Despite her white hair and kindly demeanor, Dorothea Puente was not a sweet old lady. No, instead Puente was responsible for one of Sacramento's most notorious murder sprees.
The serial killer who earned the nickname "The Death House Landlady" is the focus of Oxygen's new two-part special "Murders at the Boarding House." Puente became notorious in 1988 after seven bodies were discovered buried in the backyard of the boarding house she ran in Sacramento, California for the disabled, elderly, and sick. It turned out Puente hadn't actually been caring for them, after all — instead she was stealing their Social Security and disability checks and intentionally overdosing them with drugs.
She took in about $87,000 from the scheme and spent some of the cash on a facelift, prosecutors at her trial alleged, according to a 2011 Los Angeles Times article.
Despite the seven bodies found in her yard (and the two other murders she was accused of), Puente pled not guilty to the nine charges against her. She was ultimately only convicted of three murders and sentenced to life in prison, the outlet reported. So, did she ever confess to murdering her boarders?
Well, since Puente's tenants were "shadow people," as the Los Angeles Times put it, the string of deaths her boarding house went largely unnoticed until 1988. An outreach volunteer who had placed Bert Montoya, a man with intellectual disabilities, at Puente's home, became concerned when he seemingly vanished, according to a 2009 Sactown Magazine article. Puente tried to put the volunteer off by insisting Montoya had run away to Mexico, but the concerned woman soon filed a missing persons report.
When an officer stopped by the residence, he interviewed Puente and another tenant in Puente's presence. The tenant seemed to corroborate Puente's story — until he passed a note to the officer claiming Puente was forcing him to lie, according to Sactown Magazine. The tenant then revealed that another boarder had seemingly vanished and that Puente had hired prisoners on furlough to dig holes in her backyard.
Police returned to the home on Nov. 11, 1988 to investigate further and found a human leg bone and decomposing foot in the yard. Puente insisted she knew nothing about the body, and the following day, as authorities converged on her home to excavate the entire yard, she asked for permission to go to a nearby hotel to meet a nephew for coffee, according to Sactown Magazine. It was only after she left investigators found a second body. When they went to arrest her, she had vanished.
Puente didn't last long on the lam, though. She was found just four days later at a California motel after a man she'd been drinking with at a bar turned her in. Eerily enough, she had become interested in hanging out with him after learning he received disability checks, The Los Angeles Times reported.
When Puente was arrested, she firmly denied having anything to do with the deaths. “I have not killed anyone. The checks I cashed, yes," she told a reporter, according to Sactown Magazine.
Puente stood trial in 1993 for the murders of the seven boarders, an ex-boyfriend whose body was found floating in a coffin in the Sacramento River, and her old business partner, Ruth Monroe, who died from a drug overdose. Her defense claimed the tenants died of either natural causes or had overdosed themselves, The Los Angeles Times reported.
The prosecution, meanwhile, contended she was a "cold, calculating” serial killer, according to the outlet.
William Vicary, a forensic psychologist who worked with Puente after her arrest, said he avoided directly asking her whether she was a murderer because he knew she wouldn't answer.
“Her eyes would fill with tears, but she would never admit it,” he told Sactown Magazine. “It was too humiliating, too shameful for her to admit responsibility for these crimes. And it was so counter to her strenuous effort all her life to be somebody who was respected, somebody important.”
In the end, she was convicted of just three murders and sent to spend out the remainder of her life in prison. There, she maintained her innocence.
During a jailhouse interview with Sactown Magazine, she insisted she wasn't guilty, saying, "They don’t have all the facts ... But God always puts obstacles in people’s way. Look at Job, John, Paul, Moses. Things happen for a reason.”
She did comment on her prison sentence when asked if she sometimes wished if she had gotten the death penalty, saying, “Maybe I would have been better off. It’s the same thing. I’m here until I die.”
Puente eventually died of natural causes at age 82 in March 2011, The Los Angeles Times reported. She never did confess to the murders.
For more on Puente, watch "Murders at the Boarding House" on Oxygen.
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