This case is a frightening account of how an individual's traumatic life experiences and abusive upbringing have the capability of producing someone who is capable of murdering another human being. I had heard about this case briefly in the past, but didn't dive into the particulars until I began researching this episode, and was surprised to learn that the residence where these crimes occurred, still stands today. You will be shocked at how a middle-aged landlady, who had the potential to help so many, instead used her charm to entice and lure in the most destitute of our society for her own personal financial gain.
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Transcribed Episode / EP10: Dorothea Puente "The Death House Landlady"
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[Intro Music Begins]
We’re all familiar with serial killers. Ted Bundy, BTK Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, they are...dare I say…”household names”...
It’s true that the majority of serial killers are mostly men because most murders are committed by men in general. Only about 10% of total murders in the United States are committed by women.
There are many reasons for this, could be because of social and cultural factors, biological factors or psychological factors. We do know that the psychological motives of female serial killers differ greatly with their male counterparts. Male serial killers will have a tendency to “hunt” their victims - who are often strangers and they are also are more likely to torture their victims before killing them or practice necrophilia or cannibalism. On the other hand, female serial killers tend to “target” their victims, who are most likely people they know, and they usually kill for financial gain.
In the 1980’s, there was one such member of our society who seemed to fit that profile...someone who was quite busy making her mark to become Sacramento California’s most notorious female serial killer...Dorothea Puente.
[Intro Music Ends]
On January 9, 1929 Dorothea Helen Gray was born in Redlands California. The city of Redlands lies about 64 miles directly east of the city of Los Angeles. Dorothea was brought up in a tumultuous and abusive home, with both of her parents being alcoholics. She was the sixth child out of seven children. Her mother, Trudie Gray made money being a sex worker, and her father Jesse James Gray, a cotton picker, once attempted suicide in front of Dorothea. Growing up in a poor and abusive home, Dorothea often had to scavenge for food. Her father would end up dying of tuberculosis in 1937 when Dorothea was just 8 years old, and her mother, after losing custody of her children, died just a year later in a motorcycle accident.
Having no relatives that could immediately take her in, Dorothea was then placed in an orphanage where she was sexually abused. Dorothea would often embellish her childhood, stating that she was in fact one of eighteen children who were born and raised in Mexico. The Gray children were farmed out to different homes, and according to census records, Dorothea lived in the city of Napa at age 13. School records show she was a student in Los Angeles at 16, but less than a year later, she moved to Olympia Washington, where she would call herself "Sheri," and worked in a milkshake parlor during the summer of 1945. She would also soon turn to prostitution to earn extra money.
Her extended family in Fresno would eventually remove her from the orphanage, but the trauma from her early years would follow Dorothea throughout her entire life.
Despite her chaotic upbringing, she managed to marry, not once, but four times (and only two divorces are actually documented).
In 1945, at the age of 16, while Dorothea was living in a motel with a friend working as a prostitute, she met Fred McFaul, a 22 year old soldier who had just returned from the Pacific Ocean Theatre of World War II. Fred recalled meeting Dorothea, and described her as a “good-looking female” and that “she knew how to make a buck when she wanted to.”
The couple married in Reno Nevada (Dorothea claimed she was 30 at the time and gave a false name) and moved to Gardnerville, Nevada - a small town that lies on the Nevada/California border - set up house and eventually had two daughters between 1946 and 1948.
It didn’t take long for Dorothea to show her true colors to Fred, and he began to discover she had a few bad habits. She not only loved to spend money excessively - buying nice dresses and silk stockings - she loved to lie excessively, making up stories about her upbringing and background. She would claim to have befriended Rita Hayworth, that she was the sister of the ambassador to Sweden, and that she survived the Bataan (bah-ton) Death March in World War II AND the bombing of Hiroshima. She’d also claim that when she was a Rockette, she’d met US Senator John Kennedy and his wife Jackie. The Rockettes surprisingly have no record of a Dorothea McFaul.
Following a miscarriage, Fred eventually left her in 1948 and her daughters, causing one of their daughters to be raised by Fred’s mother in Sacramento, and the other to be adopted outside the family. 40 years later, one of their daughters had a chance meeting with her biological mother, and described Dorothea as being a woman “with no real personality.”
