Dorothea Puente Finds Easy Marks for Money and Murder

After last week’s case of the heartbreaking murders Cary Stayner committed in Yosemite, we stay in California. Dorothea Puente ostensibly ran a boardinghouse in Sacramento in the 1980s. In reality, she targeted elderly people to steal their money, then killed them when the money was gone. This earned her the nickname of “The Death House Landlady.”

Dorothea Puente

Dorothea Puente was born Dorothea Helen Gray in Redlands, California in 1929. She had a rough childhood. Both her parents were abusive alcoholics and her father died of tuberculosis when Dorothea was 8. Her mother lost custody of her children two years later and died in a motorcycle accident later the same year. Dorothea and her siblings ended up in an orphanage where she claimed she was sexually abused.

An early snapshot of Dorothea Puente
An early snapshot of Dorothea Puente

Dorothea married for the first time at age 16 in 1945. Her husband, Fred McFaul, had recently returned from the Pacific Theater of World War II. Between 1945 and 1948, they had two children together. One she sent to live with relatives while she put the other up for adoption. McFaul left her in 1948.

Dorothea Puente Has Legal Troubles

Over the next three decades, Dorothea would have a series of run-ins with the law. In 1948, police in Riverside, California arrested her for buying women’s accessories with forged checks. She pled guilty to two counts of forgery and served four months in jail.

In 1962, Dorothea was arrested for owning and operating a house of prostitution that masqueraded as a bookkeeping firm. She claimed, unsuccessfully, to be staying with a friend and not knowing the place was a brothel. A court found her guilty, and she served 90 days in jail.

Dorothea Puente awaits her arraignment, November 17, 1988 (Owen Brewer/Sacramento Bee)
Dorothea Puente awaits her arraignment, November 17, 1988 (Owen Brewer/Sacramento Bee)

Following her release from the Sacramento jail, Dorothea made an effort to show herself as a resource for the down-and-out members of the community. She opened a boarding house at 1426 F Street in Sacramento. Many of her boarders were homeless and without family connections. As part of her effort to appear caring, she held Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the house.

The house at 1426 F Street (Genaro Molina/Sacramento Bee)
The house at 1426 F Street (Genaro Molina/Sacramento Bee)

But Dorothea soon faced another legal problem. In 1978, she was charged and convicted of illegally cashing thirty-four state and federal checks belonging to her tenants. She received five years’ probation and was ordered to pay $4,000 in restitution.

Between 1952 and 1978, Dorothea married and divorced three more times. Her name changed a lot, too, although she finally settled on the name of her third husband.

The Murders Begin

Fifty-two-year-old Ruth Munroe went to live with Puente in April 1982. She soon died from an overdose of codeine and acetaminophen. Dorothea was able to convince authorities that Munroe, depressed over her husband’s terminal illness, had committed suicide.

A few weeks later, 74-year-old Malcom McKenzie accused Dorothea of drugging him and stealing his money. She was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. While incarcerated, she began corresponding with 77-year-old Everson Gillmouth, a retiree from Oregon. When California paroled Dorothea in 1985, Gillmouth moved down from Oregon to be with her. He soon disappeared, but Dorothea continued to cash his pension checks. She even wrote letters to his family, telling them the reason he hadn’t been in touch was because he was ill.

Investigators dig in Dorothea Puente's back yard
Investigators dig in Dorothea Puente’s back yard

Dorothea Puente continued to take in boarders. Her parole was conditional on her staying away from the elderly and not handling government checks. However, despite her parole officers visiting the home at least fifteen times, they didn’t note any violations.

Dorothea’s Murders Come to Light

In 1988, a social worker with Volunteers of America placed Alvaro “Bert” Montoya in Puente’s boardinghouse. Montoya was a 51-year-old developmentally challenged man who suffered from schizophrenia. He had no contact with his family. The social worker took an interest in Montoya and called Dorothea regularly to check on him. The social worker thought it odd, then, when she called, and Dorothea said Bert had gone to Mexico with his brother. After a few days of Dorothea’s shifting stories, the social worker filed a missing person report.

A police officer went to the F Street boardinghouse to take a missing persons report. All the tenants confirmed Dorothea’s story that Bert had left with a relative. But one of the boarders, John Sharp, passed the officer a note scribbled on the back of an envelope. It said, “She wants me to lie to you.” He later told investigators that he didn’t know what happened to Bert, but that what Dorothea was saying was not true.

Police remove the sixth bod from 1426 F Street, November 14, 1988
Police remove the sixth bod from 1426 F Street, November 14, 1988

Detectives and her parole officer arrived at Dorothea’s boardinghouse and, with her permission, searched it. Finding nothing of significance, asked if they could dig in her yard. She agreed to this as well. The two detectives and the parole officer started digging. It wasn’t long before they discovered human remains.

The Arrest and Conviction of Dorothea Puente

Detectives took Dorothea along with her tenants in for questioning. She maintained the she had no knowledge of anybody buried in her yard. At this point, police didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Dorothea. But they did return to the F Street house with an anthropologist and a crime scene expert to continue the search.

While the search was in progress, Dorothea asked if she could go to the motel coffee shop across the street for a cup of coffee. Since she wasn’t under arrest, detectives let her go. It was a ruse. Instead of having a coffee, she fled to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, searchers discovered another body buried in the yard. They would eventually find a total of seven.

Detective John Cabrera flies Dorothea Puente back to Sacramento from Los Angeles where she fled during the search of her yard
Detective John Cabrera sits next to Dorothea Puente as they fly to Sacramento from Los Angeles where she fled during the search of her yard

Police immediately put out a BOLO on Dorothea Puente. In Los Angeles, she befriended an elderly pensioner she met in a bar, possibly her next victim. However, he recognized her from television news coverage of the case and called the TV station. They called police.

Dorothea Puente went on trial in October 1992. She faced eight charges of first-degree murder, one for the seven bodies found in her back yard and for Ruth Munroe. Prosecutors added a ninth charge when the body of a John Doe found three years earlier proved to be that of Everson Gillmouth.

The jury convicted Dorothea of first-degree murder in the cases of Dorothy Miller and Benjamin Fink, and second-degree murder in the case of Leona Carpenter. They deadlocked on the other six counts. Regardless, the first-degree convictions carried a sentence of life without parole.

Dorothea Puente, February 21, 2009 (Central California Women’s Facility)
Dorothea Puente, February 21, 2009 (Central California Women’s Facility)

Epilogue

Dorothea Puente died in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla on March 27, 2011. She was 82 years old. While she admitted cashing her victims’ checks, for the rest of her life she maintained they had all died of natural causes.

Seven of Dorothea Puente's nine victims
Seven of Dorothea Puente’s nine victims

There are many books about Dorothea Puente and her crimes. If you want to read more, you can check out Human Harvest: The Sacramento Murder Story, The Bone Garden: The Chilling True Story of a Female Serial Killer, or Disturbed Ground. There are other books as well and several true crime television shows have featured the case.

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