would then give them each a small amount to spend which normally lasted as far as the nearest bar. Drunk and out of control they would then be picked up by the police, who were usually acting on an anonymous tip, and locked up for thirty days, during which time Puente would pocket their benefit money.
In the following months more mysterious disappearances were reported. On August 19, Betty Palmer, a seventy-seven-year-old resident of Puente's boarding house never returned from a doctor's appointment. Several weeks later, Puente was in possession of an ID in Betty's name but it bore her own picture which she used to collect Betty's benefits. In February the next year, another tenant, Leona Carpenter was discharged from hospital and placed in Puente's care, she was seventy-eight. Puente made her up a bed on the couch as a temporary measure but two weeks later she went missing and was never heard from again.
James Gallop was sixty-two and was last seen in July, 1987 when he was treated by his doctor after months in hospital following an operation to remove a brain tumor. He told the doctor that he was moving into a boarding house at 1426F street.
The following October, sixty-two-year-old Vera Martin moved into the boarding house and was never seen again.
Bert Montoya arrived the following February and, soon after Puente took charge of his affairs, he too disappeared. When the other tenants asked about him they were told that he had left for Mexico to visit his family.
Prior to Bert Montoya's disappearance, Dorothea Puente had already begun to arouse suspicion but not with the police. Following complaints that she had been running an illegal board-and-care facility, a Department of Social Services inspector arrived at the house to inspect the facility. Although the inspector was aware that she had previously been convicted for misuse of her clients benefits, she was able to lie her way out of trouble. A field report, later compiled by the same inspector, declared the complaints unfounded.
Puente was able to continue unmolested for a while longer until Peggy Nickerson, a social worker who had sent many clients to Puente's home, became suspicious when she tried to visit some of the people that she had sent there. Puente told her that they had moved away. Initially, she believed the stories because most of the people in question were transients and had a history of wandering off and returning to their old ways. In the absence of any evidence to support her suspicions, Nickerson stopped sending people to the house, just in case.
Finally, on November 7, following a visit to the house, Judy Moise filed a missing persons report with the police, stating that she did not accept Puente's story about Bert having gone to Mexico. He was not the type to run away, she told them. The police accepted her complaint and went to the house to question Puente and look around. While they were there, a male resident passed a note to one of the officers which described how Puente had told him to lie. Four days later the police returned with a warrant to search the house and dig up the garden.
Over the following days seven bodies, including Bert Montoya's, were unearthed. One body, that of Betty Palmer, was missing the head, hands and lower legs. At the same time, the police began an investigation into the disappearances of Everson Gillmouth and Ruth Monroe. Gillmouth was later identified from his hospital x-rays but no cause of death was determined.
Post mortem examination of the seven bodies found in the yard revealed large concentrations of the drug flurazepam or Dalmane, as it is commercially known. Police later found dozens of prescriptions for the drug among Puente's personal papers. As the investigation progressed, detectives discovered that Puente had cashed over sixty benefit checks belonging to the deceased - after their deaths. With sufficient evidence and a strong motive in place the police made moves to arrest Puente for murder only to realize that they had let her slip away while they had been searching the garden.
Sometime between Friday November 11 and Monday November 14 Dorothea Puente had packed a bag and simply walked away. She was nowhere to be found. Amidst great embarrassment the police launched a state-wide search and enlisted the help of the FBI to track her down. Airports, bus depots and railway stations were checked without result. She was later found to have laid a false trail by booking a flight to L.A. in her own name and never taking the flight. As a result the police discounted Los Angeles as a possible destination, another decision that would come to cause them added embarrassment.
While the police struggled to right their wrongs and appease a disbelieving public, Dorothea Puente was safely ensconced in room 31 of the Royal Viking Hotel - in downtown Los Angeles. Having booked in under the name of Dorothea Johanson, she kept a low profile and stayed in her room watching TV, only venturing out for meals.
Several days after her arrival, however, she became restless and took a cab to a bar, just two miles from her hotel. Wearing makeup and dressed in her best clothes, Puente looked out of place in the seedy bar, but she soon came to the attention of one of its patrons, a sad and lonely man named Charles Willgues. The pair soon struck up a conversation during which Puente introduced herself as Donna Johanson.
The conversation continued and "Donna" weaved her usual magic to the point that, when she complained that her shoe heels were worn down from walking around town, Willgues took them to a repair shop across the street from the bar to have them repaired. With Puente taking the lead, talk soon led to Willgues financial situation. Learning that he was receiving sickness benefits, she offered to show him how to increase the amount he received each month by filling out additional forms to capitalize on his condition. While impressed by her knowledge of such things he began to wonder how she came to know so much about it.
