Dorothea Puente: The Elderly Woman Who Hid A Terrifying Secret
When most people think about serial killers, they think of strangers in dark alleys or recluses who live deep in the woods. What they usually do not think of are kindly elderly women who helped troubled people turn their lives around.
Dorothea Puente was a woman with a troubled past. Born in 1929, she was orphaned at a young age. When she was sixteen, she married a soldier just back from World War II. After he abandoned her, she needed to support herself, and eventually, she was arrested for residing in a brothel. After a short stint in jail, she wound up arrested for vagrancy, and after that, she began a criminal career that was wholly unremarkable until suddenly, it became the stuff of nightmares.
One of her first victims was a woman named Ruth Monroe, with whom Puente ran a small business. Monroe fell ill, and Puente kindly offered to let her move in and look after her. She died soon after from an overdose of Tylenol and codeine. Authorities wrote it off as a suicide, but the events of the next few decades showed that it was likely Puente’s first murder.
Puente realized fairly quickly who was vulnerable to attack and who was not. After half a lifetime of petty crime, she was convicted of drugging four elderly men and robbing them, something for which she served 3 out of the 5 years with which she was charged.
While in jail, Puente became penpals with a man named Everett Gillimouth, who received a healthy pension. He picked her up after she was released, and then, a few months later, Puente had a friendly handyman build her a sturdy box. She asked the handyman to take the box, now full of ‘junk’ and nailed shut, to the river to dump it, and it wasn’t until 3 years later that Gillimouth was found, though he remained unidentified for much longer. She collected Gillimouth’s pension, and sent letters to his relatives reassuring them that he was fine.
With the funds from Gillimouth’s pension, she became the owner of a boarding house in Sacramento, and she began to build her reputation as a kindhearted woman who helped out those most in need.
Her boarding house became a popular place for social workers to drop off their most difficult cases, people who were alcoholics or mentally ill. Due to her convictions for abusing the elderly, she was forbidden by law from working with them or handling their mail. In an overworked system, however, this never came to light.
Over the next few years, she would look after her tenants with a great deal of kindness. Occasionally, one of them would take ill, and she would move them into her own quarters to look after them. She would tell the other tenants that they were growing worse, and then that they had left to be with family or to find other lodging.
People found Puente very kind. She cooked good breakfasts and lunches, she fed stray cats, and though she was a little stingy and forceful about promptness and tidiness, social workers and tenants alike thought she was wonderful at her job.
The first cracks in Puente’s facade started to appear in 1988, when she was 59. Police officers came looking for a man whose social worker had reported him missing. Puente had no problem with the officers looking around her boarding house, but on a hunch, one of them began digging in her backyard. He found what looked like fabric and beef jerky, and finally, he found a bone.
Puente said she was shocked, and she asked if she was under arrest. Not wanting to frighten the poor landlady, an officer guided her past the reporters and gathering crowed, telling her it was fine to go get some lunch.
Puente left, making her getaway while over the next two days, police pulled no less than seven bodies from the disturbed earth behind the boarding house. As their identities came to light, the people who knew the deceased realized they had all lived at the boarding house. One woman was found with her arms duct taped to her chest. Another woman’s wristwatch was still ticking when she was unearthed.
Puente was caught when she attempted to seduce another man in Los Angeles.
After pleading guilty, it took her four years to come to trial, and soon it came to light that after murdering her tenants, she took charge of their social security checks. She was making around 5000 dollars a month from the people she buried in her yard.
She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and died of natural causes in 2011 at the age of 82.