Dorothea Puente is an extremely complicated individual. She maintains her innocence, but makes no attempt to explain away the mountain of evidence that points to her guilt. She simply says “they don’t have all the facts,” “those are lies,” “I’m not that kind of person,” or, my personal favorite, “they’ve never even talked to me!” As if her guilt or lack there of hinges on whether or not a person has met her. It gives one the impression that she believes that if someone doubted her, but then spoke to her, she could fool them with her masquerade. In Dorothea’s mind, her innocence is secondary to the persona she has created, for if she can maintain that facade, then she didn’t commit the crimes, or at least she can deny responsibility for them.
The convicted serial killer has the appearance and demeanor of a kindly grandmother, and it’s not just her guilt that she insists the state got wrong, but almost every detail of her life, including her age, birthplace and upbringing.
Born in Redlands, California in 1929, Dorothea was the second youngest of seven children. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was just eight, and her mother, an alcoholic who intermittently ran off for periods of time and was abusive when she was home, died in a motorcycle accident the following year. The orphaned Dorothea bounced between relatives and foster homes until she was sixteen, when she went off on her own, worked as a prostitute, and met a 22-year old soldier following his return to the U.S. from WWII. He would be her first of four husbands.
With such a dismal upbringing, perhaps it’s not surprising that Dorothea created an alternate version of events. Her chosen account, however, is admittedly puzzling. The way Dorothea tells it, she was born in Mexico, the youngest of eighteen children. She worked as a nurse during WWII, surviving the Bataan Death March. She was scouted for the Rockettes at age 19 while shopping in a department store in San Francisco and promptly flown to New York where she was hired. She’d then spend Thursday through Sunday in New York, and fly back to San Francisco the rest of the week to work as a cook in a seafood restaurant. Her work as a dancer allowed her to meet John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, and she was good friends with Rita Hayworth. During this time, she also won $10,000 on a game show and played in a handful of LPGA tournaments. During the 70’s, she was close friends with Ronald Regan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, although she never did get along with Nancy.
Public records of her life contradict all of this, and during the time she claims to have served in the war, she was a 13 year old living in California. Nonetheless, she used her invented nursing skills to provide cheap medical care to both residents of her boarding home and members of the Mexican community in Sacramento, of which she was a respected member, despite her Mexican heritage being pure fabrication. She helped fund Hispanic arts and education programs, donated food and clothing to anyone in need, and provided guidance for all the women who came to her as they prepared for messy divorce proceedings. Numerous Spanish publications mention her in a positive light, going so far as to refer to her as “la doctora,” giving her the honorary title she lacked from an education. Her qualifications may have been fictitious, but her affect on the community was admittedly very real.
Dorothea was said to feed the stray cats, pass out tamales in the neighborhood, and give away vegetables from her garden. Her biggest contribution to Sacramento’s least fortunate residents however, was also her most despicable: her boarding house at 1426 F Street. Social workers valued her willingness to take in the hardest to place individuals — alcoholics, drug addicts, and the severely mentally ill who had been turned away by other boarding houses and care facilities. This was the second time she had earned her good rapport — her first boarding house venture had ended abruptly in 1978 when she was arrested for forging the signatures of her resident’s benefit checks and signing them over to herself. She received five years probation and was forbidden from operating a boarding house.
This would be the start of a string of arrests. With no boarding house, she took on work as an in-home caregiver, adding 10-15 years to her age, donning oversized glasses and dressing in a matronly fashion. She was every bit the kind old woman that women older than her would expect to understand and care for them properly. In reality, she drugged three women and stole their checks, money and various valuables from their homes. Soon after, at the Zebra Club in midtown San Francisco, she slipped a sedative into her companion’s drink — a 74 year old man she’d just met that night. They returned to his apartment later that night where he watched Dorothea work through a drug induced haze. She collected all of his cash and checks and slipped a diamond ring off his pinky finger before heading out the door. These incidents led to her next arrest, where she was sentenced to five years in prison, though good behavior allowed for her release after three. The conviction did, however, extend her probation to 1990, meaning she was still forbidden from operating a boarding house.
Probation be damned, Dorothea was not the least bit deterred, and she opened up her most famous boarding house at 1426 F Street, where she had enough room for eight tenants. Supposedly Federal probation officers visited her multiple times within the following two years, never suspecting a thing. The story goes that her sweet
demeanor, tidy home, and lies about her visitors being nothing but friends or guests were sufficient enough to convince them she was committing no wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, the state had started sending some of its most difficult residents to Dorothea’s new place, and she built up her rapport in the community once more. It’s possible she fooled everyone, but it also sounds likely that officers turned a blind eye because of just how much her facility was needed by social workers. This is admittedly pure speculation, but gives some insight into just how little facilities are prepared for the severely ill or addicted. It was said that, at the time, Dorothea was the best they had, which is tragic in more ways than one.