After a few drinks Dorothea suggested that they get together and share a Thanksgiving dinner. The idea sounded appealing to Charles but for some reason he began to feel uncomfortable, particularly when she suggested that they should move in together.
They talked for hours until Charles was able to excuse himself with the promise of taking her shopping the next day. He returned to his apartment but was unable to relax as something continually gnawed at his brain. It was only when he switched on the television that he realized where his bad feeling had originated. "Donna" was the woman he had seen on the television that morning, the woman who was wanted in Sacramento on suspicion of multiple murder.
Reluctant to call the police he called the CBS news service instead and spoke to the assignment editor, Gene Silver. Silver, a veteran newsman, listened patiently to Willgues story before suggesting that he watch a news broadcast to see if the woman he met was actually Puente. Charles did so but was no wiser, as the broadcast failed to show any photos. Smelling a breaking story, Silver then suggested that he bring over a news photo of Puente so that Charles could be sure.
Some time later, Charles sat staring at the image that Silver had supplied but was still unsure. Eventually, aided by Silver's gentle prodding, Charles agreed that the woman he met in the bar could very well be Dorothea Puente. Armed with his new found knowledge, Silver then returned to his office, summoned a camera crew and rang the police. With everything in place, the police, accompanied by Silver and his news crew, arrived at the Royal Viking at 10:20pm and knocked on the door of room 31. Puente answered the door, momentarily blinded by the glare of the TV camera lights and was promptly asked for some form of identification. With nowhere to run, Puente took her driver's license from her handbag and handed it to the detectives. If there had been any doubt as to her identity it quickly dissolved when the police read the name on the license - Dorothea Montalvo, the address - 1426F street, Sacramento.
Return to Justice
Within hours, Puente was whisked away to the airport where she was placed on a Lear jet, chartered for the purpose by KCRA-TV and The Sacramento Bee, and returned to Sacramento. During the journey, she told a reporter - "I cashed checks yes, but I never killed anyone - I used to be a good person once."
She was later booked into Sacramento County Jail where her property was found to include an envelope containing $3,042.55. Later the same morning she was led into court where she met with her two court appointed attorneys - Peter Vlautin and Kevin Clymo.
Seven minutes later she was arraigned without bail on one count of murder, that of Bert Montoya. While Puente languished in jail, the police continued the long and grueling process of identifying remains and processing evidence. Finally, after months of preparation, the prosecution was ready and the pre-trial hearings began on April 25 1990. Media and members of the public alike, converged on the Sacramento courthouse to take part in one of the most intriguing trials in the state's history.
Standing before Judge Gail H. Ohanesian, the prosecution team launched their case, intent on portraying Dorothea Puente as a greedy, manipulating and cold-blooded killer whose sole reason for opening her boarding house was to do away with her clients as a means of claiming their rightful benefits as her own. In response the defense countered with the assertion that the trial had become a media event and as such was a threat to Puente's right to a fair trial. They also asked for a change of venue based on the same premise. Two days of legal arguments followed during which time Judge Ohanesian sat listening patiently as both sides presented their cases.
Finally, having heard enough, the judge gave her ruling. She could find no evidence that, although unique in its coverage and ensuing public interest, the trial did not violate Puente's constitutional rights to a fair trial and would go ahead as planned.
Over the following days, the prosecution presented a long list of witnesses who provided damning evidence to support their case.
In response, the defense set out to prove that their client was a victim of circumstance and proceeded to imply that the so-called "victims" had all died from natural causes and Puente, afraid that she may be held responsible because they died in her care, buried them in her garden. To support their case they called upon a battery of supportive witnesses who attested to Puente's charitable nature and good works. This was followed by a string of psychologists who had spent countless hours interviewing Puente in her cell. They gave evidence about her troubled childhood and lack of love and understanding which, they believed, contributed to her obvious levels of stress, which in turn affected her judgment.
The defense countered and gave evidence that Puente had never been anything other than sane during any period of her life and proceeded to press home their case that Dorothea Puente was motivated by just one thing - greed.
On June 19, 1990, Judge Ohanesian gave her ruling, Dorothea Puente would stand trial on nine counts of murder. Months of delays followed until on February 9, 1993 the trial opened before Judge Michael J. Virga. Again the prosecution presented their case and the defense countered with theirs, each sticking to their original assertions. Over the following months the trial dragged on through one delay after another until finally, on July 15, 1993, having heard 153 witnesses present 3,500 pages of evidence, the jury retired to consider their verdict, further pressured by the knowledge that the prosecution was seeking the death penalty.
