This ‘sweet little granny’ was actually a psychotic serial killer



With her chiffon dresses, thick-rimmed glasses, grey hair and litter of kittens, Dorothea Puente looked like a sweet old lady – even insisting to some, “Call me Grandma.”

But looks can be extremely deceiving – and, in this case, the innocuous landlady was actually a terrifying serial killer who committed at least nine murders inside her boarding house in Sacramento, California throughout the 1980s.

Between 1982 and 1989, Puente would take in the vulnerable and homeless – poisoning and strangling some of her guests before burying them on her property and cashing their social security checks.

The disappearances of these so-called “shadow people” went unnoticed for years, until eventually a social worker Judy Moise – who speaks in new Netflix documentary Worst Roommate Ever – reported a tenant missing.

But the police could never have imagined they’d go on to find six bodies buried in the backyard of this “little old lady.”

‘She’s been digging a lot of holes’

Suspicions first arose about Puente in 1988, after Judy, an outreach counsellor with Volunteers of America, noticed 52-year-old Alvaro Montoya – someone she’d placed at Puente’s house – had vanished.

Landlady Dorothea Puente gestures as the verdict of guilty on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder is read against her in a courtroom in Monterey, Calif., Thursday afternoon, Aug. 26, 1993.Paul SakumaAlvaro had struggled with his mental health and been homeless for years, and Judy didn’t buy Puente’s explanation that he’d left for a holiday in Mexico with his brother – especially as she knew he didn’t speak to his family.

Judy also questioned another of Puente’s tenants, John Sharp, who told her: “Something is wrong. She’s been digging a lot of holes.”

She alerted police, who went to the house, where they were met with the same answer that Alvaro was on holiday.

But John slipped them a message. “She’s making me lie for her.”

Rotting flesh discovered in garden

The police returned and searched the house, finding nothing, so they asked permission to dig up the garden “so they could tell the social worker they’ve done all they can”.

Puente agreed – even providing an extra shovel for them to do so.

In Worst Roommate Ever, one of the policemen who worked on the case recalls digging up the garden and finding “pieces of cloth, egg shells, and leather pieces that looked like beef jerky”.

“We were just digging and digging,” he says. “And I could see Dorothea staring out the window at us, above.”

Finally, they found the body of 78-year-old Leona Carpenter, and the police realized what they thought was beef jerky was actually human flesh. 

In this March 31, 1989 file photo, Dorothea Puente, the Sacramento Victorian boarding house landlady where police found seven bodies buried in her yard, huddles with attorney Kevin Clymo, during her arraignment in municipal court in Sacramento, Calif. WALT ZEBOSKI“I had been removing it from the bone,” one says in the documentary.

When questioned by police initially, Puente remained calm and denied everything.

The policeman who interrogated her reveals in the documentary: “She was emotionless and she would look straight into my eyes and answer every question. 

“She never flinched. She never said anything. She denied everything.”

But, the next day, as the police started digging up other areas of the garden, she asked permission to go and meet her nephew for a coffee to “calm her nerves”.

Due to there being no evidence to link her to the body, she was allowed to leave – but managed to flee all the way to Los Angeles, where she was found five days later when a man in a bar recognized her from TV.

Meanwhile, another six bodies had been found in Puente’s back garden, including those of 51-year-old Alberto Montoya, 64-year-old Dorothy Miller, 55-year-old Benjamin Fink, 62-year-old James Gallop, 64-year-old Vera Faye Martin and 78-year-old Betty Palmer.

Multiple murder suspect Dorothea Montalvo Puente, right, is brought back to Sacramento from the LA area in the early morning hours of November 17, 1988. Sacramento BeeTwo more murders

She’d also been linked to another two previous deaths that were now seen as too similar to ignore.

One of these was of a 61-year-old woman named Ruth Monroe, who Puente persuaded to move into her house in April 1982, when her husband died.

They’d gotten so close that Puente had even told her children to “Call me Grandma”.

Soon after, Ruth died from an overdose of codeine and acetaminophen – with police putting it down to suicide as Puente told officials she’d been depressed after the death of her husband.

Another of the victims was Everson Gillmouth, a 77-year-old retiree, who had developed a pen pal relationship with Puente when she was in prison.

When she was released in 1985, they moved in together, but he abruptly disappeared.

In November 1985, Dorothea Puente hired a handyman named Ismael Florez to install some wood paneling in her home.

After Florez finished the job, Puente had one more request: to build her a six-foot-long box so she could fill it with books and a few other assorted items before the pair of them would bring the box to a storage facility.

But on the way to the storage facility, Puente abruptly asked Florez to pull over near a riverbank and just push the box into the water.

On New Year’s Day, a fisherman spotted the box, noticed that it looked suspiciously like a coffin, and informed the police. Investigators soon found the decomposing body of an elderly man inside.

However, it would be three more years before authorities could identify the body as Everson – only happening due to the similarities between him and the bodies being found in Puente’s backyard.

Sacramento police and coroners remove the sixth body from the yard of a rooming house as detectives continued to search for more victims, on November 14, 1988, in Sacramento, California. RICH PEDRONCELLI‘I used to be a very good person’

Charged with a total of nine murders, Puente was flown back to Sacramento. On her way back, she insisted to reporters that she hadn’t killed anyone, claiming: “I used to be a very good person at one time.”

Throughout the trial, Puente was portrayed as either a sweet grandma-like type or a manipulative criminal who preyed on the weak.

Her lawyers argued that she might be a thief, but not a murderer. Pathologists testified that they hadn’t been able to fix the cause of death for any of the corpses.

John O’Mara, the prosecutor, called over 130 witnesses to the stand. The prosecution stated that Puente used sleeping pills to drug her tenants, suffocated them, and then hired convicts to bury them in the yard.

Dalmane, which is a drug used for insomnia, was found in all seven of the exhumed bodies.

Prosecutors said that Puente was one of the most “cold and calculating female killers the country had ever seen”.

In 1993, after several days of deliberations and a deadlocked jury (due in part to her grandmotherly disposition), Dorothea Puente was ultimately convicted of three murders and received back-to-back life sentences.

Convicted American serial killer Dorothea Puente’s last prison photo, taken in June 2007. Sacramento BeeHistory of trouble

This wasn’t the first time Puente had been in trouble with the law.

In 1948, she was convicted of forgery and sent to prison for four months, before working as a prostitute for years and then being arrested for running a brothel in 1960.

Then,  in 1978, she was charged and convicted of illegally cashing 34 state and federal checks that belonged to her tenants.  She was given five years’ probation and ordered to pay $4,000 in restitution.

In the 1980s, she worked as a personal caretaker — who drugged her clients and stole their valuables.

By 1982, Puente was sent to prison for her thefts. She was released just three years later, although a state psychologist diagnosed her as a schizophrenic with no “remorse or regret” who should be “closely monitored.”

She died in prison from natural causes at the age of 82, on 27 March 2011.

In the documentary, police say: “This could be my grandma, she was the little old lady next door. You can not judge a book by its cover and she had one heck of a cover.”

Worst Roommate Ever is out on Netflix now

This story originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced here with permission.

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