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Landlady Guilty in Murders of Three Tenants

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sacramento landlady Dorothea Montalvo Puente was found guilty Thursday of murdering three of her tenants for their government benefit checks and burying their bodies in the garden of her Victorian boardinghouse.

After deliberating a record 24 days, however, the jury could not reach a verdict on six other murder charges. Superior Court Judge Michael J. Virga declared a mistrial on those counts.

Puente, 64, could face the death penalty because of her conviction on multiple counts of premeditated murder.

The jury found her guilty of first-degree murder for the drugging death of Dorothy Miller, a 64-year-old Army veteran last seen alive in October, 1987. Puente used Miller’s veteran’s identification card to get medical treatment.

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Puente also was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Benjamin Fink, a 55-year-old alcoholic. Shortly before he disappeared in April, 1988, Puente told another tenant that she was going to “take Ben upstairs and make him feel better.”

The jury also convicted Puente of second-degree murder in the 1987 death of Leona Carpenter, a 78-year-old widow who witnesses said was so ill she could not have walked across the room by herself to obtain the drugs that killed her.

Puente showed no reaction when the verdicts were announced. The penalty phase of the trial will begin in about a month, the judge said.

The jury, which reported itself deadlocked on all counts in early August, was stalemated at 11 to 1 in favor of conviction on four of the murder charges. The jury deadlocked on the remaining two counts by less lopsided margins.

There was no explanation of why the jury found Puente guilty on the three counts but could not reach agreement on other charges that were quite similar.

During five months of testimony, prosecutor John O’Mara contended that Puente seemed like a kindly grandmother, but in reality preyed on the weak and elderly. He charged that she provided a home for alcoholics and homeless people, then killed them for their disability and Social Security checks.

Authorities had alleged that Puente’s first murder victim was Ruth Monroe, 61, a business partner who died of a drug overdose in 1982, less than three weeks after she moved in with Puente. At the time, the coroner could not determine whether the cause was suicide or homicide.

Shortly after Monroe’s death, Puente was arrested on charges of drugging elderly people and stealing their benefit checks. At the time, however, authorities did not link Monroe’s death to Puente.

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Puente served three years of a five-year prison sentence for her conviction on those charges. Upon her release in 1985, she was supposed to marry her prison pen pal, 77-year-old Everson Gillmouth of Oregon. His body was found New Year’s Day, 1986, in a makeshift coffin near the Sacramento River.

It was not until 1988 that the suspected scheme of murder and forgery came to light.

A social worker who had helped place Bert Montoya, a mentally retarded man, at Puente’s boardinghouse came to check on him. Puente offered various explanations for Montoya’s absence, including that he had gone to Mexico.

But acting on a tip from another tenant, police began digging in the yard and soon found the bodies of seven of Puente’s tenants, including Montoya.

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The prosecution was handicapped in the case by having no eyewitnesses to any of the killings and no proven cause of death for any of the victims except Monroe, who died of an overdose of codeine.

Toxicology tests, however, found traces of Dalmane, a prescription drug that Puente frequently refilled, in all the bodies buried in the garden.

Puente did not take the stand, but her lawyers argued that many of the victims were old and ill and could have died of natural causes. Her defense conceded that she may have forged their benefit checks but denied she killed anyone.

Her lawyers explained that Puente did not call paramedics or police when her tenants died because she did not want authorities to discover she was operating a boardinghouse in violation of her parole on the earlier drugging and theft charges.

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A search of Puente’s house after the bodies were found turned up a note she had written listing the first initial of her alleged victims and a dollar amount, which prosecutors said corresponded to the amount of money she received monthly by forging their checks. At the end, they said, she was taking about $5,000 a month.

Prosecutors said they decided against also charging Puente with forgery for fear that it would make the case too complicated for jurors. But they introduced extensive evidence that she had forged her tenants’ checks.

On Thursday, defense attorney Kevin Clymo said, “All I can say is I’m horribly disappointed.” Defense attorney Peter Vlautin said: “The jurors worked hard in the jury room. We just hope they will decide on life (in prison) without parole.”

The trial, which was moved from Sacramento to Monterey because of extensive pretrial publicity, began with jury selection last November. Members of the jury reached its verdict Thursday, just hours after judge Virga had answered two pivotal questions they had asked.

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The judge explained that killing someone with poison with malice aforethought would constitute first-degree murder. And he said evidence of guilt on some charges could be weighed when considering Puente’s motive or intent on other counts.

Shortly afterward, jurors asked for new verdict forms on two of the nine murder counts against Puente--suggesting that they had changed their mind on those two.

During the trial, witnesses painted strikingly different portraits of Puente. To some, she was a hard-working landlady. To others, she was a habitue of saloons who sat at the bar where she could strike up acquaintances.

When she wanted, she could be quite charming, witnesses said. She gave money to Sacramento politicians and charities, including the local policemen’s fund. Occasionally, she posed as a physician. During the search of her house, police found a stack of pre-printed Christmas cards from “Dr. Dorothea Puente.”

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On the run from Sacramento after the bodies were discovered, Puente was arrested in Los Angeles after a man who met her in a bar recognized her picture from a news broadcast. He asked police to wait a day before arresting her because the two had a date and he wanted to keep it.

Times staff writer Paddock reported from San Francisco, special correspondent Norton from Monterey.


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