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'She Was Just Pure Evil': How Dorothea Puente, 'The Death House Landlady,' Got Caught

Dorothea Puente ran a boarding house for the elderly, disabled, or otherwise ailing in Sacramento, California, but her motives were anything but altruistic.

By Becca van Sambeck

To many, Dorothea Puente seemed like an angel. The older woman presented herself as a caretaker, running a boarding house in Sacramento, California that took in the kind of people society often abandons: the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill. She gladly put a roof over their heads — but in exchange, she stole their Social Security and disability checks and murdered them.

Yes, Puente may have appeared to be sweet older lady, but her demeanor hid her true identity: a cold-blooded killer in pursuit of cash. Her boarding house provided the opportunity to siphon money from those less fortunate than her and poison them with drugs. Seven bodies were eventually found buried on the property belonging to the "Death House Landlady," and she was ultimately accused of killing nine people total.

Here's what you need to know about Dorothea Puente, the subject of the new two-part Oxygen special "Murders At The Boarding House," airing on Saturday, April 17 and Sunday, April 18 at 7/6c on Oxygen.

Dorothea Puente's Early Scams

Dorothea Puente (birth name Dorothea Gray) was born in 1929 in Redlands, California. Her childhood was not an easy one — her mother was an abusive alcoholic who died when she was 10 and her father died when she was 8, Sactown Magazine reported in 2008. She spent her teen years bouncing between foster homes and orphanages, and was allegedly sexually abused at one point, according to a 2011 Los Angeles Times article.

When she was just 16, she started engaging in sex work, although she eventually met and married a World War II veteran. She gave birth to a child in 1946 and another one in 1947, but motherhood didn't seem to interest Puente. She eventually gave one child to relatives and put the other up for adoption, according to Sactown Magazine. She split with her first husband in 1948.

What followed was a string of marriages and criminal convictions. She served four months in prison for writing a check under a false name, and spent another 90 days behind bars after being caught in a police raid at a brothel, according to Sactown Magazine. She eventually opened an unlicensed boarding house that she operated throughout the '70s, catering to disabled, elderly, and homeless people. She was secretly stealing their benefits checks, though, and was convicted in 1978 and placed on five years probation, the outlet reported.

Puente was undaunted. She set about creating a more matronly image with her clothes and makeup, added years to her age, and became an in-home caretaker. She then drugged three elderly female patients and stole their money and valuables, a scam that landed her in prison in 1982 for five years, according to "Murders At The Boarding House." She was released early in 1990, but not before a state psychiatrist evaluated her and diagnosed her with schizophrenia.

"This woman is a disturbed woman who does not appear to have remorse or regret for what she has done," he said, according to Sactown Magazine. "She is to be considered dangerous, and her living environment and/or employment should be closely monitored."

Puente then opened the business that would give her the nickname "The Death House Landlady": a boarding house at 1426 F Street in Sacramento.

Her Victims

Puente's first victim may not have been one of her boarders, though. Her business parter, a 61-year-old woman named Ruth Monroe, died suddenly in 1982, shortly before Puente was arrested for drugging her three elderly patients. Monroe had just moved in with Puente when she died of an overdose — but a coroner couldn't determine if it was homicide or suicide, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1993. 

Everson Gillmouth is believed to be her next victim. He and Puente struck up a pen pal relationship while she was in prison and he fell in love. After she was released, he moved to be with her, The Los Angeles Times reported. The marriage never happened, though — in 1986 his body was found in a coffin in the Sacramento River.

After Puente opened up her boarding house at 1426 F Street, a string of people died there. Puente, who took in people who were older, disabled, or otherwise ailing, would steal their Social Security and benefits checks and poison them by lacing their food with prescription medicine, according to The Los Angeles Times. Prosecutors would later allege she pulled in over $87,000 from her scam and spent some of the cash on a facelift, the outlet reported.

The boarders who were found dead on her property include Dorothy Miller, a 64-year-old war veteran who died in October 1987; Benjamin Fink, a 55-year-old alcoholic who died in April 1988; Leona Carpenter, a very ill widow who died in 1987; Bert Montoya, a man with intellectual disabilities who died in 1988; Betty Palmer, 78; James Gallop, a 62-year-old with various health issues; and Vera Faye Martin, 64.

Dorothea Puente Is Exposed

It was Montoya's disappearance that led to Puente's downfall. An outreach counselor with Volunteers of America had placed him at Puente's boarding house and she was alarmed to learn he had seemingly vanished in October 1988, according to Sactown Magazine.

Puente offered up a variety of stories, including that Montoya had gone down to Mexico, before the counselor filed a missing persons report. An officer visited the home and spoke with Puente as well as a tenant while in Puente's presence. The tenant backed Puente up — but then slipped the cop a note saying that Puente was forcing him to lie, the magazine reported. The tenant eventually told police Puente hired prisoners on furlough to dig holes in her yard and filled some of the holes with concrete, and also alerted them to another boarder who had mysteriously vanished.

It wasn't the first tip authorities had gotten about Puente, either. Months earlier, they had been told Puente was killing and burying her tenants, but they dismissed the claims because the informant had a heroin addiction, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Police returned to search the home and check out the backyard on Nov. 11, 1988. After they started digging, they found a human leg bone and a decomposing foot, according to Sactown Magazine

Puente was brought in for questioning and denied having anything to do with a body in the yard. She was eventually let go, although the next day investigators converged on the home to continue searching the backyard. Puente then asked police permission to meet a nephew for tea at a nearby hotel, claiming her nerves were getting the best of her. They agreed to let her go. Shortly after, they found a second body. It was too late for them to arrest Puente, though. She had vanished, according to "Murders At The Boarding House."

A manhunt ensued for the 59-year-old woman, and she was eventually found four days later at a California motel. She had been drinking at a bar with a man who thought she was acting oddly, later realizing it was Puente, a wanted woman. He alerted the police to her presence and she was arrested.

Puente had become interested in him after learning he received disability checks, The Los Angeles Times reported.

“She was just pure evil,” Mildred Ballenger, a social worker who knew her, told Sactown Magazine. “I don’t know that she ever did anything good without a bad motive.”

The Trial And Aftermath

In total, seven bodies were found in Puente's yard. She was put on trial in 1993 for the nine murders. She denied killing anybody.

The charges against her were largely circumstantial: There was her criminal past and of course, the corpses at her home. All the tenants had died from a cocktail of drugs, including the sedative Dalmane, which Puente obtained dozens of prescriptions for, claiming it was to help her boarders sleep. It was difficult to determine, though, whether she had poisoned the tenants or if they had taken the fatal overdoses themselves, according to Sactown Magazine.

"She sat there so totally motionless and emotionless,” one juror said of Puente's demeanor during the trial, the outlet reported. “It’s like she was watching a movie she wasn’t particularly interested in.”

Ultimately, Puente was convicted of just three murders and sentenced to life in prison. Her time in prison was spent visiting the prison chapel, reading John Grisham books, and watching TV. She even wrote a cookbook from behind bars: "Cooking with a Serial Killer."

Puente eventually died of natural causes at the age of 82 in 2011, The Los Angeles Times reported.

She maintained her innocence until her death.

“They don’t have all the facts,” she told Sactown Magazine in 2009. “They’ve never talked to me. ... I don’t think anyone would pick this kind of life. But God always puts obstacles in people’s way."

For more on Puente's story, watch the new two-part Oxygen special "Murders At The Boarding House," airing on Saturday, April 17 and Sunday, April 18 at 7/6c on Oxygen.