After discovering the first of seven bodies on the grounds of a Victorian boarding house, police allowed the prime suspect in the developing murder case to walk away despite their knowledge of her past criminal convictions and a report that she had asked a potential witness to lie, according to court records obtained Tuesday.
Police also knew that the matronly looking suspect had arranged to dig several trenches on the grounds, and the investigators could still see residue of lime, a chemical often used to speed the decay of animal remains.
Some experts in criminal law contended Tuesday that--despite the claims of Sacramento police--there indeed was sufficient information last Saturday to have arrested the suspect: Dorothea Montalvo Puente, 59, the boarding house operator who immediately disappeared after a detective helped escort her through police lines to a nearby hotel.
It was not until late Monday--after all seven bodies had been dug up--that the police finally obtained a warrant for her arrest. The warrant lists Puente as the suspect in the apparent murder of one of her boarders, Alvaro Gonzales Montoya, a 42-year-old retarded man who has been missing for two to three months.
Police called a halt to the gruesome excavations Tuesday after a day of fruitless digging and probing failed to yield additional bodies in the pock-marked yard in downtown Sacramento. Police Sgt. Bob Burns said officers had found nothing either in a search of the house or the back yard that would indicate that more than seven bodies had been buried there.
“It appears that’s going to be the total number right now at this location,” he said.
Meanwhile, police launched a nationwide search for Puente by alerting “the entire law enforcement community in the U.S., including the Border Patrol,” Burns said. He added that police in Las Vegas were still checking a tip that she had flown there. But other law enforcement officials said they questioned the accuracy of that tip.
Burns declined to say what evidence was uncovered in the search of the boarding house, although detectives were seen hauling out a large brown rug and several grocery bags filled with what appeared to be documents. He said the first autopsy began at noon but there was still no positive identification of any of the victims.
The court documents--police reports that supported issuing of the arrest warrant--describe in grisly detail how the search for the missing Montoya led police to suspect that Puente had murdered him and others for their Social Security and other benefit checks. Montoya’s Social Security checks were made payable to Puente, as his landlord, according to court records.
One of the boarders in the house, John Sharp, described to police how “he smelled a very strong odor of what he thought was death in the kitchen area” four days after a boarder who had been “raising a ruckus one night” disappeared. Puente blamed the odor on a faulty sewer.
When homicide detective John Cabrera confronted Puente about Montoya’s disappearance shortly after the first body was found Friday morning, she insisted, “He’s not dead.”
Cabrera noted in his report of the interview: “I then confronted her about the body in the yard and Mr. Montoya and she stated, ‘Sir, I have never killed anybody.’ ”
Puente had been candid about her earlier criminal record, telling police that she had been in prison for three years on state and federal charges, between 1982 and 1985.
The court documents also show that police were aware that she remained on federal parole.
Early last week, social worker Judy Harper Moise of the Volunteers of America asked police to help find Montoya, whom she had helped place in Puente’s boarding house. She was concerned because she had not heard from him in two or three months.
Puente and several of her boarders initially assured investigators they had seen Montoya the previous weekend and that he had gone with relatives to Utah.
However, boarder Sharp slipped a police officer a note stating, “She’s making me lie for her.” Later he told the officer “that he was fearful of what she might do to him if he did not lie,” the court documents showed.
Despite the growing evidence that Puente might be involved in at least one murder, police nevertheless released her early Saturday morning. One detective escorted her through police lines to a nearby hotel where, she had said, she wanted to visit a nephew, the court documents show.
Two hours later, after finding a second body, police discovered that she had disappeared from the hotel.
After she vanished, one of the boarders in her home, Mervin John McCauley, told police that Puente had told him the previous night “that she wanted to rabbit (run).” Cabrera said he then told McCauley that “if Dorothea was to call again, please advise me--that I needed to talk to her.”
McCauley is now under arrest as a possible accessory.
Local residents expressed anger and puzzlement Tuesday that the police had let Puente elude them.
“I don’t know why the stupid officers didn’t put a tail on her,” said Frances Stout, a dressmaker who lives in the neighborhood and who used to sew for Puentes. “If you run a traffic sign they’re on you right now, but someone like that they let them go.”
Police have been repeatedly asked about that decision.
“The decision was made at the time on the information that we had at the time,” Sgt. Burns testily told reporters Tuesday. However, some experts in criminal law question that judgment.
At issue is whether police had sufficient grounds for arresting Puente before she disappeared. However, there seems to be no argument that police could have continued to follow Puente without violating her constitutional rights.
“On the basis of facts as I understand them, if I were a judge ruling on whether an arrest were lawful if made, I would say it would have been lawful,” said Phillip Johnson, a law professor specializing in criminal procedure at UC’s Boalt Hall.
“If the arrest is unlawful, then you and the department might be sued civilly and you’d be liable for judgment,” Johnson said. “You don’t lose the case because you made an illegal arrest.”
However, Thomas J. Nolan, president of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, defended the judgment of Sacramento’s homicide detectives. “An arrest in a case like this would be the end of a person’s life. You have to allow police an opportunity to complete their investigation.”
But both Johnson and Nolan agreed that it would be permissible to keep a suspect like Puente under surveillance.
“In a general sense, if you have someone you’re suspicious of, you can keep an eye on them,” said Gary S. Mullen, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn.
On Tuesday, a lot of confusion swirled around the murder suspect--even as to her name. She lists herself in the telephone directory as Dorothea M. Puente. Police and court documents identify her last name as Puente. However, she also is known as Dorothea Mantalvo Puente and Dorothea Mantalvo.
She was divorced from a husband of four years named Roberto Jose Puente in 1972, court records show. She later married Pedro A. Montalvo, and they filed for divorce in 1976. Apparently, she later began using the name of her first husband.
By late in the day, officers wearing orange shirts had begun to fill in holes in what had once been a garden and a source of pride for Puente, who had spent hours tending and watering her flowers and tomato plants.
As the investigation progressed, the narrow street in front of the boarding house assumed a carnival-like atmosphere with hundreds of people crowding along the yellow plastic ribbons bordering the crime area. A sidewalk preacher carrying a 10-foot-high white cross shouted, “Jesus saves” and distributed leaflets suggesting that “no one can go to heaven without Christ.”
Local television stations ringed the area with satellite dishes and several men slumped against the wall of a building facing the house, apparently content to spend the day watching the show. A crudely lettered sign in a window above the sidewalk proclaimed “Nightmare on F Street.”
Police on Tuesday also dug in a yard behind the boarding house which a few years ago had been an empty lot where Puente had been seen gardening. They found nothing suspicious.
Times staff writers Jerry Gillam and Peter H. King in Sacramento and Terry Pristin in Los Angeles also contributed to this story.