Dorothea Puente, a notorious, grandmotherly Sacramento boarding house operator convicted in the 1990s of killing her tenants, died Sunday in a state prison in Chowchilla. She was 82.
Puente died of natural causes at the Central California Women's Facility, said Paul Verke, a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman. She was serving life-without-parole sentences for two first-degree murder convictions and a concurrent 15-years-to-life sentence for a second-degree murder conviction, Verke said.
Her macabre story, including allegations that she buried several victims in the yard of her Victorian-style home a few blocks from the Capitol, made headlines across the country.
At 64, Puente was tried for nine murders after police unearthed seven bodies around her home. Two more bodies, including that of a former boyfriend found in a box in the Sacramento River, were discovered later. After a five-month trial, jurors deadlocked in 1993 on six of the murder charges.
The investigation began in 1988 after a social worker looking into the disappearance of a mentally disabled man became suspicious of Puente's unlicensed boarding home. During Puente's trial, which was moved to Monterey County because of media coverage, prosecutors said police had been told months earlier that Puente was killing people and burying them. But the tip was discounted because it came from a heroin addict facing other charges.
Puente preyed on what investigators called "shadow people" — the elderly, alcoholics and the disabled. Though there were no witnesses to the slayings, prosecutors said Puente was one of the most "cold, calculating" female serial killers the country had ever seen. They claimed she used drugs to overdose her victims and then collected their money and Social Security checks.
She took in $87,000, prosecutors claimed, and spent it on a face lift, among other things.
Puente was on parole at the time of her crimes for an unrelated earlier conviction related to using drugs to rob elderly victims. She was arrested in 1988 in Los Angeles, where she had fled when the bodies were discovered. A man she met in a bar recognized her and turned her in. Puente reportedly befriended him after learning he was collecting disability checks.
Puente denied killing the victims, saying they died of natural causes. Her attorney portrayed her as the product of a troubled childhood.
There were conflicting accounts of her childhood, with various reports indicating she was one of seven or one of 18 children. She was scarred by her parents' alcoholism during her early years in Southern California. Her mother was a prostitute who died when Puente was 10, and her father sometimes held a gun to his head and threatened to kill himself in front of his children, The Times reported at the time. After her mother's death, she moved through several homes. According to witnesses at the trial, she was sexually abused while at an orphanage. At 16, she married, had two children and gave them up for adoption. At 19, she was a widow convicted of forging checks in Riverside.
Puente's attorney said his client didn't report her tenants' deaths because she was afraid of violating her parole by running a boarding house that catered to the elderly and infirm.