After her husband left her, Dorothea had no source of steady income, so she resorted to trying to forge checks. In 1948 she stole checks from someone she knew and bought a hat, shoes, pantyhose and a purse with the stolen money. She was caught and convicted of forgery, and ended up serving four months in jail.
In 1952 Dorothea married her second husband, a Swedish man named Axel Johansson in San Francisco, and moved to Sacramento a short while later. The couple would have violent fights and would separate numerous times. When her husband would be gone for long periods of time, Dorothea - having an aversion to monogamy - would often have other men come over to her home. This happened so often that the neighbors even complained about the constant flow of taxis that would drop off men at all hours of the night. Despite all this, Dorothea would later describe her relationship with Axel as her “favorite marriage.”
Several years into their marriage in 1960, Dorothea purchased and managed a brothel. When the business was investigated, she was charged and sentenced to ninety days in Sacramento County Jail. After she was released, she roamed the streets and was picked up and charged with vagrancy and given an additional ninety days in jail.
Even though she was still married to Johansson, he was not in the position to support her. Court records indicated that he had Dorothea committed to a psychiatric ward in 1961 and the doctors placed her on antipsychotics.
As time went on, she continued to commit illegal activities that probably would have resulted in additional jail time had she not found a job as a nurse’s aid, caring for the elderly and disabled in private homes. It was shortly after this, that Dorothea got into the boarding house business.
After fourteen years together, Dorothea divorced Johannson and married her third husband, Robert Puente in Mexico City in 1968. Robert was 19 years her junior, and seemed to have the same infidelity issues as Dorothea. During their marriage, Dorothea ran a halfway house for alcoholics called “The Samaritans,” but it ended up closing down as she accrued up to $10,000 in debt.
Unfortunately the third time was not a charm, as her marriage lasted only two years. When it ended, Dorothea was given the opportunity to manage a three-story, sixteen bedroom Victorian boarding home at 2100 F Street in Sacramento California. It was at this home that she would provide care and housing to the homeless and destitute of the area, taking in approximately 40 tenants. The home quickly became a thriving business, and she would hold open houses during the holidays to not only entertain the poor and homeless of the community, but also for the social workers of the district whose endorsements she came to rely upon.
Each month, she would collect all of the tenant’s mail before they were able to see it, would take their benefits checks, and give them only a small amount of money to spend. The tenants, with issues of their own, would spend what little money they had at nearby bars, and would then be picked up by police - because someone tipped them off - and jailed for 30 days. With the tenants in jail, Dorothea would then pocket the rest of their money.
As the boarding house was becoming “financially successful”, Dorothea would donate to different political campaigns and charities, allowing her to seemingly become a Sacramento socialite. She would claim that she spent time with politicians such as California governors Pat Brown, Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan, and would state that she was good friends with Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman.
Not staying single for too long, Dorothea moved on to husband #4, 52 year old Pedro Angel Montalvo, a resident of the F street boarding house and a violent alcoholic. The couple was married in Reno Nevada in 1976.
The marriage only endured a few months, and Pedro left his wife the same year they were married. Following the separation, Dorothea started to roam local bars looking for older men with benefits - no, not those “benefits” - financial benefits. Here’s how her system worked: she would charm the men to gain their trust, steal their benefit checks, forge their signature, then cash them.
Although she was great at actually committing the crimes, Dorothea was terrible at covering her crimes, and was caught in the act and charged with 34 counts of treasury fraud. She was given no jail time, but five years probation - during which, she continued to commit the same crimes. She was ordered to undergo counseling and treatment with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist would describe her as a “very disturbed woman” and diagnosed her with chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia, an enduring condition that may produce delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech or behavior, or catatonic behavior.
Mildred Ballenger, a retired social worker, first met Dorothea in the 70’s. She’d say that Dorothea was obsessed with her own health, saying that she suffered from cancer, but every time she would see her, the cancer had moved to a different area in her body - moving from her brain to her breast to her liver, so she knew that Dorothea was lying about it.
Mildred began to suspect something was off about Dorothea and her tenants, when she noticed that two elderly women in her care had suffered recurring illnesses that couldn’t be diagnosed by doctors. When they were tested, their blood showed high levels of unprescribed drugs in their systems. Mildred urged other social workers to steer clear of Dorothea, but most ignored her warnings because there weren’t many options for places that would take in less-desirable tenants.
