The cute gingerbread Victorian style home at 1426 F Street in Sacramento, California stood out from the other homes in the neighborhood. Once this neighborhood had been a very beautiful one, with tree lined streets and beautiful Victorian Homes! But after many years of neglect, many of the homes were in disrepair!! Dorothea Puente’s boarding house was the noticeable exception, the outside of the home was immaculate! The gardens surrounding the home were filled with flowers and the neighbors would often see the 60 y.o. woman carefully tending to her flowers. The inside of the house, while cluttered, was tidy as well. Dorothea lived in the upstairs and rented out the bottom rooms to those on the fringes of society: alcoholics, drug users, mentally incompetent people. The social workers in the area were so very grateful for Dorothea taking in those people that were otherwise hard to place, no matter what the clients problems were. She also gave her tenants 2 good meals a day with their 350/month rent.
Despite the appearances of the home, there seemed to be a putrid smell coming from the yard that became unbearable to the neighbors, especially during the hot summer months. (Neighbors later reported that they would leave their air conditioners off, rather than have the smell permeate their homes!) When they complained to Dorthea, she was always ready with an excuse to the smell: ‘the sewer backed up’ ‘rats were getting into her walls and dying and rotting there’ or it was the ‘fish emulsion she used to fertilize her gardens’ Trying to get rid of the smell, Dorthea would pour bags of lime or bottles of bleach around her yard. The inside of her home reeked as well and she was constantly sprayed with lemon air freshener to try to mask the smell. But to no avail, the smell would not go away no matter what the poor woman did!
On the morning of November 11th, 1988, Dorothea opened the door to find 2 policemen standing there. They informed her that they were looking for a tenant of hers that had seemed to of disappeared, Alvaro “Bert” Montoya. Bert was a mentally challenged man whose social worker became concerned when she couldn’t find him. Dorothea had told the social worker that he had gone back to Mexico, but the social worker had become suspicious and called the police to investigate. Dorothea invited them in to search the inside of the home. They seemed satisfied until they went into the back yard and noticed a recently disturbed area of the yard. The officers returned to their car to get the shovels that had brought along that morning, just in case. As they began to dig in the southeast section of her yard, the officers began to uncover what looked like shredded pieces of cloth! Soon a shovel hit something hard, and thinking that it was the root of a tree, an officer tugged hard on it. When it came loose, they realized that it was a human bone!
Dorothea, who had came into the back yard when she heard all the commotion, clasped her hands to her face in shock when they told her that they had found what appeared to be human bones. She appeared to be as shocked as the officers were! Soon more bodies were uncovered and soon it became obvious to the neighbors just what that putrid smell was really from!!!
‘A SWEET OLD LADY’
Dorothea Helen Gray was born in Redlands County California on January 9th, 1929 to Jesse James Gray and Trudy Mae Yates. Jesse and Trudy (Trudie), who worked as cotton pickers, were abusive to the young girl. Many times Dorothea had to scrounge for food as they were both alcoholics who spent their meager earnings on booze instead of food. By 1938 Dorothea was an orphan; her father having died of tuberculosis and her mother in a motorcycle accident. She was placed in an orphanage until relatives from Fresno, California took her in. (I have read where Dorothea was an only child, that she had other siblings, and in later years Dorothea would tell people that she was born and raised in Mexico and one of 18 children!)
Dorothea married for the first time around 1946, at the age of 17, to a soldier named Fred McFaul. Her marriage to him was a short one. Some accounts state that she would lie to people and say that he died of a heart attack, embarrassed by the fact that he had left her! However, some accounts claim he did die, in either case she was alone and unable to support herself in late 1948 when she began to forge checks. She was eventually caught and was charged and convicted, serving 6 months in jail. It is also believed that she became pregnant at this time, giving the child up for adoption.
In 1952 she met and married her 2nd husband, Axel Johanson (Johnson by some accounts). According to reports, this was a very violent 14 year marriage! By the time they were divorced in 1966, she had again been arrested, this time for owning and managing a brothel and sentenced to 90 days in the Sacramento Jail. After being released from jail, she was again arrested for vagrancy and spent another 90 days in jail. This time when she was released she found work as a nurses aide, taking care of elderly or disabled people in their homes, trying to clean up her act!
In 1968, Dorothea, at the age of 39, opened a halfway house for alcoholics, calling it “The Samaritans” Soon after she married Robert Jose Puente, 21!! According to reports, they argued constantly, and divorced a year later. Having run up considerable debt, the rooming house was closed.
