Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dorothea Puente

“Sewer Problems”

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.
Dorothea Puente
Dorothea Puente
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.

Beef Jerky

Dorothea Puente's home
Dorothea Puente’s home
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 .
Alvaro Bert Montoya
Alvaro “Bert” Montoya
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.
The Bone Garden
The Bone Garden
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.
Corner of Dorothea Puente's home
Corner of Dorothea Puente’s home
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.”
Dorothy Miller
Dorothy Miller
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.
Betty Palmer
Betty Palmer
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
James Gallop
James Gallop, a 62-year-old who survived a heart attack and brain tumor surgery, but not Dorothea Puente.
Vera Faye Martin
Vera Faye Martin
Vera Faye Martin, 64, whose wristwatch was still ticking when she was unearthed.

Taste of Death

Excavation of the garden
Excavation of the garden
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.”
Remains removed from yard
Remains removed from yard
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 .
Disturbed Ground
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.

Dorothea Puente as a Lifelong Criminal

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.”
Dorothea Puente in orange jumpsuit
Dorothea Puente in orange jumpsuit
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.

Easy Money

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.”

Deadly Fiancée

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.
Ruth Munroe
Ruth Munroe
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.

Black Widow

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.
Everson Gillmouth
Everson Gillmouth
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 .
Dorothea Puente arrested
Dorothea Puente arrested
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.”

The Dollhouse of Dorothea Puente

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.
Prosecutor John O'Mara
Prosecutor John O’Mara
“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.
Dorothea Puente with lawyers
Dorothea Puente with lawyers
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.”

Sleeping Pills

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.

Frigid Heart

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.
Dorothea Puente forged signatures
Dorothea Puente forged signatures
(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.”
Dorothea Puente in court
Dorothea Puente in court
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.
Dorothea Puente's rose garden
Dorothea Puente’s rose garden
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.
Benjamin Fink
Benjamin Fink
Dorothea Puente hears verdict
Dorothea Puente hears verdict
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.


  1. this was too interesting! this evil woman! I wish I could visit and see pictures.... I live close by too! this whole thing gives me straight up chills.

  2. I really enjoy reading your blog ! I am also doing a blog about crime and this influences my stories and how I can improve. Thank you.
    typhanie- @

  3. I was juror # 9 and she was most evil. If one juror had understood Judge Virga's instructions, justice for all would have been easy. Disturbed, greedy people.

  4. I was juror # 9 on this trial. Yes Evil without conscience.

  5. I am one of vera martins sons Hell isnt good enough for that cunt.