Days passed with no word as the jury went over and over the evidence until, on the afternoon of August 2, a note was passed to the judge. "We the jury, are deadlocked on all nine counts - we would like further instructions."
The following day, after fending off a defense motion for a mistrial, Judge Virga's advice was simple and direct - go back and try again. He then proceeded to tell them how to achieve a decision and sent them back to deliberate further. On the afternoon of August 26 the jury had reached a verdict. Before a packed courtroom the court clerk read the verdicts. Guilty of the crime of murder in the second degree of Leona Carpenter... Guilty of the crime of murder in the first degree of Dorothy Miller... Guilty of the crime of murder in the first degree of Ben Fink. Also added was an allegation under special circumstances that found Dorothea Puente had committed multiple murder.
Hearing the verdict, Judge Virga moved to declare a mistrial on the six other counts. Sadly, justice was indeed blind to most of the victims, including Alvaro Jose Rafael Gonzalez "Bert" Montoya.
Sentencing followed and more arguments concerning Puente's fate were bandied around the court room. On December 11, 1993 Judge Virga handed down his sentence. Dorothea Puente was to be committed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On hearing the verdict, a surprisingly buoyant Puente declared to her lawyers - "I didn't kill anyone."
This story was compiled using the following points of reference:
Disturbed Ground - by Carla Norton - Avon Books, New York, New York.
Deadlier Than the Male - Stories of Female Serial Killers - by Terry Manners - Pan Books, London.
Murder Most Rare - The Female Serial Killer - by Michael D. Kelleher and C.L. Kelleher.
By Julia Scheeres
The stench hovered over the Sacramento neighborhood like a putrid fog, sickly sweet and pungent. Everyone knew where it came from - the yard of the pale blue Victorian at 1426 F Street, where Dorothea Puente rented out rooms to elderly and infirm boarders.
During the summer it got so bad that some neighbors preferred to turn off their air conditioners and suffer the blazing Delta heat rather than have the fans suck the stench into their homes.
"The sewer's backed up," the 59-year-old boardinghouse mistress told people when they complained. Other times she blamed rats rotting under the floorboards or the fish emulsion she'd used to fertilize the garden.
She tried to blot out the fetor by dumping bags of lime and gallons of bleach into the yard and spraying her parlor with lemon-scented air freshener when guests dropped in. But no matter what she tried, the stench refused to fade; it clung to the boardinghouse like a curse.
When her boarders started disappearing, a concerned social worker tipped off police, who made a gruesome discovery: Seven bodies buried in the garden.
Not long afterward, Puente appeared in court, accused of murdering her tenants so she could steal their government benefit checks and buy herself luxuries ranging from fancy clothes to a face lift.
This is a story of keeping up appearances. Dorothea Puente tried hard to project a polished exterior with cosmetic surgery and tailored clothes. She also projected herself as a upstanding member of Sacramento society, a small-time socialite who gave to charity and rubbed elbows with second-tier politicians.
No one suspected that the sweet-faced, grandmotherly Puente was systematically drugging and killing her frail boarders and burying their remains in the yard she so lovingly tended. With her careful exterior, she got away with murder for years.
The two-story, pale blue house stood on a quiet, tree-lined street of similar gingerbread Victorians. Although the neighborhood was once the ritzy section of the state capital - the former governor's mansion is two blocks away - it had fallen into disrepair and many of the once-stately homes were boarded up or used as flop houses.
On the morning of November 11, 1988, Detective John Cabrera and a couple of colleagues visited 1426 F Street looking for Alvaro "Bert" Montoya, a mentally-retarded tenant whose social worker had reported him missing, according to the Sacramento Bee .
As they approached the high black iron fence surrounding the house, they noted it was strung with Christmas tree lights, and that lace curtains hung in the windows. The men knocked on the front door and asked Puente if they could have a look around.
"Go ahead," she said.
The interior of the house was cluttered with old lady knick knacks - miniature vases and porcelain dolls and doilies, writes William Wood in The Bone Garden - but they didn't immediately notice anything out of the ordinary.
They did in the backyard, however. At the southeast corner of the property, the ground had been recently disturbed; the men returned to their cars to retrieve the shovels and spades they'd brought on a hunch.
They began digging, and quickly turned up what looked like shreds of cloth and beef jerky. When their efforts were hampered by what appeared to be a tree root, Cabrera whacked and jabbed it with his shovel. It didn't budge, so he decided to climb down into the hole and get his hands dirty.
