Boardinghouse Murder Case : Social Worker’s Agony: She Ignored a Warning

Times Staff Writer

A social worker who sent more than a dozen clients to live in the boardinghouse of accused murderer Dorothea Montalvo Puente over the last two years told The Times that she ignored a warning from a fellow social worker last June that Puente was “crazy as a hoot” and had been in “trouble” in the past.

Peggy Nickerson, a social worker with the St. Paul Senior Center, also said she misled an inspector from the state Department of Social Services last June into thinking that Puente offered only free temporary shelter.

She did that, she said, because she did not know all the rules and regulations of the state licensing agency and was afraid the boardinghouse would be closed, leaving her with no shelter for her homeless clients.


“I was trying to protect the clients,” the anguished Nickerson said in an interview this week. “At least they would have a place to stay. I don’t like the idea of people being thrown out on the street.”

But now Nickerson is fearful that some or all of the seven bodies that police have dug from the grounds of Puente’s boardinghouse may be those of her clients.

“I have that hurting, stinging feeling in my stomach,” she said. “To know that they could all be my clients doesn’t leave me with a good feeling at all.”

Nickerson’s experience is only one example of the actions of social service and law enforcement agencies being called into question as the bizarre and tragic tale of the little house of horrors unfolds.

- Sacramento police have admitted to a major blunder in allowing Puente to flee Sacramento earlier in the week, and they may not have followed up on information earlier in the year that bodies might be buried in Puente’s yard. Puente was captured Wednesday in Los Angeles.

- Federal parole agents, who visited Puente at her home about 15 times during the last two years, are trying to figure out how they could have missed the fact that she was running a boardinghouse for the elderly and mentally ill--an activity they considered prohibited by terms of her parole on a forgery conviction.


- The Sacramento County Mental Health Division, which funds the St. Paul Senior Center homeless program and other similar agencies, has appointed the county’s patients’ rights advocate to investigate referrals to Puente’s boardinghouse.

- The tragedy has also given impetus to a lawsuit being prepared by Legal Services of Northern California, challenging the federal Social Security Administration’s policy of allowing allegedly unqualified and self-interested people to become the payees for mentally impaired and alcoholic people who receive federal disability checks. Social Security rules require that a prospective substitute payee fill out an application, but information on the form is not verified and the prospective payee is not even asked about criminal convictions.

Puente is suspected of murdering residents of her boarding home--many of whom suffered from alcoholism and mental illness--in order to steal their disability payments. Payments typically are $570 a month but sometimes total in the thousands, if back payments are involved.

Puente, who had been declared the official payee for at least one resident of her boardinghouse, was convicted in 1982 of forgery, grand theft and administering “stupefying drugs” to older victims, in addition to her earlier forgery conviction.

Nickerson, who earns $18,500 a year working with clients over 50 years old who are homeless and mentally ill, is central to the tragic story of Puente’s boardinghouse.

The people Nickerson works with are difficult to place in ordinary housing. They are often belligerent and start fights; they get drunk and vulgar and vomit and pass out; they take drugs, they hallucinate and call the police to complain about rays coming through the walls.


Sometimes they recite poetry. Dorothy, an American Indian in her 60s, is a former nurse’s surgical assistant. A wanderer, a drinker, a schizophrenic, she would get abusive to women and children in public shelters and be thrown out on the streets. But Dorothy had a streak of brilliance. She would recite poetry, heartbreak stuff, like country songs without the music.

No one wants these people. But they have stolen Nickerson’s heart, and when Puente called her two years ago to say she would take these people in, it was like an answered prayer.

Nickerson inspected the two-story blue-and-white frame house and found it cluttered but clean. She found Puente to be “friendly, willing to help in any way she could, and she could curse like a trooper.”

“I saw that from the first visit,” Nickerson said. “She laced her sentences with curse words. . . . She said she liked to have a drink.”

In other words she knew the territory. She could relate. And she offered great food. Breakfasts included cereal, eggs, pancakes, bacon. She canned food. And, oh yes, she kept a beautiful garden.

The rate was $350 a month, Nickerson recalled, but that was negotiable, and if somebody did not have the money, Puente said she could wait until the Social Security check or the disability money came in.


Nickerson started referring clients shortly after she met Puente, and things seemed to go well enough.

Occasionally someone disappeared, but these people are drifters; they seldom stay anywhere for more than three or four months. So it is not unusual for them to wander away.