Soon after the closure of her rooming house, she moved into and began managing a boarding house on 21st and F streets in Sacramento. Here she met and married one of the tenants in 1976, Pedro Angel Montalvo, 52. Pedro turned out to be a violent alcoholic, this marriage only lasted a few months!! After this divorce, Dorothea began to cruise local bars, in search of older men who were receiving benefits. Her scheme was to become involved with them and then would forge their signatures and steal their money…she was eventually caught and convicted of 34 counts of treasury fraud. While on probation for this crime, she continued to commit this same fraud!!
In 1981, Dorothea began renting an upstairs apartment at 1426 F Street in Sacramento. In April 1982, a 61 y.o. woman by the name of Ruth Monroe began living with Dorothea in her upstairs apartment…soon Ruth was found dead of an overdose of Codeine and Tylenol! Dorothea told the investigators that Ruth had become depressed over her husband’s terminal illness. The police appeared to find nothing suspicious and they ruled Mrs. Monroe’s death a suicide. But the police were back a few weeks later when a pensioner by the name of Malcolm McKenzie accused Dorothea of drugging him and robbing him.
Dorothea was again arrested, this time convicted of 3 charges of theft on August 18, 1982, and sentenced to 5 years in jail. Not being one to let grass grow under her feet, Dorothea began a pen-pal relationship with a 77 year old retiree living in Oregon by the name of Everson Gillmouth. When Dorothea was released only 3 years later in 1985, Everson was waiting at the curb by the jail in his 1980 red Ford Pickup! Soon they were making wedding plans! Together they opened a bank account and began living together at the 1426 F Street apartment. Finally Dorothea, with the help of Everson, she was able to open her own boarding house!
In November of 1985, Dorothea hired a carpenter by the name of Ismael Florez to install some wood paneling in her apartment. She paid Mr. Florez $800 and gave him a red Ford pickup truck, telling him that her boyfriend, who was living in Los Angeles, did not need it. She then asked him to build her a wood box to store some ‘books and other items’ she asked the box to be 6 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet. After he had built the box for her, she then asked him help her take the closed and nailed shut box to a storage depot. On the way there however, she decided to dispose of the box along the the Garden Highway in Sutter County in an unofficial garbage dump along the river. When he questioned Dorothea about why she wanted to dump the box instead of storing, she stated that she decided it was just junk and wanted to dump it instead of keep it.
On January 1, 1986 a fisherman spotted the box on the bank and told policemen, when they opened the box, they found the badly decomposed body of an unidentifiable elderly man!! The police had no choice but to label him as “John Doe”
Even though Everson Gillmouth hadn’t been seen around the apartment in awhile, Dorothea would cash his pension checks. When his family back in Oregon would inquire about his whereabouts, Dorothea would tell them he was ill!
In the beginning, Dorothea was thought to be a godsend to the social workers of Sacramento! She would take in those people that no one else would at rooming house in the 3 story home. She also spent time at the local bars, finding more ‘poor souls’ addicted to drugs and alcohol, and then bringing them home and renting rooms to them. (Unfortunately, the agency did not do a background check into Dorothea’s criminal history. If they had, they would of discovered her past as a check forger!)
Each day, Dorothea would collect the mail, and when the tenant’s monthly disability checks arrived she would cash them and only give them a small portion for them to live on. The tenants would often go to the local bar, where the small amount she had given them would quickly disappear. Soon, the money was gone, and they would be drunk and causing problems. (Anonymous tips would come in to the local police department about these unruly drunks in the bar. The police would come and arrest them and they would be sent to jail for 30 days.) Dorothea, who was making a very good living at this, would pocket the remaining amounts! (She was also lavishly spending this too!)
However, mysterious disappearances began to be reported of some of the tenants in Dorothea’s boarding house in August of 1986. First there was Betty Palmer, she was a 77 y.o. resident who went to her doctors appointment on the 19th and never returned! In February 1987, 78 y.o. Leona Carpenter was placed in Dorothea’s care after being in the hospital…2 weeks later she was missing! James Gallop, 62, was last seen in July of 1987 after also being in the hospital, he had told his doctor that he was moving into Dorothea’s rooming house to recover, he too was never heard from again! Vera Martin, also 62, moved into the boarding house in October of that year…. never heard from again!
On a report that Dorothea was running an illegal board & care facility, the local Dept of Social Services inspector arrived to check out the home….he deemed that the complaints were unfounded!!!