In time, smells began to radiate from Dorothea’s home. The putrid, repulsive stench of rotting flesh that Dorothea insisted was a burst pipeline or dead rats under the floorboards. But the disappearance of Bert Montoya finally destroyed the dangerous facade she had maintained for years. His case worker was determined. She may very well be the only reason Dorothea’s crimes came to light.
She insisted police search for him or at least question Dorothea, because this didn’t seem right to her. This eventually led detectives to Dorothea’s back yard, lined with shrubbery and flower beds, decorated with the pleasant blooms of azaleas and rose bushes. Any yet... there was still that putrid smell of decay hanging in the air. Dorothea was very corporative, even lending the police an extra shovel to dig. It was her shovel, in fact, that helped unearth the first bone — a leg bone. Dorothea clasped her hands to her face, mouth agape, in astonishment, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.” She says.
The police would come back the following day with a bigger team to search the entire property. It wasn’t uncommon to find remains in yards or gardens at this time. Past families, especially victims of the depression, buried loved ones wherever they could, and the home’s backyard was often a viable option. And this bone appeared to have been there for quite some time, certainly much longer than Bert Montoya had been missing. But to stay on the safe side, Detective Cabrera brought her in for questioning. “I started working her,” Cabrera says, “but all along, she was working me. She was tough. She never blinked, never broke a sweat.” Her story stayed the same and there wasn’t enough to hold her at this point.
And so, after inquiring if she was under arrest (she wasn’t), Dorthera asked if she would be allowed to visit a local inn for a cup of coffee, and this request was not seen as unreasonable, so it was allowed.
In the following days, Dorothea would run, six more bodies would be found in her garden, and a massive search for her would commence. She was found four days later, at a motel in Los Angeles. She surrendered without a fight.
It was after her arrest for the seven bodies found in her garden that Dorothea was linked to two previous murders. The first was the death of her former friend and business partner, Ruth Monroe, which had been presumed a suicide all these years but was now looking a little less so. Ruth came to live with Dorothea after her husband was sent to a hospital with a terminal illness. Within days, she began to have trouble walking, within weeks she was bedridden, pallid, and appearing close to death, sipping on creme de menthe, prescribed by Dorothea to relax her. Dorothea convinced Ruth’s entire family that she was a nurse, and they trusted she would do what was best for Ruth. It wasn’t long before the police were called and Dorothea told them Ruth had overdosed on codeine and acetaminophen, too heartbroken to go on. The second was her pen-pal turned boyfriend, Everson Gillmouth. The well meaning, yet unbelievably naive man wrote to Dorothea so much while she was incarcerated that he’d fallen in love with her. He picked her up when she was released, paid to rent a new boarding house for her, and the two moved in together. His body was discovered in a wooden box on a riverbank by two fisherman. The body remained a John Doe until they were able to link him to Dorothea.
Despite her conviction and the insurmountable evidence against her, Dorothea has always maintained her innocence. It’s not just that she denies the crimes either. When speaking to Martin Kuz from Sactown magazine, Dorothea spun her tales of being a Rockette and entertaining with the Kennedy’s. She remained quiet and stared at the wall when her crimes were called into question. She seems to feel that if she does not address them, they can’t possibly be true. Likewise, if she spins tall tales about her life, there’s no reason to doubt them.
Which makes one wonder: what’s it like to maintain a lie your entire life? Or rather, multiple lies?
See, Dorothea is first and foremost a con-woman. Her interviews with Martin Kuz ended when he decided he would not be supplying her with food and personal items. It’s very possible she was attempting to convince him of her good nature all along in order to get this out of him.
Indeed, detectives remarked that after their initial interview with Dorothea, she had been playing them all along. Still, there are these unifying traits that betray our humanity, no matter how far we stray from them, and I think there’s something interesting in how Dorothea clings to a lost love. She fully admits that she “might as well be dead” to surviving children and relatives, but she cannot let go of her second husband, Axel Johansson. Despite a tumultuous relationship, Dorothea clings to her rose colored glasses of that marriage.
Make no mistake, Dorothea is a vile, manipulative, callous human being. But it’s that last part — the fact that, no matter how much we want to distance ourselves from her, she’s still human. Serial killers often seem like “monsters,” creatures so unlike us and beyond our control, and some of Dorothea’s worst traits — her greed, her willingness to kill to get what she wanted, and her lack of concern for her victims or their families, betray any semblance of humanity, and make it easy to keep that distance, but both her monstrosity and fallibility lies in her pathological need to be liked. She’s a liar, undoubtedly, but she seems to lie not just to others, but to herself as well.
Martin Kuz for Sactown Magazine: The Life and Deaths of Dorothea Puente