Dorothea had a close friend named Ricardo Ordorica who owned a powder blue, two story property at 1426 F Street in Sacramento. Dorothea was very close to Ricardo and would refer to him as her “nephew” although they were not related. In 1981, Ricardo agreed to have Dorothea rent out the upper floor of his home.
Not long after Dorothea moved into 1426 F street boarding house, 61 year old Ruth Clausen Monroe moved into the house in April of 1982. Ruth had been a clerk in a pharmacy in downtown Sacramento before she retired in 1980, and had married Harold Monroe in 1981. Harold then introduced Ruth to Dorothea in the fall of that same year. Soon after their marriage, Harold became diagnosed with terminal cancer and was admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital for 24 hour care. To save money, Ruth moved into the Sacramento house bringing all her belongings with her. Ruth had five children who would visit her at the F Street house often, sometimes daily.
Dorothea and Ruth had decided to start a small food service operation where they would cater meals to patrons at the Round Corner Tavern in midtown Sacramento but they ended up shutting down the business a week after Ruth moved in because it just didn’t work out.
It was only a couple of weeks after Ruth moved in, that she began to get ill. Her body became so weak she struggled to stand and told a friend at a beauty parlor that “I feel like I’m going to die.”
Ruth’s son William Clausen, who checked in on her often, was shocked to see his sickly mother drinking crème de menthe, since his mother rarely drank. She told her son that Dorothea had given it to her to help her calm down. William believed Dorothea’s advice, mainly because she had conned them into thinking she was a nurse and nurse’s aid.
Seventeen days after her arrival to the F street house, Ruth died from an overdose of codeine and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol). When questioned about her friend’s death, Dorothea would tell police that Rush was depressed because of her terminally ill husband - the police believed her and the Coroner ruled her death a suicide.
Ruth’s family didn’t buy it, and suspected Dorothea of poisoning her. Their theory was even more validated when they discovered that Dorothea had pulled out thousands of dollars belonging to their mother from their joint business account.
A few weeks after Ruth’s death, 74 year old named Malcolm McKenzie accused Dorothea of drugging and stealing his pension. Apparently he had met Dorothea at a local bar, had a few drinks with her and invited her back to his apartment. It was there that he suddenly became dizzy and was unable to speak or move. He could only sit there and watch as Dorothea searched his house for valuables and stole his rare penny collection and a diamond ring off of his finger. She was also accused of drugging three women with tranquilizers to steal their checks, cash and valuables in the early 1980’s. These thefts led to her arrest and on August 18, 1982, and she was sentenced to five years in prison, only serving three years.
Having been in this environment previously, Dorothea quickly adjusted and started corresponding with a penpal. 77 year old Oregon retiree, Everson Gillmouth, had an inclination for writing letters to incarcerated women. He struck up an emotional relationship with Dorothea, and she soon discovered that he had a nice sized pension and owned a truck and Airstream trailer. When she was released on September 9th, 1985, Everson Gillmouth was there to pick her up in his red 1980 Ford Pickup Truck. As part of her probation she was ordered to stay away from the elderly and to not “handle government checks of any kind issued to others.”
A state psychologist who had evaluated Dorothea before her release from prison in 1985, diagnosed her with schizophrenia, writing in his report that “This woman is a disturbed woman who does not appear to have remorse or regret for what she has done...she is to be considered dangerous, and her living environment and/or employment should be closely monitored.”
Everson moved things along quickly and told his sister he was going to marry Dorothea and add her to his checking account. At the time Dorothea was renting the upper room at 1426 F Street for just $200 a month. Ricardo Odorica, the owner of the house, agreed to let them rent the entire upstairs of the home for $600 a month.
Ricardo eventually moved out of 1426 F street and left Dorothea to take care of the entire house. She began to run the property as a boarding house and sublet the 1st floor to tenants for cheap rent and took over the second story for herself. Part of the agreement with being a tenant in Dorothea’s care, was that she would read and open their mail. During this daily process, she would remove their social security checks, and pay the tenants a fixed allowance, pocketing the rest of the money for what she called “expenses” for the boarding house.