"I wrapped my hand around it, braced my feet and started pulling," Cabrera later told the Sacramento Bee . "I pulled so hard that it broke loose, and when I pulled it up, I could see the joint. It was a bone...at that time, I was airborne and out of the hole."
The Bone Yard of Dorothea Puente
Hearing the commotion, Puente walked into the corner of the yard and peered down into the hole herself. When Cabrera told her that they'd found what appeared to be a human corpse, she acted shocked and slapped her palms to the sides of her face.
The men stopped digging when they found a shoe with a piece of foot still wedged in it and decided to return the next day with proper equipment.
The next morning, a Saturday, a team of forensic anthropologists, officials from the coroner's office, and a county work crew equipped with heavy machinery descended on the property.
The first person they dug from the yard was the body the officers had stumbled across the day before, a small female with gray hair that had rotted into a skeleton.
A crowd of onlookers and reporters watched the proceedings from the other side of the high fence, the Los Angeles Times reported. Boys shimmied up trees for a better view. The mood was party-like until a fresh body was unburied and carried to the coroner's wagon, and the crowd grew solemn.
As the team drilled through a slab of concrete and prepared to excavate beneath it, Puente walked into the yard and approached Cabrera, wearing a cherry red overcoat, and purple pumps, and carrying a pink umbrella.
She asked the detective if she was under arrest. He said "No." She asked if she could go to the Clarion Hotel - a few blocks away -- to have a cup of coffee, and he said, "yes," escorting her past the reporters and curious onlookers before returning to the yard work.
In rapid succession, the team found three bodies under the slab of cement and a fifth under a gazebo in the side yard, the Sacramento Bee reported.
But by the time authorities noticed that the white-haired landlady hadn't returned from the hotel, four hours had passed, and Dorothea Puente was hundreds of miles away.
Puente's Grim Harvest
Ultimately, the grisly harvest of Puente's garden would be seven people who had checked into her boarding house and never checked out alive:
Alvaro "Bert" Montoya, 51, a retarded schizophrenic who argued in Spanish with the voices inside his head and called Puente "Mama," found under a newly planted apricot tree in the side yard.
Dorothy Miller, 64, an American Indian with a drinking problem who liked to recite poems about heartbreak, found with her arms taped to her chest with duct tape. The last time her social worker saw her, she was sitting on the front porch, enjoying a cigarette.
Benjamin Fink, a 55-year-old alcoholic found dressed in striped boxer shorts. Shortly before he disappeared, in April, 1988, Puente told another boarder that she was going to "take Ben upstairs and make him feel better."
Betty Palmer, 78, whose remains - missing the head, hands and lower legs - were found in a sleeveless white nightgown below a statue of St. Francis de Assisi, a few feet from the sidewalk at the front of the house.
Leona Carpenter, also 78, who was discharged from the hospital to Puente's care in February 1987 and had spent several weeks agonizing on a sofa before disappearing. She was buried near the back fence, and it was her leg bone that Detective Cabrera mistook for a tree root.
James Gallop, a 62-year-old who survived a heart attack and brain tumor surgery, but not Dorothea Puente.
Vera Faye Martin, 64, whose wristwatch was still ticking when she was unearthed.
Taste of Death
The bodies were all severely decayed, and in several cases the internal organs had melded together into a leathery mass. Handling the rancid bodies and other items from the crime scene proved too much for police clerk Joy Underwood, who was sent to the morgue one night to help a technician label the evidence.
She told Associated Press that afterward, she vomited every time she saw a news report about the case and began to shower compulsively, feeling like she could never get clean.
I still have the taste of death in my mouth," she told reporters. "I can't eat vegetables grown in the ground because they have dirt around them, like the people dug up in Puente's yard - and I'm a vegetarian."
In his book, Wood writes that Puente indulged her champagne tastes with her dead tenants' income. When she was arrested, her face was still unnaturally tight from a face lift, and in her room, detectives found $110 bottles of Giorgio perfume and silk chiffon dresses.
Details of the case emerged slowly. Puente had been renting out the first story of the Victorian to old and alcoholic boarders and using the second story as her living quarters.
A search of the boardinghouse had turned up a note on which Puente had scrawled the first initial of each victim and the amount she was getting from forging their disability and Social Security checks, the Sacramento Bee reported. Before her arrest, she was making $5,000 a month off her dead tenants, the paper reported.
Dorothea Puente Ran a Tight Ship
By all accounts, Puente ran a tight ship. Boarders paid $350 a month for a private room and two hot meals a day: breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and dinner at 3:30 p.m. Puente was an accomplished cook, preparing gut-busting breakfasts of pancakes, bacon and eggs. But if residents missed either meal, they went hungry. They weren't allowed to enter the kitchen at odd hours.
