Judy Moise was beginning to get very worried about her client, Alberto Montoya. Montoya — known as “Bert” — was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and as a result of his mental illness, had ended up on the streets of Sacramento.
However, Moise, an outreach counselor with Volunteers of America, had been able to place Montoya in a boarding house in February of 1988. The elderly woman who ran it, Dorothea Montalvo Puente, had been a nurse in WWII, was well-respected in the Mexican community, and donated generously to the homeless. Puente had made it her mission to take in the hard cases, the people whose disabilities or substance-abuse issues made them otherwise impossible to find homes for.
The boarding house she ran, a powder-blue Victorian just a few blocks from the state capitol building, was in a rather run-down neighborhood. But unlike its neighbors, this house was clean and well-maintained. Its small yard was well-cared-for, too, with new flowerbeds and features installed regularly.
So Moise had felt relieved and thankful when Puente had agreed to take Montoya in.
But now it was October, and Moise hadn’t heard from Montoya in weeks. When Moise asked about his whereabouts, Puente at first claimed he’d left to go to Mexico, but that he would return. This did not seem likely to Moise, who kept hounding Puente. Puente then claimed Montoya had returned, but had then left with a relative to move to Utah. After that, an unknown man called Moise, claiming that Montoya was with him.
Finally, on Nov. 7, 1988, Moise was done with all the evasion. She went to the police and made a missing-persons report on Montoya.
“She’s making me lie for her”
When officers went to Montoya’s last known residence, the boarding house at 1426 F St., Puente answered the door. She was gracious, allowing them in and answering their questions. When they asked about Montoya’s whereabouts, she repeated what she had told Moise: a relative had shown up and taken Montoya away to live with him in Utah. The other residents — all elderly and either disabled or struggling with substance abuse — corroborated Puente’s story.
As the officers stepped outside, however, one of the residents, John Sharp, secretly slipped them a note that said, “She’s making me lie for her.” The note also asked the officers to meet with him privately, away from Puente.
When Sharp met with the officers, he told them of strange things going on at the boarding house. He told of another resident who had gone missing after Puente had gone to his room to “make him feel better.” Soon after, a foul stench had permeated the house, which Puente blamed on the sewer. Then there were all the mysterious holes that kept appearing in the yard — Sharp said Puente frequently hired prisoners and drifters to dig holes in the backyard, and that some of the holes were now covered in concrete.
Sharp also said that on the night Montoya went missing, he had heard a loud “thump” and the sound of something being dragged across the floor.
So the police ran a background check on Puente. What they found stunned them. First, she was only 59 — not in her 70s, as she had claimed. But more importantly, Puente was on federal parole for the crime of impersonating a nurse, then drugging her elderly patients and stealing from them. One of the conditions of her parole was that she was specifically forbidden from running a boarding house.
So on the morning of Nov. 11, John Cabrera and Terry Brown, homicide detectives with the Sacramento Police Department, and Jim Wilson, a federal probation agent, paid Puente a visit — without a warrant.
Puente again graciously invited the officers inside, where she readily admitted to being in violation of her parole. She consented to let the officers search the house. They found nothing out of place. However, they did find a couple of things that were suspicious: one was a large, unmarked vial filled with blue pills. The other was an empty pill vial in the name of Dorothy Miller. When police asked her about it, she claimed Miller was a relative who had recently visited, and must have thrown the bottle away while she was there.
When they asked if they could search the yard, she at first tried to delay, claiming she could hire some handymen to do the digging for them. But the officers had arrived prepared with their own shovels, so Puente allowed them to go ahead with the search. She even lent them one of her shovels.
The “Graveyard on F Street”
The backyard of 1426 F St. was 10’ by 40’ — not large, but a daunting task to dig up by hand. Resigned, the officers got to work as Puente watched from a balcony above.
It didn’t take long before Wilson — wielding the shovel Puente had lent him — found something shocking: a human leg bone, then an entire foot, still inside a shoe. While the remains were yet to be identified, they appeared to be those of an elderly woman, and the state of decomposition indicated she had probably been dead for many months — so these could not be the remains of Montoya, a large man who had only been gone a few weeks.
When the officers told Puente what they had found, she seemed shocked and confused. She claimed she had no idea that there had been a dead body in her backyard this whole time. And, truth be told, it wasn’t uncommon for houses as old as the one on F Street to have remains buried in the yard — in the early 20th century, families who couldn’t afford a cemetery plot would often bury family members in their yards.
Cabrera questioned her extensively, but she stuck to her story.
The next day it began to rain. Officers — now aided by forensic anthropologists and a crew of city utility workers pressed into service — continued to dig in the muck, looking for Montoya. News crews arrived, as did crowds of neighbors and people who worked in the nearby capitol.