The house was soon filled to capacity as social workers learned that it was one of the few places where they could refer their homeless clients. However no one thought to do a background check of the sweet landlady that was quickly taking in the elderly, disabled and drug and alcohol addicted tenants, and that running an unlicensed boarding house for elderly tenants was a direct violation of Dorothea’s parole.
In regards to how her tenants viewed Dorothea, her reputation was mixed. Some of the tenants resented her for refusing to give them their mail or their money and would say she would often throw cuss-filled fits and throw furniture down the stairs. Yet other tenants would be grateful to her for her acts of kindness. John Sharp, a 64 year old retired cook who lived in Dorothea’s boarding house for 11 months, said that she would feed stray cats, cooked homemade meals for her tenants, handed out vegetables from her garden, passed out homemade tamales, gave her tenants clothes and cigarettes and even bought one of her disabled tenants an adult tricycle so he could get around more easily. Her charitable work in the hispanic community - such as giving them clothes, food, and advice to young Mexican women about divorce - did not go unnoticed.
In November of 1985, Dorothea hired a handyman named Ismael Florez to install wood paneling in her home. For his work, she paid him $800 and gave him a red 1980 Ford Pickup truck, stating that it was her boyfriend’s truck and that he no longer needed it. She also asked Florez to build her something peculiar: a 6-by-3-by-2-foot plywood box so that she could store "books and other items". Once the box was done, she asked Florez to transport it to a storage depot. The two of them then got in the truck, and on the way to the storage depot, she told Florez to stop on Garden Highway in Sutter County and just dump the box on a river bank in an unofficial dumping site, telling florez that the contents were just junk anyways.
Two months later, a fisherman spotted the box sitting on the river bank and informed police. When police pried open the box they found a badly decomposed body of an elderly man. The man was dressed in his underwear, wrapped in a white bed sheet and bound with black electrical tape. The body was so decomposed it was unrecognizable.
With nothing to identify the body, the man was labeled as a “John Doe” and remained unidentified for the next 3 years. Meanwhile, Dorothea continued to collect Everson’s pension and wrote forged letters to his family, sending them “thinking of you” cards in an attempt to cover up suspicions about his whereabouts.
During this time, she was not off of parole agents radar, and they would often visit her, up to 15 times at the home, but no violations - none even for violating her parole - were ever given and she was never charged with anything.
In 1986 Dorothea spoke with social worker, Peggy Nickerson, and offered to house her clients - Dorothea preferred elderly people with fixed incomes. Nickerson ended up sending her 19 clients over the next two years, becoming concerned when some of the clients began to disappear.
Neighbors on F Street also began to become suspicious when Dorothea told them she had “adopted” a homeless alcoholic named “Chief” to dig in her basement and remove soil and garbage in a wheelbarrow. Chief would later take down a garage in the backyard and install a fresh concrete patio slab. Shortly afterwards, Chief disappeared.
Dorothea always had an excuse for their disappearance: one tenant left to be with relatives, another had become a burden and was telling her how to run her house so she packed up his stuff in the middle of the night and threw it in the street. There was always an explanation.
In February of 1987, 78 year old Leona Carpenter was discharged from a hospital and placed as a tenant in Dorothea home, but went missing just two weeks later.
In July 1987, 62 year old James Gallop was released from the hospital after being treated for a brain tumor and moved into the care of the boarding house at F street. His benefit checks were also mailed to F Street, and Dorothea retrieved them upon their arrival - forging his signature on checks totaling more than $2,000. When a physician tried to contact Gallop and couldn’t get a hold of him, Dorothea called them and told them that Gallop had left to Los Angeles indefinitely.
The neighbors of the boarding house began to complain of the foul and pungent stench coming from the residence, and the constant amount of flies in the area. Dorothea would blame the smell on fish emulsions that she used to fertilize her garden, or rats in the floorboards, or even that the sewers were backed up. She attempted to cover the smell by dumping bags of lime and gallons of bleach into her yard or spraying air freshener in her house. When the neighbors contacted the health department to come out and investigate, they weren’t able to find anything causing the odor.
The disappearances continued...on August 19th 1987, 77 year old Betty Palmer, a resident of the F Street boarding house went to a doctor’s appointment and never returned.