They also weren't allowed to touch the phone or the mail. Puente chewed residents out on more than one occasion for daring to touch the mail, Carla Norton writes in Disturbed Ground .
And while Puente kept a well-stocked bar for herself upstairs, drinking by residents was strictly forbidden.
In the evening, she made excursions to seedy liquor joints like Harry's Lounge, where she'd sidle up to solitary old men, ply them with drinks, and ask about their finances. If she thought enough of their income, she'd invite them to move into her boarding house.
"She asked me where I got my money from, where I was working," Harry's regular John Terry, 67, told the State Journal-Register . "About every time she would see me, she'd hit me up about it, wanting me to move in."
Terry refused, and lived to tell the tale.
The Gentle Side of Dorothea Puente
In interviews, people gave conflicting descriptions of Puente's personality.
John Sharp, 64, a retired cook who lived in the boarding house for 11 months until police shut the place down, told reporters that Puente had a gentle side - she fed stray cats, gave her boarders clothes and cigarettes, and even bought one disabled tenant an adult tricycle so he could be more mobile, according to the Associated Press.
The media feeding frenzy was enormous, with every news organization looking for a unique angle. When neighbors told reporters that Puente passed out tamales at Christmas time, the National Enquirer wanted to know if the meat in the tamales tasted funny.
The LA Times tracked down Patty Casey, a 54-year-old cab driver who ferried Puente around town and eventually became a friend who visited Puente at the boarding house. Casey told the paper that she drove Puente on errands several times a week to buy cement, plants or fertilizer or dropped her off at various dive bars in downtown Sacramento .
Puente confessed secrets to the cabbie, saying she was really 71, and not 59, as the records indicated, and telling her about her four failed marriages and her recent face lift.
"I thought she was a nice person," Casey told the paper. "I really looked up to her and admired her. I felt I could learn a few things from her. I thought she was very savvy."
When Casey commented on the unpleasant odor permeating the house, Puente told her it came from dead rats that were rotting under the floorboards.
The police were also interviewing former boarders, and certain patterns that became evident. Several times before a tenant disappeared, for example, Puente would tell someone that so-and-so wasn't feeling well and that she was "taking them upstairs to make them feel better."
And she always had excuses for the disappearances: one tenant was becoming burdensome and "telling her how to run her house," so she'd packed his stuff into cardboard boxes in the middle of the night and threw them on the street; another left suddenly to live with relatives.
Under the guise of the benevolent grandmother lurked a lifelong criminal, and diligent reporters carefully pieced Puente's life story together and published it.
She was born Dorothea Helen Gray on January 9, 1929 in Redlands, California, and although she claimed to be the youngest of 18 children, her birth certificate showed she was her mother's sixth child, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Hers was a childhood marred by tragedy, with her father dying of tuberculosis when she was 8 and her mother dying in a motorcycle accident a year later.
Her relatives told the Bee that the Gray children were farmed out to different homes and according to census records, she lived in the city of Napa at age 13. School records show she was a student in Los Angeles at 16, but less than a year later, she moved to Olympia , Washington , where she called herself "Sheri," and worked in a milkshake parlor during the summer of 1945.
She met Fred McFaul, a 22-year-old solider back from the war in the Philippines , that fall, Wood writes. She and a friend were living in a motel room - and turning tricks there as prostitutes.
"She was a good-looking female," McFaul told the Bee. "She knew how to make a buck when she wanted to."
When the couple were married in Reno a few months later, the 16-year-old Puente said she was 30 and called herself "Sherriale A. Riscile," information duly recorded on the marriage certificate.
McFaul soon found out that Puente was an inveterate liar. Not only did she love to adorn her body with expensive clothes - silk stockings and flirty dresses - she also loved to embellish her background. When she was young, she lied to make herself seem more interesting, and it was a habit that stuck for life. Sources close to her said she claimed to have lived through the Bataan Death March in World War II (when she was 13), and the bombing of Hiroshima. She was the sister of the ambassador to Sweden , she told people, and a close friend of Rita Hayworth.
McFaul and Puente set up house in Gardnerville , Nevada and had two daughters. Shortly after the birth of their second daughter, McFaul told the Bee , Puente went to Los Angeles . She became pregnant several months later.
She miscarried the baby, Norton writes, but McFaul left her anyway, and the couple's daughters were raised by other people - one by McFaul's mother, and the other adopted by strangers.