Stayed Home

Dorothy, for example, seemed to be doing pretty well. She got drunk and was arrested for shoplifting cigarettes, but she stayed at the home for months.

“The last time I saw Dorothy,” Nickerson said, “was January of ’88. She was sitting on the front porch smoking.”

Then she disappeared.

Things went along like that.

Then last June, Nickerson boasted to Polly Spring, veteran social worker with the county Adult Protective Services Agency, that she had found an exceptional boardinghouse for her hard to place.

When Spring realized who ran the home, Nickerson said, she exclaimed:

“I know her. That woman is crazy as a hoot. . . . That woman has been in trouble.”

But Nickerson said she does not see eye-to-eye with Spring on “points of view and approaches” to clients, so she discounted the warning.


Now, in retrospect, she said: “I guess I could have checked it out. But I wouldn’t have known where to look. . . . It’s possible I could have probed with Polly.”

Spring, in the meantime, reported her concerns to her supervisor, Phil Goldfarb, who notified state Department of Social Services licensing officials on June 20.

State law requires that homes offering “care and supervision” to residents be licensed by the Department of Social Services. Care and supervision, said Deputy Director Fred Miller, is defined as such assistance as management of residents’ funds and supervising residents to ensure that they take medicine.

Mentally Ill

At least one of Puente’s residents--Alvaro (Bert) Montoya, the only victim named so far in murder charges against Puente--seems to meet that definition. Montoya, who was placed at Puente’s boardinghouse by Volunteers of America on the recommendation of Nickerson, is described by that agency as an extremely mentally ill man who needs management of such basic needs as his disability money. Puente took over that responsibility in June, several months after he moved in, according to Leo McFarland, president of the VOA Sacramento office.

The state license inspector who handled the complaint about Puente noted on a state form:

“Spring told (Goldfarb) that about 20 years ago, Puente was licensee that was sent to prison for misuse of client funds. At that time, there may also have been an allegation of homicide.”

Goldfarb insisted that he did not say that Puente--who was sent to prison in 1982--was sentenced 20 years ago. But he refused to discuss the reference to allegations of a previous homicide or anything else connected with the case. County administrators have ordered employees not to discuss the issue pending completion of the investigation by the office of the patients’ rights advocate.


On the morning of the state inspector’s visit to Puente’s boardinghouse, Nickerson said she received a call from Puente:

“She called in the (morning) and said an inspector was coming that day,” Nickerson recalled. “She said, ‘I have a relative working over there (Department of Social Services). I’m ready for them when they come and inspect me.’ ”

Nickerson said that when the inspection took place June 30, that in addition to Montoya, four of her clients were living in the boardinghouse.

But the inspector reported finding only Puente and a man identified as Puente’s cousin, who did not need care and supervision.

The inspection report notes that Puente said that “once in a while she will take someone in for the night from . . . St. Paul’s . . . receives no payment.”

A week later, the inspector reported calling Nickerson and being told:

“A little less than once a month, Dorothea takes people in who have run out of money. They stay for one to five days. Dorothea provides food and shelter for free. The people she takes in are independent but have just run out of money.”


The inspector concluded that the facility was not providing “care and supervision”--that it was merely a boardinghouse that did not need a state license. The complaint alleging an unlicensed board and care facility, reported the inspector, was “not substantiated.”

There is no indication that the question of Puente’s felony conviction was investigated or reported to any other agency by either the Department of Social Services or the county Adult Protective Services Agency.

Deputy Director Miller of the Department of Social Services pointed out that the inspector believed that the felony was 20 years ago and might have explored it further had she known it was more recent.

Charlie Varnon, chief federal probation officer for the Eastern District of California, said his agents would have taken action against Puente if they had been notified that she was running the boardinghouse.

“She has been very specifically instructed by our office that she was not to . . . work with the elderly or the emotionally disturbed, nor could she handle government checks of any kind issued to others. . . .

“That’s the real breakdown in communication,” he continued. “Had we had any information from . . . any social service officer that they were referring people to her . . . or even if we knew she was operating a boardinghouse, we would have stopped that immediately.”


But Varnon was unable to explain why his own agents did not realize that Puente was running such a boardinghouse after agents visited her there about 15 times in the last two years, sometimes without announcing their visits beforehand.

“That’s a question we’re asking ourselves,” he said.

Additionally, police reports indicate that Sacramento Police Detective John Cabrera told fellow officers searching for Montoya that he “was familiar with the suspect (Puente) and has had similar reports about her in the past.” This was in reference to reports of digging in her yard.