Survival Update

The world is yours

A Kindly Old Lady Was Really a Vicious Serial Killer!

On the outside, Dorothea Puente seemed to be just the kindly old landlady of a tidy Victorian home in San Francisco. But that nice exterior belied something terrible underneath. Puente was a serial killer, and her well-manicured garden hid the bodies of seven of her victims!

Police first came across the “killer landlady” when they came to the rooming house to inquire about a missing tenant. When they knocked on the door, they were met by a slight, white-haired woman in coke-bottle glasses.

Police asked if she had seen 51-year-old Alvaro Montoya recently; Montoya was developmentally disabled, and his social worker was worried after losing contact with him for weeks. His last known location was as a tenant in Puente’s home. She said she didn’t know anything about Montoya’s whereabouts but gave permission for the officers to search the property. It wasn’t long before they noticed a patch of disturbed soil in the yard.

An officer asked Puente if they could excavate her garden. “Dig in my yard,” she shrugged. “I don’t know what’s out there.” 

They dug, and within minutes, they were met by a stomach-churning find — the decomposing body of a woman. In the flurry of calling detectives and forensic teams, Puente, dressed in a long, red coat and carrying a bright pink umbrella, slipped out. 

A few hours later, Sacramento police Lt. Joe Enloe spoke with the media gathered at the growing crime scene on F Street. As body after body came out of the ground, Enloe admitted they had no idea where Puente was.

“She went for a walk,” he said, “and never came back.”

Despite her outward appearance, Puente had a tragic and sordid past. Born in 1929, she lost both of her parents at a young age, one to disease and the other to a motorcycle accident. Confined to a public orphanage at the tender age of 8, by 16, she had run from the orphanage and at 16 was surviving by turning tricks on the street and living out of fleabag hotels. 

For decades after that, she was in and out of abusive marriages, lived under several assumed names, and a whirlwind of arrests, prison sentences, and schemes. She served time for running a brothel in Sacramento and gained a reputation with law enforcement for sneakily cashing benefits checks mailed to her tenants.

Marriages, Scams, and Murder

In 1968, she married Roberto Jose Puente, whose name she would keep longer than the marriage. Sixteen months after the wedding, the relationship was over. Now in her 40s, Puente transformed her appearance. She’d always been known for her brassy, sexy makeup and dress, but suddenly she began wearing baggy, modest clothes and stopped dying her hair. She told new acquaintances she was a devoted Christian and loved serving her community in Sacramento by opening up her lovely home on F Street. She took in homeless individuals and people struggling with alcoholism and mental health issues. She hosted AA meetings, and local social workers knew her as a reliable placement for their clients. 

During the following few years, there were a slew of mysterious deaths at the house, and in 1982 a 74-year-old tenant called police to tell them that Puente had “drugged” him. She was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail since she was already out on probation for the forgery charges. 

While in prison, she met and eventually and became engaged to 77-year-old Oregon resident Everson Gillmouth. But before they could marry when she got out in ’85, Gillmouth went missing, only to be discovered a few months later floating in a makeshift coffin in a nearby river.

It wasn’t until that day that the police came looking for Montoya in 1988 did the noose finally start to tighten around Puente. As they excavated her backyard, they found seven bodies, most wrapped in sheets or tarps. One body had been there so long the growing roots of a peach tree had curled around it. They were identified as Leona Carpenter, 78; the missing Montoya, 51; Dorothy Miller, 64; Benjamin Fink, 55; James Gallop, 62; Vera Faye Martin, 64; and Betty Palmer, 78. 

Distressed neighbors told the media they had complained for months about the smell emanating from the neatly kept backyard. “We couldn’t stand it,” one told the San Francisco Examiner. “It definitely was something dead. It had a sweet, sickly smell.” When confronted, Puente said it was just fertilizer.  

Her tenants always seemed to be disappearing, but because Puente often took in struggling or addicted people, when social workers asked after them, she just said they must have moved along.

As far as Puente, when she hightailed it, knowing what the police would find in her backyard, she made it all the way to LA, where she immediately hooked up with her next mark, an older gentleman at a bar. While chatting him up, the man recognized her from television coverage of the murders and called police.

Shuttled back to Sacramento on a private jet that a local TV station paid for in exchange for an exclusive onboard interview, she was charged with the murders of eight tenants, including the previously-ruled suicide of Munroe and her onetime boyfriend, Gillmouth. Prosecutors alleged she drugged each one, strangled them, and then continued to collect their benefits. She hired day workers to dig holes in her backyard and then surreptitiously dumped the bodies and refilled the holes. After a month of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict on three of the nine counts of murder. 

It was enough, at last, to put her in prison for the rest of her life. Puente died in the Chowchilla women’s prison in March 2011. She was 82.

“She served as a living illustration of the notion that one cannot judge a book by its cover,” former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said when Puente died. “The epitome of evil without a trace of evil appearance.” 

The home at 1426 F Street has become a ghoulish monument to Puente. Upon her death, the home was sold at public auction for $215,000. The couple who bought it have played up its tragic past, sometimes displaying a mannequin of Puente outside and putting up a plaque that reads — “Trespassers will be drugged and buried in the yard.”