The easy money she got from hooking was a hard habit for Puente to shake.
In 1948, she stole checks from an acquaintance to buy a hat, purse, shoes and panty hose. She was convicted of forgery, served four years in jail, then skipped town when she was on probation.
In 1952, she married her second husband, Axel Johansson. Johansson was a merchant seaman, Norton writes, and when he returned from long absences, he'd sometimes find other men living with his wife. Neighbors complained of taxis dropping off strange men at all hours of the night. The couple fought, separated, made up, separated, and remained married for 14 more years.
In 1960, she was convicted of residing in a Sacramento brothel. She told authorities she was just visiting a friend, and didn't know it was a whorehouse, according to reports.
In 1968, Puente, 39, opened a halfway house for alcoholics called "The Samaritans," and married 21-year-old Robert Jose Puente. The couple argued constantly, and the marriage ended a year later, as did the halfway house when she ran up a $10,000 debt, the Bee reported.
Soon afterward, she moved into, and began managing, the boarding house located at 21 st and F streets in Sacramento , and in 1976, she married one of the tenants, Pedro Angel Montalvo, 52.
"She wanted new pantyhose every day," Montalvo told the Bee . "She thought she was rich."
In 1978, she was convicted of forging 34 checks she'd stolen from her tenants, the Los Angeles Times reported. She served five years on probation and was ordered to undergo counseling; a psychiatrist who interviewed her diagnosed her as a schizophrenic and a "very disturbed woman."
Authorities alleged that Puente committed her first murder in the spring of 1982, when 61-year-old Ruth Munroe died of a drug overdose shortly after she moved into 1426 F Street with Puente, bringing all her earthly belongings and $6,000 in cash.
Munroe was Puente's business partner in a small lunchroom business, according to the Bee , and she'd written her husband -- who was terminally ill and residing at a Veterans Administration Hospital - that she was excited about the partnership and optimistic about the future.
But a scant two weeks after she'd moved in, she ran into a friend at a beauty parlor and blurted out: "I feel like I'm going to die." When the friend asked her why, according to the reports, Munroe told the woman, "I don't know."
Three days later, Munroe was dead of a massive overdose of Tylenol and codeine. The coroner wrote it off as suicide, not having enough evidence to classify it as a homicide.
A month later, however, Puente was arrested and charged with drugging four elderly people and stealing their valuables. One of the victims, a 74-year-old-man, told the Sacramento Bee that Puente doped him, then looted his home as he watched in a stupor, unable to speak or move.
A judge sentenced Puente to five years in the California Institution for Women at Frontera. She was released after three years, in 1985, and ordered to stay away from the elderly and to not "handle government checks of any kind issued to others," according to the Los Angeles Times.
But she'd already violated this parole condition in prison, when she started corresponding with a 77-year-old pen pal from Oregon named Everson Gillmouth, who made the mistake of telling Puente he earned a cozy pension and owned a Airstream trailer.
When Puente was given her walking ticket, Gillmouth was there to pick her up. He drove her to 1426 F Street , the place Puente resided before she was sent to prison. Gillmouth had told his sister he was going to marry Puente, and he'd made her a signatory on his checking account.
Not long afterward, his body was dumped unceremoniously along the Sacramento River in a homemade coffin wrapped in plastic and surrounded by mothballs. Three months after she killed Gillmouth, Puente sent a "thinking of you" card to his sister in an attempt to cover her tracks.
The pensioner's body rotted in silence by the Sacramento river until January 1986, when a fisherman found his plywood coffin. His remains would remain unidentified for three more years in the city morgue while his fiancée continued her killing spree.
Sins of Omission
When the owner moved out of 1426 F Street , Puente took over, subletting the 1 st floor rooms for cheap and taking over the second story for herself. Soon, social workers came calling, seeking to place their homeless clients with her.
Puente never told them about her five felony convictions for drugging and robbing the elderly, and they never did their homework.
A former social worker told the Bee she put 19 seniors in Puente's care between 1987 and 1988, because "Dorothea was the "best the system had to offer."
Peggy Nickerson said Puente accepted the hardest clients to place - the drug and alcohol addicts, the people who were physically or verbally abusive. But Nickerson stopped sending clients her way when she overheard Puente cussing out one of them. She'd later learn that four of her clients ended up buried in Puente's yard.
The system that let these fragile members of society fall through the cracks was predictably fustigated in the wake of Puente's arrest.
An independent county agency published a reported titled "Sins of Omission," which criticized the Sacramento Police Department's handling of the case as well as another 10 public and private agencies that had dealings with the boarding house, the Bee reported.
