She looked like a little old lady. She acted like a little old lady, renting out rooms in her Sacramento Victorian to folks a little down on their luck, cooking for them and keeping an eye on things.
But as anyone who has ever read a newspaper or a murder mystery knows, appearances can be deceiving. Because Dorothea Puente liked her tenants’ government checks more than she liked them. And so she killed them. And kept cashing the checks, of course.
I got a tour of Dorothea’s former home yesterday as part of a Mystery Writers of America event about the case. The couple now owning the home just north of Sacramento’s downtown graciously opened it to a bunch of curious writers, who also got to listen to several of the investigators in the case discuss one of the nation’s most notorious female serial killers.
|Retired Sacramento homicide detective John Cabrera stands in front of the room where Dorothea Puente would put tenants she drugged until they died. She then buried each victim in her yard.|
Puente got away with her homicidal scheme from early 1986 until the autumn of 1988. That was when a social worker – who should be inducted into the Tenacious and Caring Public Servant Hall of Fame – got suspicious when one of her charges, a developmentally disabled man who lived in Puente’s boarding house, disappeared. She refused to believe the little old lady’s stories about Bert Montoya going to live elsewhere. She worried about suspicious digging in the yard and Puente’s ever-evolving excuses. She called police.
“She knew in her heart she was being lied to,” said John Cabrera, the lead Sacramento Police detective on the case.
An officer came to take a missing person report, and Dorothea’s other tenants said that Bert had gone to stay with relatives. Then one man called the officer over and whispered that Dorothea had ordered everyone to say that. He hadn’t seen Bert, or boarder Ben Fink, in months.
Cabrera was assigned the case. He, his partner and a parole officer showed up. They searched the house but found nothing. At that point the pill bottles full of the drug doxylamine and piles of paperwork meant nothing. But then they started digging. Cabrera thought he’d hit a tree root with his shovel and reached down. He pulled up a human femur.
When they started to move elsewhere in the yard, Dorothea knew her jig was up. She asked to go out for some air and get a cup of coffee because she was so rattled by the discovery. Because she’d voluntarily consented to the search of the yard and expressed shock at the body, investigators let her. Cabrera walked her down to a corner coffee shop and returned to almost immediately find a second body. He went after her, but she’d disappeared. She was found in Los Angeles several days later when an alert older man with Social Security income recognized her as the woman who had hit on him at a bar. He called authorities and Cabrera flew down to bring Dorothea back to the Capital. She was never a free woman again.
Within days of detectives first arriving at her house, authorities had gone over every inch of the small property and found seven bodies – six in the little backyard – and one in the front.
“It was scorched earth when we were done,” said Laura Santos, a former deputy coroner who helped excavate the crime scene.
One victim had been covered over with a shed. Another was under a cement patio. Bert Montoya was found with a plastic bag wrapped around his head.
Identification of the victims was difficult because of the bad condition of the bodies, said Santos, who led the effort to put names with the remains her office had pulled out of the ground. She finally was able to figure out who they were by using a list of Social Security recipients who’d had their checks sent to Puente’s address. She tracked down dozens of people, confirming that they were alive and living elsewhere or had died of natural causes. Those she couldn’t find became, after even more investigation, the confirmed victims of Dorothea Puente.
|Panel moderator, author Robin Burcell, former homicide detective John Cabrera, former deputy district attorney and author William Wood (who's written a book on the case), and former deputy coroner Laura Santos.|
But there was more. Puente had been convicted earlier in the 1980s of several counts of theft for drugging elderly men and then robbing them, said William Wood, a former deputy district attorney who prosecuted that case. Right before she was sent to prison for those crimes, she had a business partner named Ruth Munroe move in with her. Weeks later, Munroe – who had all the money in their partnership – was dead. The coroner’s office determined that her death was due to a drug overdose, but officials there were not convinced it was a suicide or accidental, Santos said. They officially ruled it “undetermined.” When the bodies started coming up in Puente’s yard in 1988, Munroe’s case was reopened, and her death was added to Puente’s grim tally.
In the meantime, Cabrera heard from a family who hadn’t seen their relative since he drove to California to pick up a woman when she got out of prison in late 1985. Dorothea Puente and Everson Gillmouth had been pen pals. They’d gotten phone call and written assurances in the ensuing years from Dorothea that the two were happy and engaged to be married – but they’d never actually spoken with Everson. Not once.
So Cabrera, who by now wouldn’t put anything past this little old lady, put out an alert for Gillmouth. Authorities in a county farther north in the Central Valley had found him stuffed in a box in the Sacramento River. He had remained unidentified until Gillmouth’s description was sent throughout the area.
Puente was ultimately charged with nine counts of murder. Prosecutors said at trial that they believed she served each victim a “nightcap” that was laced with a deadly dose of doxylamine. She had them lie down to “sleep it off” in the second bedroom of her upstairs apartment, where they never woke up. There they remained, in some cases for weeks, until she had the graves ready. Prosecutors pulled out the room’s putrefied carpet as evidence.
Puente was convicted of three counts of murder and the jury deadlocked on the other six. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. She died in prison in 2011. She was 82.
Yesterday, the only traces of Dorothea were in the newspaper clippings and photos out for display. Some of the floors have been redone and several walls added or changed, said owners Barbara Holmes and Tom Williams. The yard is hardscape, and has a lovely gazebo and numerous potted plants.
More information on the Puente investigation and trial (and there is a lot more, believe me), can be found in these excellent books on the case.
|Disturbed Ground, By Carla Norton|
|The Bone Garden, by William P. Wood|