After being caught while on the run for several murders, Dorothea Puente told reporters, "I used to be a very good person, at one time."
Dorothea Puente had the look of a sweet grandmother and the kind job of running a boarding house filled with ill and elderly tenants. But as they say, looks can be deceiving and you never know what lurks behind closed doors.
The Early Personal And Criminal Life Of Dorothea Puente
Born in Redlands, California on January 9, 1929, Dorothea Puente was placed in an orphanage after both of her parents died before she was 10. At just 16, in what would be the first of several marriages, Puente wed a soldier named Fred McFaul. Together they had two daughters, but Puente sent one to live in Sacramento and put the other up for adoption. In 1948, she suffered a miscarriage, and her husband left her soon after.
Her second marriage would last 14 turbulent years, followed by her 1966 marriage to Roberto Puente, a much younger man whose name she would take.
Long before the murderous boarding house scandal came to light, Puente was involved in her fair share of criminal activity. In the 1950s, she was sentenced to a year in jail for forging checks but was released on parole after six months.
Then again in 1960, she was arrested for running a brothel and sentenced to 90 days in jail.
After her stints in jail, Puente began working as a nurse’s aid for the elderly before she went on to manage boarding houses.
By 1968, Dorothea Puente had divorced her fourth and final husband and had taken over over a two-story, 16-bedroom Victorian boarding house in California, just four blocks away from the state Capitol. Even though it violated her parole from her previous crimes.
Puente’s Terror At The Boarding House
Puente was popular with local social workers because she took in people who were considered “tough cases.” Many were recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, mentally ill, or abusive tenants. Most were elderly as well, ranging in age from 52 to 80, so Puente cashed their social security checks for them.
In reality, Puente was actually getting her psychotherapist to prescribe tranquilizers so that she could “stupefy and kill” them before cashing in on their checks. While she was in charge of the boarding house, Puente collected at least 60 social security checks from the deceased.
In the trial that was to come, the victims were deemed ‘shadow people’ because they were marginally homeless and typically didn’t have anyone in their lives who would notice if they went missing.
Suspicion first arose in 1988 when one of Puente’s tenants, Alberto Montoya, went missing. Montoya was developmentally disabled and schizophrenic. A social worker looking into the disappearance became wary when she learned that Puente’s boarding home was unlicensed. The social worker reported Montoya’s disappearance to the police, who launched an investigation.
Puente told investigators that the missing tenant was on vacation, but they noticed disturbed soil on the property and received permission to dig. However, Puente wasn’t yet considered a suspect and when she asked to go buy a cup a coffee, they allowed her to do so.
She wound up immediately fleeing to Los Angelos. Meanwhile, at the same time she was fleeing, the investigators dug up the whole yard and uncovered the body of 78-year-old Leona Carpenter. Then they found six more corpses. That’s when the police realized just what a terrible mistake it was to have let her go.
The Search For, Trial, And Prosecution Of Dorothea Puente
Dorothea Puente was missing for five days. In Los Angeles, she met an elderly man in a bar and befriended him. Unfortunately for her, the man recognized her from television reports and reported her to the local police.
Charged with a total of nine murders, Puente was flown back to Sacramento. On her way back, she told reporters that she hadn’t killed anyone, saying, “I used to be a very good person at one time.”
Because of laborious legal battles, Puente was 64 years old when she went to trial, which was five years after her initial arrest.
Throughout the trial, Puente was portrayed as either a sweet grandma-like type or a manipulative criminal who preyed on the weak. Her lawyers argued that she might be a thief, but not a murderer. The pathologists testified that they hadn’t been able to fix the cause of death for any of the corpses.
John O’Mara, the prosecutor, called over 130 witnesses to the stand. The prosecution stated that Puente used sleeping pills to drug her tenants, suffocated them, and then hired convicts to bury them in the yard. Dalmane, which is a drug used for insomnia, was found in all seven of the exhumed bodies.
Prosecutors said that Puente was one of the most “cold and calculating female killers the country had ever seen.”
In 1993, after several days of deliberations and a deadlocked jury (due in part to her grandmotherly disposition), Dorothea Puente was ultimately convicted of three murders and received back to back life sentences.
The Aftermath Of The “Death House Landlady”
While questions about regulations in regards to how the elderly were cared for arose during and after Puente’s trial, not many legal reforms were made at the time.
The boarding house didn’t fit California’s definition of a community care facility, which required medical supervision and a license from Department of Social Services.
“These entities fall through the cracks,” said Kathleen Lammers, executive director of the California Law Center on Longterm Care at the time. “Not everybody running them is being nefarious, but nefarious activity can crop up.”
Dorothea Punte died in prison on March 27, 2011, at age 82 from natural causes.
After learning about Dorothea Punte, the “Death House Landlady”, read about the hospital serial killer known as the “Angel of Death.” Then read about Aileen Wuornos, history’s most terrifying female serial killer.