It seemed inconceivable that federal parole agents, who visited Puente 15 times during the two years leading up to her arrest, never realized she was running a boarding house for the elderly -- in direct violation of her parole.
Escape to L.A.
On the second day of digging, when police let Puente walk to the nearby Clarion Hotel - ostensibly for a quick cup of coffee - she fled. She called a cab from the hotel, which took her to a bar on the other side of town. There, according to Wood, she chugged down four vodkas and grapefruit, before catching another taxi to Stockton , where she boarded a bus to Los Angeles. During the six-hour bus ride, she had a numbing buzz, $3000 cash in her purse, and a burning desire to reinvent herself.
A few days later, Charles Willgues, a 59-year-old retired carpenter, was nursing a mid-afternoon beer at the Monte Carlo tavern in downtown Los Angeles when an elegant stranger in a bright red overcoat took a stool next to him.
She ordered a vodka and orange juice and introduced herself to Willgues as Donna Johansson, a Sacramento woman whose husband had died the month before and who was looking to begin a new life in L.A. The grieving widow told Willgues that she'd gotten off to a poor start: The cabbie who'd dropped her off at the $25-a-night Royal Viking Motel had driven off with her suitcases, and to make matters worse, the heels of her only remaining pair of shoes - she leaned back in her bar stool to flash a bit of ankle and the purple pump at him -- were broken.
Willgues felt sorry for the woman and took her shoes to a cobbler across the street to have them repaired. When he returned, the woman asked him how much money he got from Social Security a month, the Los Angeles Times reported. He didn't think her question was particularly nosy, so he told her - $576 a month.
He did think it strange, however, when the stranger told him she was a good cook and suggested they move in together. They were two lonely souls in the world, she said, so why not keep each other company?
"I've got all I can handle right now," he responded, taking another long drink of beer, and changing the subject. They went for a chicken dinner at a fast food joint, and Willgues kept wondering why the stranger seemed so familiar. In the early evening, they parted ways after making plans to go shopping the next day and replace the items the cabbie had stolen.
Back at his apartment, Willgues figured out who she was. He'd seen her on television, along with the bodies they'd pulled from her yard. A chill ran through him. He called a local TV station, which in turn called the police.
"I'm just very thankful that the relationship didn't go any further," Willgues told the Times .
At 10:40 p.m., Los Angeles police surrounded the fleabag motel where Puente was staying, and arrested her without incident. During the flight back to Sacramento , she told a reporter: "I have not killed anyone. The checks I cashed, yes...I used to be a very good person at one time."
Dorothea Puente wore a blue dress and pearl necklace when she pleaded innocent to the nine counts of murder filed against her at the Sacramento Municipal Court on March 31, 1989.
Another four years would pass before all the evidence was sifted through and her trial began in February, 1993. Because of the extensive pretrial publicity, the venue was moved from Sacramento to Monterey , and it took three months to empanel the jury of eight men and four women.
Prosecutor John O'Mara was blunt in his summation of the case. It was a simple matter of predatory greed, he said: Puente murdered her lodgers to steal their government checks.
"She wanted people who had no relatives, no friends, no family: people who, when they're gone, won't have others coming around and asking questions," O'Mara told the court, according to the Chronicle .
Her defense team, Peter Vlautin and Kevin Clymo, contended that the tenants died of natural causes. Puente didn't call paramedics to retrieve the bodies, they maintained, because she was operating the boarding house in violation of her parole, and didn't want to get sent back to prison.
In his opening statement, Clymo described Puente as a benevolent soul who selflessly cared for "the dregs of society, people who had no place else to go," according to the Bee . He argued that the money from the tenants barely covered Puente's operating expenses. She stole money to cover her expenses, he suggested, but she was not a killer.
The five month-long trial included 153 witnesses, 3,100 pieces of evidence and a scale model of the Victorian boarding house, which rested on a table at the front of the court room like a misplaced dollhouse.
In the courtroom, Puente cultivated her sweet little granny look to the nines, dressing in flowered frocks and lacquering her hair into a silky white poof. She managed to keep her poker face during the most damning testimony, but dashed off frequent notes to her attorneys.
When the prosecution showed photos of Puente's alleged victims - first alive and smiling, then rotting in the garden -- Puente gazed at the images through her thick glasses without flinching, USA Today reported.
"Dorothea Puente murdered nine people," O'Mara told jurors after the grim photo exhibition. "Don't turn your back on reason."