The following October (1988), 62 year old Vera Martin also moved into the boarding house and was never seen or heard from again.
The boarders in Dorothea’s house paid a monthly rent of $350, which included a private room and two hot meals a day: breakfast at 6:30am and dinner at 3:30pm. Puente was a pretty good cook - which will come up later in the story - and would prepare pancakes, and bacon and eggs for breakfast. However, if the tenants missed a meal, they went hungry - there were no leftovers, no room service, and they weren’t allowed to go into the kitchen at odd hours. Alcohol was also forbidden in the house but of course Dorothea kept a well-stocked bar for herself upstairs.
On February 1, 1988 a volunteer aid worker named Judy Moise needed to find an alternate acceptable living situation for Alvaro “Bert” Gonzales Montoya, a 51 year old mentally disabled schizophrenic. He had been living in a detox center for the last five years.
Here’s a conversation between Bert and a woman, who was presumably Judy Moise, about him having to possibly leave the detox center, where he’s from and asking him about the “voices” that he would hear, this audio is rough, but you can make out Bert mumbling his responses:
[Audio of (possibly) Judy Moise and Bert Montoya]
How did you ever get to Detox?
You had no money?
Where were you, where were you born?
Where was that?
When did you start hearing voices? I remember you...
(Inaudible; Mumbling) New Orleans....
New Orleans? New Orleans?
22 years ago. What happens if um, if Detox is no more?
What happens if they, um take Detox away, then where will you live?
(Inaudible; Mumbling) They, they, they told you?
No they're not going, it's not, they're not going to close it. But if they did close it, some, some, sometime in the far future, if they did close it, then where would you like to live? You know what if you get on SSI, you will have a place to stay. You will have a place, because you'll have your own income, and you'll have enough money to maybe stay in a hotel, enough money to uh stay someplace where you're safe, where you have friends.
Judy had heard good things about the boarding house on F Street. Judy and a friend paid a visit to Dorothea’s Victorian boarding house and were impressed at what they saw. Two days later, they arrived with Bert and he moved in. Within just a few weeks, Bert’s general condition had improved dramatically - his hair was washed and combed and his nails and clothes were clean. Under Dorothea’s watchful care, he had also been taking his antipsychotic medication more regularly, making him more able to converse in whole sentences rather than grunting or moaning in Spanish when he spoke.
About a month later, on March 31, 1988, Dorothea took Bert downtown to the Social Security Administration building. She explained to the staff that she was there on behalf of Mr. Montoya who was mentally disabled, was incapable of handling his own finances and wished her to be made payee for his benefits. The staff member gave her an application to complete and a short time later the application was approved and in June 1988 she began to receive the $637 of Bert Montoya’s benefits each month. Overall more than $2,000 was sent to Dorothea for Bert’s benefits. On August 29th, Bert missed a medical appointment, and was never seen or heard from again. Dorothea would tell her tenants that he left to Utah after a trip to Mexico to visit her relatives.
Judy Moise attempted to contact Bert and unable to reach him, decided to pay a visit to the boarding house on November 7th, where Dorothea fed her the same story about Bert leaving town. She didn’t buy it, and promptly filed a missing persons report. This chain of events would lead to a grim discovery at the infamous boarding house.
[Transitional Music Segment]
It was the morning of November 11, 1988 when Detective John Cabrera and homicide detective Terry Brown of the Sacramento Police Department, along with Federal Probation Agent Jim Wilson, arrived at 1426 F Street. They were inquiring about the reported missing person, Bert Montoya.
Dorothea answered the door and allowed the officers inside. They entered the knick knack cluttered home, but didn’t notice anything unusual. There were photos of Dorothea with politicians scattered throughout...Dorothea standing next to California governors Jerry Brown and George Deukmejian, and another photo of her and Bishop Francis Quinn, who served as the catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento.
While they were questioning Dorothea and another one of her tenants, John Sharp, John passed one of the officers a handwritten note that said Dorothea had told him to lie about Bert’s whereabouts.
The officers left and returned four days later with a warrant to search her property.
