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D.A. Sees Report as No Bar to Prosecution of Landlady

Times Staff Writer

The coroner’s inability to name the cause of death for seven bodies dug up from the grounds of a Sacramento boardinghouse will not hinder prosecution of landlady Dorothea Puente, Dist. Atty. Steve White said Tuesday.

Prescription drugs were found in the badly decomposed remains, but Sacramento County Coroner Charles R. Simmons said earlier this week that he cannot say that the medications were responsible for the deaths. As a result, he is listing the cause and manner of death for all seven boarders as “undetermined.”

White said the inconclusive findings were “not a surprising result” and he added: “Remember, we can successfully prosecute a murder even without bodies.”

However, Puente’s attorneys were elated at the coroner’s announcement, which came eight months after the bodies were unearthed and the 60-year-old woman was arrested.

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Assistant Public Defender Kevin D. Clymo said the coroner’s disclosures were reassuring for his client, who could face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

“I woke up with a smile on my face,” Clymo said.

He and Puente’s second attorney, Peter Vlautin, both said that the new findings will have little immediate effect on Puente. They said they expect her to be held without bail, at least until the conclusion of a preliminary hearing set to begin in September.

The coroner reported that the sedative Dalmane was found in all seven of the bodies. Other drugs, including the mood-altering drugs Valium and Elavil, were found in several of them.

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In court documents filed earlier this year, prosecutors focused on Dalmane, contending that Puente was able to get prescriptions for the drug in amounts that were “more than she needed for herself.”

But defense attorney Vlautin said, “The drugs that were found are all consistent with prescription drugs (the deceased) were taking on their own at the time of their deaths.”

A coroner’s spokesman said the drugs are widely prescribed, particularly for elderly patients. “Each and every one (of the drugs) could be found in the medicine cabinets of anyone over 50,” he said. The alleged murder victims ranged in age from 52 to 80.

Hoped to Find More

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“We were hoping that we would find . . . such a high level that it would lead us to believe that in no way could this be an accident,” the spokesman said. “But we didn’t get those kinds of findings.”

Nevertheless, prosecutor White said that the finding of prescription drugs would be helpful in building a case against Puente. “Unless a person is poisoned with non-prescription chemicals like arsenic, we would not expect to find (drugs as a cause of death) in bodies exhumed months after death, with no blood, fluids or tissue,” White said. “The coroner found residues (of prescription drugs), and it’s not necessary to have anything more.”


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