Folks looking for a cheap place to stay in Sacramento during the 1980s would often end up at Dorothea Montalvo Puente’s Victorian-style home on F Street. And when the front door opened, potential boarders were greeted by a bespectacled woman who looked like a kind grandmother. Little did they know that Puente was a serial killer who had a habit of murdering her tenants and burying their bodies in the yard.
“She served as a living illustration of the notion that one cannot judge a book by its cover, the epitome of evil without a trace of evil appearance,” former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness told The Sacramento Bee.
Puente first began accepting boarders in 1980. After doing a short stint in jail for drugging her elderly tenants and stealing their Social Security checks, she returned home and reopened the boardinghouse. By 1985, she had developed a reputation as kindhearted landlady who gave the troubled or infirm an affordable place to stay. When she was in a good mood, she even made her tenants home-cooked meals.
Most of her boarders were “shadow people” — alcoholics, drug addicts, the elderly and the disabled — the kind that could go missing without causing much of a stir. So it wasn’t until 1988 that Puente’s actions caught up with her. That was the year social worker Judy Moise became concerned about the disappearance of a mentally impaired man she had referred to the F Street boardinghouse. Moise filed a missing persons report, which prompted the police to pay a visit to Puente’s home. The officers investigating the disappearance were just about to leave when one of the boarders passed them a note saying Puente had told him to lie.
At that point, many in the area suspected something was wrong at the F Street boardinghouse. A foul stench sparked many complaints from her neighbors. Puente would always make excuses for the odor, blaming dead rats and sewage problems. Then she would try to cover it up by pouring lime and bleach in the yard and spraying lemon-scented air freshener throughout the house.
The authorities returned to the house four days later, carrying shovels. They began searching the property and soon made a grisly discovery: Seven bodies had been buried in the yard. Two more bodies, including that of a former boyfriend, were later found at off-site locations.
Puente looked utterly harmless, but the police soon learned that she was cold, calculating and methodical. As the authorities were digging up her yard, Puente politely excused herself to get some coffee from a corner store, then took off. She was captured a few days later in Los Angeles when a man she met in a bar recognized her face and turned her in. Puente had reportedly tried to befriend him after learning he was collecting disability checks.
During her 1993 trial, prosecutors accused the 64-year-old landlady of nine murders. They claimed Puente used drugs to overdose the victims, suffocated them with pillows and hired convicts to bury the remains, just so she could cash their disability and Social Security checks. The scheme earned her at least $87,000, which prosecutors said she spent on plastic surgery, expensive jewelry and tailored clothes.
The defense argued that Puente’s actions stemmed from a rough childhood. Her mother was a prostitute who died when she was 10, her attorney said, and her father threatened to kill himself. Puente married at 16 and had two children but gave them up for adoption. She ran a bordello known for offering cheap blow jobs and wed three other men before opening the illegal boardinghouse. Although she didn’t take the stand at her murder trial, Puente claimed the tenants died of natural deaths. She just didn’t contact the authorities for fear of violating her parole.
After five months of testimony, the jury found Puente guilty of three killings, but deadlocked on the other six murder charges. She was sentenced to life-without-parole for two first-degree murder convictions and a concurrent 15-years-to-life for a second-degree murder conviction. Puente always maintained her innocence for the slayings. Yet in prison, she collaborated with author Shane Bugbee on the 2004 cookbook “Cooking With a Serial Killer: Recipes From Dorothea Puente.”
Puente died on March 27 at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Cause of death was not released. She was 82.