Dorothea Puente: This Seemingly Sweet Old Landlady Was Actually A Serial Killer

Dorothea Puente's mugshot
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News & Politics
Gabby Etzel

At the corner of 21st and F streets in Sacramento, a seemingly sweet old lady named Dorothea Puente ran a boarding house in the 1980s.

Dozens of elderly and mentally disabled people would pass through the house at a time.

Why wouldn't they?

Puente's boarding house was an incredible resource for the community. There was no reason for someone not to knock on her door if they needed help.

As each tenant checked into the boarding house, they made no effort to scope out the scene. They didn't look for disturbed soil in the garden, and they didn't wonder where the other tenants had disappeared to.

Why would they?

Dorothea Puente's round glasses, gray hair, vintage clothing, and grandmotherly disposition raised no alarm. And yet, the killer would soon be behind bars for murdering nine people to cash their social security checks.

An Unfortunate Upbringing

Dorothea Puente sits for interrogation
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While it is never an excuse for horrific crimes, Dorothea Puente had a grim childhood.

Her father, an alcoholic, would threaten to commit suicide in front of a young Dorothea and her siblings. Her mother was no better in terms of substance abuse. In 1937, her father passed away from tuberculosis. Her mother perished in a motorcycle accident the following year.

Dorothea lived out the rest of her childhood in an orphanage, where she became a victim of physical and sexual abuse.

At the age of 16, she married her first of three ex-husbands.

Creating Her Disguise

Dorothea Puente
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Dorothea Puente committed her first money crime early on. In 1948, she pled guilty to two counts of forgery, spending four months behind bars. She had used forged checks to buy clothing and jewelry.

In 1960, she faced another arrest. Police found out that the "bookkeeping firm" she had been running in Sacramento was actually a brothel. She only faced 90 days in prison, but almost immediately after her release, her second husband committed her to DeWitt State Hospital due to a stint of criminal behavior and suicide attempts.

The staff at DeWitt diagnosed Dorothea Puente as an unstable pathological liar.

After her release from prison, Dorothea decided it was time to hide her criminal behavior. She assumed the personality of a generous Christian, giving poor and battered women shelter and resources.

She would divorce her third husband, Roberto Jose Puente, in 1973. Dorothea would never forfeit his last name. Under the name Dorothea Puente, she opened a boarding house between 21st street and F street in Sacramento, California.

She was apt about being as unassuming as possible. She bought herself big, round glasses, let her hair grow out to its natural gray color, and dressed as any sweet old woman would. She knew the older she looked, the less suspicion she'd raise.

She even capitalized on her skills as a pathological liar to make up enchanting stories to tell people, quickly earning their adoration.

Her new persona worked wonderfully to shield her true intentions–At least, at first.

Horror at 21 and F

Dorothea Puente
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The first death at the boarding house occurred in 1982. Ruth Monroe expired due to an overdose of codeine and acetaminophen. Of course, police questioned Puente, but they had no reason not to believe her when she said that Monroe was depressed about her husband's terminal illness.

Monroe's death was ruled a suicide. She would not receive justice for six years.

Although murder seemed farfetched for the old woman, authorities did not find theft to be unreasonable. When 74-year-old Malcolm McKenzie accused Puente of drugging him and stealing his mail and belongings, the offender was jailed for three years.

In prison, she met Everson Gillmouth, a 77-year-old man who would become her next victim. After drugging and murdering Gillmouth upon her release, she hired Ismael Florez to build a "storage box" conveniently large enough to store a person. She asked him to drive her to a storage facility to store the box of "junk," but made him stop along the way to toss the box into a Sutter County River.

Florez may have never realized what was actually in the box, but a passerby sure did. He called the police when he saw the two dump the box into the river because it reminded him of a coffin. Sure enough, Gillmouth's decomposing remains were inside. Puente did not cease to collect his pension, and even wrote letters to his family to tell them he was ill.

Still, no one suspected Dorothea. Due to her money crimes, she was no longer allowed to be near the elderly, but parole officers never noted these violations when visiting her boarding house.

So, she was allowed to continue intercepting her tenants' mail before it reached them, only giving them small percentages and stealing the rest for what she claimed as "monthly expenses."

Theft is the bare minimum that Puente's tenants would experience. In several cases over the next few years, she drugged elderly and mentally disabled tenants until they overdosed with pharmaceuticals that she had swindled from local doctors.

She then wrapped their bodies in tarps and buried them in the garden under strangely-placed sheds and concrete slabs, all so she could cash their social security checks.

Catching Dorothea

A body is found on Dorothea Puente's property
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In 1988, an elderly schizophrenic man named Alvaro Montoya was reported missing by his social worker. Police once again made a trip to the boarding house between 21 and F. They found nothing on Montoya while they were there, but they did notice that some soil on the property had clearly been dug up and replaced.

They came back with a warrant to investigate the property. Sure enough, buried not-too-deep below the surface was the body of Leona Carpenter, a 78-year-old tenant. Just underneath Carpenter was Alvaro Montoya.

They found seven more tenants buried in the same pits. Dorothea Puente had murdered Ruth Monroe, Dorothy Miller, Benjamin Fink, James Gallop, Vera Faye Martin, and Betty Palmer.

While authorities uncovered the bodies, Puente was not yet a suspect. She left the property, supposedly to buy a cup of coffee, but of course, she fled.

By chance, she ended up at a bar in Los Angeles with a man who recognized her from the news reports on the carnage at 21 and F. He alerted the police who quickly came to arrest her.

A Murderous Landlady Behind Bars

Dorothea Puente speaks with her lawyer.
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Dorothea Puente maintained her innocence for her whole life. She was convicted of three out of the nine murders, as the jury was deadlocked on the remaining six.

The prosecution seemed to be serious about giving Puente the death penalty. With so much evidence against Puente, all the defense could do was plead with the jury about Puente's unfortunate childhood. A compelling, heartfelt speech about the tortures of her upbringing may be the only reason that she was allowed to live out the rest of her life behind bars.

Puente died in prison in 2011 at 82 years of age.

The serial killer's victims may have received legal justice, but murder takes a devastating toll that no amount of jail time can ever truly heal.