Puente approached Cabrera while he was digging. She said that all this commotion and the dead body were very distressing to her, and that she needed to get away and have a cup of coffee to calm her nerves. Since she wasn’t under arrest, and the officers will still operating under her consent to search, it was agreed that she could go. Cabrera escorted her, along with one of her boarders, John McCauley, out of her yard and through the throngs of media and onlookers. He watched her walk towards a nearby hotel, then returned to his digging.
Within minutes, his shovel struck yet another human body. This one was much newer, wrapped in many layers of blankets and plastic bags.
Now the police had cause to arrest Puente. But when they rushed to the hotel where she was supposedly having coffee, she was gone.
Over the next four days, crews uncovered the remains of five more people in the tiny yard around 1426 F St. One, a woman, was buried in the front yard without her head, hands, or feet.
The press covered the excavations, and the local response to it, extensively. They gave the property nicknames like “the House of Death,” “the Yard of Death,” “the Death Garden,” and “the Graveyard on F Street.” They began calling Puente “the Death House Landlady.”
Once the police and crews had uncovered all seven bodies, the next problem was identifying them. They were all too decomposed to be fingerprinted, and, bizarrely, they were missing most or all of their teeth. Other than Montoya, Puente’s boarders had been people who had been forgotten or neglected by society, so there were no missing persons reports on any of them.
Knowing about Puente’s past conviction of stealing elderly victims’ Social Security checks, as well as the fact that most of Puente’s boarders drew at least some form of benefits, the police reached out to the Social Security Administration, who provided them with a list of people receiving benefits at that address.
They also spoke with neighbors. Many of them reported an awful odor emanating from the Puente house. One neighbor said it was so strong he couldn’t turn on his air conditioner…and that one day, he found two dozen human teeth that had been tossed into his backyard.
As investigators worked through these clues, they began to identify the remains uncovered in Puente’s yard. One of them, sadly, was Bert Montoya.
Little did they know they had not uncovered all of Puente’s victims.
“Little old lady” on the lam
Meanwhile, Puente was nowhere to be found since she had walked out of her house. Once inside the hotel, her purse secretly stuffed with thousands of dollars, she headed straight for a pay phone and called a cab. She and McCauley went to a bar for a drink, she would later say, and then went their separate ways — McCauley stayed in Sacramento while Puente fled to Los Angeles.
The Sacramento Police Department was roundly criticized for allowing a convicted felon, on parole, with a body in her backyard, to just walk away. While the SPD claimed they didn’t have any reason to detain her, other legal experts disagreed. At the very least, she was admittedly in violation of her parole by running a boarding house. Many believe her “sweet little old lady” act had fooled the cops.
At one point, an anonymous tipster said that Puente had flown to Las Vegas. While some on the SPD were skeptical, they nonetheless worked with the LVPD to try and find her there — to no avail.
For four days, the “sweet little old lady” evaded the police. But she apparently couldn’t help going back to her old ways. At a bar near the airport, Puente chatted up a man named Charles Willgues. She seemed really interested in his Social Security, Willgues would later tell police and the media, and told him of various ways he could get more benefits. Willgues and Puente left the bar together and went to her motel room. Thankfully, we’ll never know exactly what happened there (in later interviews Willgues would omit the fact that he had been in her room). But Willgues said that at one point, when Puente was out of the room, he saw her photo on TV. He left immediately and called the police.
When they arrived at Puente’s motel room, at first she claimed to be Donna Johanson, the name she’d been using since she fled. But when that didn’t work, she gave up and surrendered peacefully.
On the plane ride back to Sacramento, Puente maintained that while she had continued to cash her victims’ checks after their deaths, she had not killed anyone.
A trail of bodies
While the police were searching for Puente, they were also digging deep into her background. What they found was a trail of red flags — and more bodies.
In 1981, she had gone into a catering business with Ruth Monroe. In the spring of 1982, after Monroe’s husband had to go into hospice care for cancer, Monroe moved in with Puente both to save money and for companionship. Monroe’s children helped her move, and visited her regularly. Within two weeks of moving in with Puente, Monroe began to fall ill.
Monroe’s son, William Clausen, recalled that when he went to visit his mother, she was drinking alcohol, something she’d never done before. When he asked her about it, she said Puente had fixed her the drink to calm her nerves.
Four days later, Ruth Monroe was dead. The autopsy showed she had overdosed on codeine and acetaminophen, and the coroner ruled her death a suicide. Her children didn’t believe it. After Monroe’s funeral, they discovered that Puente had drained all the money out of their joint business account.
It was soon after this that Puente was found guilty of drugging and stealing from elderly patients. (When the Monroe family heard about this, they begged the authorities to re-examine their mother’s case. They did, but in the end, they upheld the coroner’s ruling.)
While she was in prison for the drugging and theft, Puente had struck up a long-distance relationship with 77-year-old Everson Gillmouth, who lived in Oregon. When she was released on parole, he was there to pick her up in his red Ford pickup. The two set up home in the house on F Street. Gillmouth wasn’t seen again after that.