When the officer returned, they began to investigate the home's interior and exterior when they noticed that some of the soil in the southeast corner of the property’s yard had recently been disturbed. The men retrieved shovels from their vehicles - shovels that they had brought with them on a hunch - and they began digging.
It didn’t take long for them to dig up what looked like shreds of cloth and beef jerky. Meanwhile Jim Wilson was digging a second hole in another corner of the yard when he heard a thud as his shovel struck something hard about two and half feet down into the hole. Wilson called over Cabrera and Brown, and noticed what appeared to be a tree root. Cabrera hopped down into the hole to see if he could pull up the item.
Cabrera would later explain to the Sacramento Bee newspaper what he discovered in the hole: “I wrapped my hand around it, braced my feet and started pulling. I pulled so hard that it broke loose, and when I pulled it up, I could see the joint. It was a bone...at that time, I was airborne and out of the hole."
Dorothea was asked to come down to the garden and told to look inside the hole at the remains. She gasped and put her hands to her cheeks as if shocked at what she was seeing. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she told them.
The men continued to dig and came upon two dark dress shoes, one with a piece of rotting flesh that used to be a foot still wedged inside of it, and it was at that point that they stopped digging so that they could return the following day with better equipment.
The next morning, a county work crew with heavy machinery, the county coroner and a team of forensic anthropologists all arrived at 1426 F Street.
[Audio of Detectives Digging in Dorothea Puente's Yard]
These items here, uh, were uncovered out of the hole at Detective Brown is currently digging in. We found an object that we're attempting to remove.
11/11/88 and by shovel in hand we've uncovered bone with uh material wrapped around it. That's approximately 2 1/2 feet down below the surface, you can see where Detective Brown is...Detective Brown has just uncovered a shoe with what appears to be a human, possible human foot inside of it, partially decayed. We're approximately 2 1/2 feet maybe 3 feet down into the dirt, into the soil and you see the bone area protruding here.
Here's another shoe.
And here is a second shoe right there that he is uncovering. Okay another bone has been uncovered here. There was some white type powder substance there, Detective Brown pointing out the other bone that has just been uncovered.
And the white powder...
And the white powder, um, some type of substance in the soil. It's a possibility that the substance is a lye powder, without any chemical analysis that's just a guess. Still digging...can you see the shoes. Can you get a ...here's a second shoe that was uncovered, that's the bottom heel. Can you see the substance inside of that shoe there, clothing, bones...
You can imagine what commotion this caused in the neighborhood - it didn’t take long before neighbors and onlookers were trying to peer over the fence at what was taking place in Dorothea’s yard. What in the world could they possibly be doing at the home of the generous landlady who handed out tamales during the holidays and had helped so many?
The first body they dug up from the yard was a small skeletonized individual with gray hair:
[News Coverage Regarding Bodies Found on Dorothea Puente's Property]
[News Anchor 1]
A gruesome story is unfolding at this Sacramento address, and that story tops News 10 tonight at 6.
[News Anchor: Dick Cable]
Detectives discovered a body buried at a downtown Sacramento home, police fear they may find more. Lynne Gormley with the story…
[News Reporter: Lynne Gormley]
It was an informant that told police they should look behind this Victorian home at 1426 F Street. Digging up the back garden police found a body.
[Lt. Joe Enloe, Sacramento Police]
After digging for a short time, uh they did find what appears to be the remains of a human being. And so, we have stopped our digging at this time, and we’re waiting now for the experts to come in.
[News Reporter: Lynne Gormley]
A bay area anthropologist is on his way, the remains will be analyzed. But police already suspect how the person died.
Did your informant tell you that these people may have been poisoned?
[Lt. Joe Enloe, Sacramento Police]
Uh, that’s a possibility, yes.
[News Reporter: Lynne Gormley]
The owner and landlord rented out four rooms downstairs, police have questioned Dorothea Puentes (sic) then released her. Some renters have also been questioned - no one has been charged. Police suspect the victims may have been poisoned than buried in the backyard. The body found today could have been in the ground for as long as four years.
[Lt. Joe Enloe, Sacramento Police]
So it’s gonna be an excavation, actually has to bring it out, they’ll have to screen it, they’ll have to take it back.
[News Reporter: Lynne Gormley]
Sounds like this will take several days.
[Lt. Joe Enloe, Sacramento Police]