When Ricardo Ordorica rented his home to a soft-spoken white-haired woman two years ago, the Mexican immigrant thought he had finally stepped up a rung on the American ladder to success.
He had worked eight years as a night janitor to earn the down payment for the quaint Victorian house on a tree-lined downtown street. And his first and only tenant meant that he could afford to move his family to a better neighborhood in suburbia.
But in less than two years, the house that was to be the key to a better life for the Ordorica family became the focus of a bizarre tragedy.
The tenant was Dorothea Puente, a longtime family friend who told the Ordoricas that she wanted to turn their home into a boarding house for poor, elderly people. Police said she did more than that. Last November they accused her of murdering seven of the boarders and burying their bodies in the flower-filled yard the Ordoricas once tended so lovingly.
Backhoes and Bulldozers
As throngs gathered along F Street to watch the gruesome search for evidence, police dragged in backhoes and bulldozers to dig up trees and shrubbery. They used hammers and crowbars to knock holes in the floors and a wall. They chopped up the concrete walkways and tore down a brick wall bordering the front yard. The scene attracted souvenir hunters who stole the mailbox and other memorabilia. Later, vandals broke the windows.
The investment that was to provide a financial legacy for Ordorica's children quickly became the symbol of an "Arsenic and Old Lace" mass murder. When it was over, Ordorica assessed damage to the house at a minimum of $10,000, even if he does most of the work himself.
"This has been very difficult," Ordorica said recently through an interpreter. "I can't rent the house because of the way it is. I can't fix it because I don't have enough money."
In April, Ordorica filed a claim with the city requesting $9,000 as reimbursement. Although police had promised to restore the property, Ordorica said they only filled in the trenches and replaced the brick wall.
Shortly after he filed the claim, Ordorica said, the police came back again--this time to break up a concrete slab surrounding the back step that a persistent caller insisted was covering another body. As he had done in November, Ordorica willingly gave them access to the property. There were no more bodies.
Three weeks ago, officials notified Ordorica that they had decided that the city was not liable for damages and that he had six months to file a court action if he chooses to do so. They gave no explanation for the denial. When questioned by a reporter, officials said damage claims against the city are routinely rejected and referred to the courts for determination.
Ordorica, whose wife has been unable to work for more than a year because of a job-related injury, said he cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Without the $600 a month that he earned from the now-vacant house, Ordorica said, he has difficulty making financial ends meet.
"It seems like everyone is trying to make money and profit by what happened there," he said. "We are the ones who are doing all the suffering."
He said one company sold T-shirts bearing a picture of the house and the inscription: "She digs Sacramento," and another rushed forward with plans for a film on the social worker who directed many of her clients to Puente and the F Street boarding house.
But Ordorica feels his real grievance is with the city--not the woman who may have embroiled his family in one of the nation's biggest murder stories. Tears come to his eyes when he talks of Puente, whom he met 15 years ago at a local bar where they both had gone to hear a group of Mexican singers.
"She bought me a beer and sent it over," he recalled. "She was like a movie star. She was with her husband, a bodyguard and her chauffeur."
Later divorced, Puente became a good friend of Ordorica and his wife Veronica, helping them to overcome the language barrier and becoming so attached to their four children that she would call herself their aunt.
"To us she was very good," he said. "She was like part of our family. We can't point a finger at her. We can't at this time judge or condemn her."
Since Puente's arrest on charges of murdering seven elderly boarders, Ordorica said, his family has tried without success to telephone her in prison, where she awaits trial. Their only contact has been a birthday card Puente sent to their youngest daughter.
Although it has been nearly nine months since the discovery of the first body in the yard, Ordorica said the house continues to be an object of curiosity. Cars stream by daily, slowing down for a closer look.
Remembering the years of working and saving to buy the house, he said he wants it only to be used as a residence, perhaps even a place to retire when his four children are grown.
"All that work was to buy the house of our dreams, and look what it has become," he said.
Ordorica smiled briefly, recalling the difficulty he had landing his first job as a janitor. Only 4 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, he faced a prospective employer who doubted that he could handle the hard physical labor. Ordorica asked for a one-week tryout.
That was 23 years ago, and he is still, at age 50, working at the same hotel. He has become the chief gardener. He points proudly to a plaque honoring him as the company's outstanding employee of the year.
"When you have to really struggle and work to be able to buy your first house, it becomes something very, very personal," he said. "It has sentimental value. All we want is to see it fixed up again . . . the way it was."