Not much later, Puente hired a handyman to build a wooden box, supposedly for books and other “junk” she wanted to get rid of. She paid the man $800 and a red Ford pickup, and he helped her dump the box into the Sacramento River in Sutter County.
Meanwhile, Puente continued to write to Gillmouth’s family as though he were still there. When they would call, she would claim he was ill or out of the house. And she continued cashing his pension checks.
Later, an angler found the box containing the badly decomposed body of Gillmouth. His remains would go unidentified for three years — until police connected the dots that led to Dorothea Puente.
The longest trial in California history
In October 1992, Puente stood trial for nine murders: Everson Gillmouth, Ruth Monroe, Leona Carpenter, Alberto/Alvaro Montoya, Dorothy Miller, Benjamin Fink, James Gallop, Vera Faye Martin, and Betty Palmer.
Her trial lasted an entire year. The prosecutor called over 130 witnesses. But because of the condition of the bodies, the evidence was mostly circumstantial. Most of them had various drugs in their systems, but all had the sedative Dalmane — a drug that, when mixed with alcohol, could be lethal. It was also shown that Puente had obtained more than three dozen prescriptions of Dalmane between October 1985 and November 1988. But it couldn’t be proven that Puente had administered the drug, considering the deceased’s various addictions, physical problems, and mental illnesses.
In the end, the jury deliberated for 43 days — the longest in California history — before declaring her guilty on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder. The other counts ended in a mistrial, due to one juror.
She was sentenced to two life terms plus 25 years to life, without the possibility of parole, in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
While her case was sad, horrifying, and gruesome, it did serve a positive purpose in the end. It shown a light on the deplorable conditions in many unlicensed care homes — the media, in following up on this case, found many elderly and disabled people in California living in deplorable conditions of filth and neglect. The public demanded more oversight on homes, and the state responded by tightening regulations and punishing those homes running without a license.
Puente, meanwhile, was a model prisoner, often cooking for the other prisoners and guards — her tamales, in particular, were much loved. In 2004, she released a cookbook titled Cooking with a Serial Killer. It gets about 4.5 stars on Amazon, with most reviewers saying the recipes are pretty basic, but tasty.
Did she have an accomplice?
This is the question that bothers many of the investigators and others who have an interest in this case. It would seem impossible for a woman of Puente’s age and small stature (5' 3") to drag these bodies — some of whom were quite large — out to the yard by herself. And then there were the mysterious phone calls — to Moise, claiming to be Montoya’s relative, and to the police, giving them the false lead that sent them on a wild goose chase to Las Vegas. Surely, she had to have had at least one accomplice.
There are a couple of theories. One is that a homeless man nicknamed “Chief” was her accomplice. Neighbors said that Puente had “adopted” him as her personal handyman. They said Puente had Chief dig in the basement and cart the soil and trash away in a wheelbarrow — then cover the basement floor with a concrete slab. They said later, he tore down a garage in the backyard and poured a fresh concrete slab there as well. Soon afterward, Chief disappeared. Since no one knew his real name or where he might be living, it was impossible to track him down.
The other theory is that Puente’s boarder John McCauley was her accomplice. It was him, after all, who left the house with her after the first body was found. He was arrested as an accessory, but then released due to lack of evidence.
Whoever might have helped her, we’ll probably never know. On March 27, 2011, Dorothea Montalvo Puente died in prison. She never admitted to killing anyone, and never named an accomplice.
The Death House lives on
But that is not the end of this sad, gruesome tale. Often, after serial killers are exposed, their homes or killing sites are torn (or burned) down. However, Puente’s house was on the Historic Register, so by law it could not be torn down.
After it went through foreclosure and sitting empty for two years, on Halloween 2010, Tom Williams and Barbara Holmes bought the house. At first, Holmes, a mosaic artist, thought they could just repaint and renovate the home and be done with it. But the Death House’s infamy lived on as something of a local landmark.
The steady stream of gawkers was unsettling at first. But then, they decided to just lean into it. Williams, an aspiring writer and true-crime buff, went all in. He put up punny, tasteless signs around the property, such as “Trespassers will be drugged and buried in the yard” and “Keep out from under the grass.” He even has a mannequin dressed as Dorothea Puente holding a shovel in the yard. Their main purpose, it seems, is to defend the house, who they see as being unfairly maligned because of what Puente did there.
In 2015, Los Angeles filmmaker Nicholas Coles made a documentary about the house and its new owners called The House is Innocent. Williams and Holmes opened their home for tours to coincide with its showing, and donated the proceeds to a local charity that helps homeless people. Coles said the purpose of the documentary was to show “how Tom and Barbara use humor to cleanse the home of its macabre past.”
“The story of Dorothea Puente has come full circle,” Coles said. “Now her house is being used for good, not evil.”
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