In the late 1980’s, the discovery of a bizarre serial murder caught the Sacramento area by storm. Nine deaths were attributed to the killer. It wasn’t the kind of murder that made people lock their doors at night fearing the return of the Night Stalker, or the East Area Rapist. This one was different and the killer was called “A Little Old Lady” in local media. That deadly Little Old Lady was Dorothea Puente.
Recently, my Mystery Writers of America Chapter (NorCal) held a meeting at the Dorothea Puente home, where she carried out her crimes. What made this event even more interesting was that Sacramento Police detective, John Cabrera, the district attorney who prosecuted the murders, William Wood and the deputy coroner who worked to identify the bodies, Laura Santos, all attended the event and walked us through the investigation in the place where it all happened. MWA member and acclaimed crime fiction author Robin Burcell moderated a panel discussion.
When these murders were discovered in 1988, Dorothea Montalvo Puente was on parole for cashing the welfare checks of people she duped into trusting her. While in prison, it’s said she refined her approach and planned to open a boarding house and collect the benefit checks of her tenants. More importantly, investigators speculated that she learned to be smarter this time and get rid of the pesky witness problem that sent her to prison last time.
Detective John Cabrera followed up on a missing persons report filed by the family of one of Puente’s tenants. At the time, there was nothing to suspect anything other than the disappearance of a person on the fringe of society–the vulnerable clientele that Puente housed in her F Street boarding house. The first contact between the detective and the killer occurred in the front parlor of the home and it was a bit unreal to stand in that room with detective Cabrera as he described the interview.
Hints of unusual activity occurring late at night in the backyard, caused investigators to return to the home. After Puente gave permission, investigators dug a few holes, and detective Cabrera found the first human bone–a discovery that would lead to the discovery of seven bodies buried in the small yard.
Through the investigation, Cabrera determined that Puente lured the victims to the upstairs kitchen–a place they were never permitted to go–and drugged them with Dalmane laced alcohol. When semi-conscious, the victim was led to (or dragged int0) an adjoining room to “sleep it off.” This was later known as the kill room where Puente would leave the victims, up to a week to make sure they were dead. Official cause of death was never determined. Puente would go on to claim that the deaths were by natural causes, but she admitted continuing to cash the checks of the dead persons.
The kill room offered access to the back stair case, where the victims were dragged out to the back yard for burial.
The bodies were interred and patios, sheds and gardens were constructed over them. It’s not a very large yard and standing in the spot were human remains were found–the next-door neighbor’s windows are evident. Was nothing ever seen?
In addition to the seven bodies found at the home, a boyfriend, the man who picked her up from prison was also said to be one of her victims. His body was found in a wooden box in Sutter County. The box was made by a parolee for Puente and left at the house, supposedly to store donated books. Another suicide was also believed to have been a Puente victim. One victim, Betty Palmer, was buried without her head, hands and feet and those extremities were never found. I think it’s safe to say, we will never know everything that happened in that house.
When it was over, a jury convicted Dorothea Puente on three counts of murder. Before she died in prison, I saw her at a Chowchilla women’s prison (Central California Women’s Facility)–a sliver haired little old woman, still trying to manipulate the system. Hard to believe that evil one small package can hold…