Dorothea Puente lived from January 9th, 1929 to March 27th, 2011 and was a convicted American serial killer. In the 1980s, Dorothea ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California, and cashed the Social Security checks of her elderly and mentally disabled boarders. Anyone who complained of this ended up dead and were buried in her yard.
Dorothea had a reputation in the boarding house; though it was a very mixed one. Some of the tenants resented her stinginess and complained taht she refused to give them their mail or money; while others would praise her for small acts of kindness or for her generous home-made meals that she sometimes handed out. Her motive was always the same for killing; financial gain. With police estimates of her ill-gotten income totaling more than $5,000 per month. The murders seemed to have begun shortly after Dorothea began to rent out the space in the home. In April 1982, sixty one year old friend and business partner Ruth Monroe began to live with Dorothea in her upstairs apartment. But she soon died from an overdose of codeine and Tylenol. Dorothea told the police that her friend had been severely depressed because her husband was terminally ill.
The police at the time believed her and judged the incident simply as a suicide. Not but a few weeks later, the police were back after a seventy four year old pensioner named Malcolm McKenzie - one of four elderly people Dorothea was accused of drugging - accused her of drugging and stealing from him. She was convicted of three charges of theft on August 18, 1982 and sentenced to five years in jail. Where she began corresponding with a seventy seven year old retiree living in Oregon, named Everson Gillmouth. A pen-pal friendship developed, and when Dorothea was released in 1985 after having served just three years of her sentence, he was waiting for her outside the jail. Their relationship developed quickly and the couple were soon making wedding plans. They opened a joint bank account and paid $600-a-month rent for the upstairs apartment at her home.
In November 1985, Puente hired handyman Ismael Florez to install some wood paneling in her apartment. For his labor and an additional $800, Puente gave him a red 1980 Ford pickup in good condition, which she stated belonged to her boyfriend in Los Angeles who no longer needed it. She asked Florez to build a box 6 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet to store “books and other items”. She then asked Florez to transport the filled and nailed-shut box to a storage depot. Florez agreed, and Puente joined him. On the way, however, she told him to stop while they were on Garden Highway in Sutter County and dump the box on the river bank in an unofficial household dumping site. Puente told him that the contents of the box were just junk. On January 1, 1986, a fisherman spotted the box sitting about three feet from the bank of the river and informed police. Investigators found a badly decomposed and unidentifiable body of an elderly man inside. Puente continued to collect Everson Gillmouth’s pension and wrote letters to his family, explaining that the reason he had not contacted them was because he was ill. She maintained a “room and board” business, taking in 40 new tenants. Gillmouth’s body remained unidentified for three years.
Puente continued to accept elderly tenants, and was popular with local social workers because she accepted “tough cases”, including drug addicts and abusive tenants. She collected tenants’ monthly mail before they saw it and paid them stipends, pocketing the rest for “expenses.” During this period, parole agents went and visited Puente, who had been ordered to stay away from the elderly and refrain from handling government checks, a minimum of fifteen times at the residence. No violations were ever noted.
Suspicion was first aroused when neighbors noticed the odd activities of a homeless alcoholic known only as “Chief”, whom Puente stated she had “adopted” and made her personal handyman. Puente had Chief dig in the basement and cart soil and rubbish away in a wheelbarrow. At the time, the basement floor was covered with a concrete slab. Chief later took down a garage in the backyard and installed a fresh concrete slab there as well. Soon afterward, Chief disappeared.
On November 11, 1988, police inquired after the disappearance of tenant Alvaro Montoya, a developmentally disabled schizophrenic whose social worker had reported him missing. After noticing disturbed soil on the property, they uncovered the body of tenant Leona Carpenter, 78. Seven bodies were eventually found, and Puente was charged with a total of nine murders, convicted of three and sentenced to two life sentences.
During the initial investigation, Puente was not immediately suspect, and was allowed to leave the property, ostensibly to buy a cup of coffee at a nearby hotel. Instead, she fled to Los Angeles, where she immediately befriended an elderly pensioner, who recognized her from police reports and called the authorities.
Her trial was moved to Monterey County, California, on a change of venue motion filed by her attorneys, Kevin Clymo and Peter Vlautin, III. The trial began in October 1992 and ended a year later. The prosecutor, John O’Mara, was the homicide supervisor in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office.
O’Mara called over 130 witnesses. He argued to the jury she had used sleeping pills to put her tenants to sleep, then suffocated them, and hired convicts to dig the holes in her yard. Clymo concluded his closing argument by showing a picture commonly used in psychology that can be viewed in different ways and saying “Keep in mind things are not always as they seem.” The jury deliberated over a month and found Puente guilty of three murders. They could not agree on the others. The penalty phase of the prosecution was highlighted by her prior convictions introduced by O’Mara.
The defense called several witnesses that showed Puente had a generous and caring side to her and several other witnesses including her long-lost daughter. They testified how Puente had helped them in their youth and guided them to successful careers. Mental health experts testified of Puente’s abusive upbringing and how it motivated her to help the less fortunate. At the same time, they agreed she had an evil side brought on by the stress of caring for her down-and-out tenants.
After several days of deliberations, the jury was deadlocked 7–5 for life. The judge, Michael J. Virga, declared a mistrial when the jury said further deliberations would not change their minds. Under the law, Puente received life without the possibility of parole. She was incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, Madera County, California. For the rest of her life she maintained her innocence and insisted all her tenants had died of “natural causes”.
It can be found at 1426 F Street in Sacramento, California.