The prosecution's main weakness was the fact that there were no eyewitnesses to the alleged murders. The prosecution could only prove the cause of death in the case of Ruth Munroe - the other bodies were too decayed. But one thing toxicology tests did reveal, however, was that there were traces of Dalmane (flurazepam) - a prescription-strength sleeping pill -- in all the remains.
Dalmane can be lethal, especially when taken with alcohol or other sedatives, and it's particularly potent in elderly people, experts testified. At Puente's preliminary hearing, a doctor testified that Puente had used Dorothy Miller's veteran ID card to try to get a prescription for Dalmane, which the doctor refused to give her.
The Dalmane evidence was backed up by testimony about boarders who complained that Puente foisted medication on them. Puente had abundant sources for the drug, Wood writes. In addition to the Dalmane she acquired from her court-appointed psychiatrist, she got it from two other doctors as well.
Former resident Carol Durning, who lived at the rooming house for the first half of 1987 before she was evicted, testified that she'd overheard Puente telling James Gallop he had to leave unless he let her take charge of his money. He later complained that Puente was giving him drugs that made him sleep all the time, she added, according to the Bee .
Alvaro "Bert" Montoya complained to an employee of a local detox center where he resided before transferring to 1426 F Street that Puente was "giving him a medicine he didn't like to take," according to the Bee .
When that employee, William Johnson, confronted Puente about the matter, she flew into a rage and asked him to take Montoya back to the detox center to live if he was going to meddle in her business. Johnson advised Montoya that he'd be better off at the boarding house than at the center.
"I told him, 'You'll be safe here,'" Johnson told the court. "I was wrong...I've got to live with this for the rest of my life."
Puente went to elaborate lengths to cover up Montoya's death. She paid Donald Anthony, a local halfway house resident, to help her flush out her story. Anthony called Montoya's social worker, posing as his brother-in-law, told her that Montoya had gone to live with his family out of state.
But in a message left on the social worker's answering machine, Anthony mistakenly used his own name instead of the brother-in-law's - the blunder which prompted Detective Cabrera's visit to the boarding house, and the subsequent excavation of the yard.
A handwriting expert confirmed that Puente had signed the names of seven dead tenants on 60 federal and state checks that were sent to 1426 F Street in 1987 and 1988, Sacramento Bee reported. She was making $5,000 a month from the forgeries.
(The prosecution decided not to charge Puente with forgery, saying they thought the additional charge would make the case too complex for jurors.)
Her defense attorney Kevin Clymo conceded that "Puente had a touch of larceny in her heart," but insisted that, "it doesn't make her a killer; it doesn't make her an evil, serial killer."
The prosecution brought forth witnesses to refute this argument, including the handyman Puente hired to build Everson Gillmouth's coffin. He told the court that he'd helped her dump Gillmouth's body by the Sacramento River . Authorities were not able to file charges against him because the statute of limitations on the crime had expired, but his testimony gave jurors a glimpse into Puente's frigid heart.
Former residents also came forward.
Homer Myers, who lived at Puente's place for two years after she found him in a bar, said he unwittingly dug some of the tenants' graves, according to the Los Angeles Times . Puente told him to dig a 4-foot hole for a small apricot tree, and he wondered why she'd wanted it so deep.
Things got rough when he refused to sign documents empowering the mistress of the house to cash his social security checks.
"I just never signed them," he told the paper. "I just passed it off."
His refusal may have saved his life.
Dorothea Puente is Guilty
Six years after the bodies were discovered in Puente's yard, six jurors traveled to Sacramento to visit the crime scenes they'd only known from pictures or verbal descriptions during the trial, the Sacramento Bee reported.
They sat in the dive bars where she trolled for victims, toured the narrow rooms of the Victorian home where several boarders were given sleeping pill cocktails before they slowly slipped from unconsciousness to death, and walked over the garden where Puente had planted flowers over their corpses.
Dusk was spreading gloomily over the backyard when juror Joe Martin rushed back into the house, visibly shaken.
"You can't see much back there," he told the paper. "But you feel a lot. It's weird."
After a year of weighing the testimony, the jury found Puente guilty of murdering Dorothy Miller, Benjamin Fink and Leona Carpenter.
But the jury couldn't reach a verdict on the six other murder charges, and Superior Court Judge Michael Virga declared a mistrial on those counts, according to the Los Angeles Times. There was no explanation why the jury found Puente guilty on the three counts but could not reach an agreement on the other charges, which were similar.
Puente showed no emotion when the verdict was read.
On December 10, 1993, Virga sentenced Puente to prison for life without the possibility of parole. Puente was 64 when she was sent to Central California Women's Facility near Chowchilla, the largest women's prison in the country.