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Even the most conniving serial killers grow old — so don’t let little old men or little old women fool you into thinking they're all sweet. Take Dorothea Helen Puente, for example. She's one of California's most notorious serial killers, and her gentle demeanor is exactly how she fooled her victims.
Puente appeared to be a caring older woman running a boarding house in Sacramento — but in actuality, she was running a deadly operation. The serial killer, dubbed the "Death House Landlady," is suspected to have murdered at least nine people, most of them her own tenants. Her crimes are the focus of the upcoming Oxygen special "Murders At The Boarding House," airing Saturday, April 17 at 7/6c on Oxygen as part of Serial Killer Week, a nine-night special event digging into the most fearsome and notorious killers of all time.
While Puente was charged with the murders of nine people, she was convicted of only three of them in 1993: A jury could not decide on the other six deaths. During her trial, the persecution said she preyed on the weak and elderly by providing a home for alcoholics and houseless people, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1993. They accused her of killing the people she promised to help for their disability and Social Security checks. Until she died in prison in 2011, she maintained that all the boarders died of natural causes.
The remains of seven tenants were eventually found in her backyard.
Who were Dorothea Puente’s victims and suspected victims?
While Puente was not convicted of Ruth Monroe’s death, the 61-year-old woman is believed to be Puente’s first victim. She was Puente’s business partner who died in 1982, less than three weeks after she moved in with Puente. A coroner determined she died of a drug overdose, but could not conclude whether it was a suicide or homicide, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Very shortly after Monroe’s suspicious death, Puente was arrested for, of all things, drugging elderly people and stealing their benefit checks. Monroe was not considered to be one of her victims. Puente spent three years behind bars.
Everson Gillmouth, 77, is another suspected victim of Puente’s. She was his pen pal during her three-year stint in prison. He lived in Oregon, but moved to California to marry Puente when she was released in 1985, The Los Angeles Times reported. However, they never did get hitched and he was soon found dead. His body was discovered in a makeshift coffin close to the Sacramento River on New Year’s Day of 1986.
Dorothy Miller was a 64-year-old woman who was last seen alive in October 1987, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1993. She was a tenant of Puente’s when she vanished. Miller was an Army veteran and Puente used Miller’s veteran identification card to get medical treatment. Puente was convicted of first-degree murder for Miller’s death.
Benjamin Fink, 55, vanished in April 1988 while living at Puente’s home. He was last seen after Puente told another tenant that she was going to “take Ben upstairs and make him feel better,” according to The Los Angeles Times. The outlet described him as an alcoholic. Puente was convicted of first-degree murder for Fink’s death.
The jury in Puente’s case determined that she killed Leona Carpenter, 78, in 1987. Carpenter was described as a sick widow who technically died from a drug overdose while living at Puente’s. Witnesses maintained, however, that she was so ill that there was absolutely no way she could have walked across the room on her own to consume the drugs that took her life. Puente was convicted of second-degree murder for Miller’s death.
Bert Montoya was a man with intellectual disabilities. A social worker placed him at Puente’s boarding house. She would come by Puente’s home to check on Montoya but he vanished in 1988. Puente apparently had various excuses for his disappearance — at one point, she claimed he went to Mexico, according to the 1993 Los Angeles Times piece. Later, when police dug up the boarding house yard, they found Montoya’s body.
Betty Palmer was a 78-year-old tenant who lived at the boarding house. She was found buried in the backyard without her head, hands and feet, according to true crime author Peter Vronsky’s 2007 book “Female Serial Killers: How and why Women Become Monsters.”
James Gallop was a 62-year-old tenant of Puente’s. Before living at her boarding home, he had survived both a heart attack and a brain tumor surgery, according to “Female Serial Killers.”
Vera Faye Martin
Vera Faye Martin was a 64-year-old resident of Puente’s boarding house. Investigators believe she may have been buried alive, Vronsky wrote. Patterns in the dirt around her body indicated that she may have been attempting to claw her way out of the shallow grave in the backyard. Her wristwatch was still ticking when she was discovered.
For more on Puente, check out the upcoming Oxygen special "Murders At The Boarding House," airing Saturday, April 17 at 7/6c on Oxygen as part of Serial Killer Week, a nine-night special event digging into the most fearsome and notorious killers of all time.
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