So Dorothea continued on until a social worker by the name of Peggy Nickerson, who had placed many of her clients in Dorothea’s home, was unable to visit with those clients. Dorothea would tell her that they had just wandered off. Being that these clients did have a history of wandering off, and not having proof otherwise, there was nothing she could do, but she did stop sending clients to the boarding house!
Another social worker by the name of Judy Moise had placed one of her ‘problem’ clients in the home in February of 1988, pleased that she would take Alvaro ‘Bert’ Montoya. Mr. Montoya, a developmentally disabled schizophrenic, was known to walk around, muttering to himself, was indeed difficult to place! He was, Ms Moise thought, a gentle soul. On the suggestion of another social worker, she had placed Bert in Dorothea’s home. She thought Dorothea was a sweet old lady. After just a few weeks, Bert’s appearance and demeanor had changed! He was no longer unkempt and in shabby clothes, he was now clean and nicely dressed! She had also gotten him to take his medication and was adjusting well to it! Ms. Moise probably breathed a sigh of relief, knowing she had found the right home for him!!!
On November 7, Judy Moise arrived to check on Bert. When Dorothea told her that he had gone to Mexico to be with relatives she became suspicious and contacted the Sacramento police. The police finally arrived 4 days later on November 11th. Dorothea allowed the police into her home, and told them the same story that he had gone to Mexico. Looking around the home, nothing seemed suspicious. However, when they looked around the back yard, they noticed that in the SE corner was an area that had recently been disturbed. The officers began to dig in the corner of the garden with the shovels they had in their car. As they dug down, one of them hit what they thought was a root of a tree, when they tugged on it and it came out, they realized that it was a human bone!!!
Dorothea, who had been watching from her home, came down and peered into the hole. Upon being told of what they had found, she clasped her hands to her face, appearing shocked and surprised at what they had found!!! The men continued to dig, until a shoe, with the remains of a human foot was found……
Who Would Suspect The Sweet Old Lady?
Once the police uncovered the shoe with the foot in it, they immediately called in the officials from the coroners office! As they continued to dig, they unearthed the body of an elderly female! They continued to excavate the sight….another body was found! At this point, Dorothea, who must of been in a tizzy over the fact that the bodies were found in her garden, asked the lead detective at the scene, John Cabrera, if she could go down the street to the Clarion Hotel to get a cup of coffee. I imagine that the officers found it hard to believe that this sweet looking old lady could possibly have anything to do with the findings in the garden, and detective Cabrera agreed to let her leave. He even escorted her (safely though the people gathered at the property to watch), to the hotel!
As the body count increased throughout the afternoon, the officers realized that Dorothea had not returned from hotel!! When they went to the hotel to retrieve her, she was no where to be found!!
While the digging in the backyard was going on, other officers began to search Dorothea’s home where they uncovered a list of initials, next to that was a number, preceded with a dollar sign!! Also found was a list of Social Security and disability benefits. They immediately realized that Dorothea had been collecting benefits from the missing tenants!!
WHERE WAS DOROTHEA?
It wasn’t until Thursday Nov. 16th, 5 days after the first body was found in her yard, that Dorothea was finally caught & arrested! It was later learned that after leaving ‘to have a cup of coffee’ Dorothea instead went to the other side of town, and sat in a bar, (where supposedly she had downed a few vodka grapefruits)! From there she took a bus to Los Angeles where she checked into the Royal Viking Motel, laying low for a few days before venturing out to the Monte Carlo Bar on Weds the 15th. There she met a local man, Charles Willgues. Later he would say that that Dorothea, who introduced herself to him as Dorothy Johanson, a recent widow of a month, seemed pleasant enough. He said she seemed like she was a nice & sincere woman, who told him that her luggage had been stolen by the cab driver when he had dropped her off at the motel! As the day wore on, and the drinks continued to be poured, some of the things she was saying did not add up and he became suspicious! Especially when she started to talk to him about his disability checks and began to ask him if she could move in with him!! He declined and offered to meet her on Thurs the 16th to go shopping together. When he got home, however, he began to think he had seen her somewhere before! When he began to realize it might be Dorothea Puente, he called the local CBS station who had done a story on her recent disappearance, which he had seen! The station ended up calling the police and she was located at her motel and arrested! I imagine that Mr. Willgues considered himself one lucky man!
‘THE BONE GARDEN’
In all the police had dug up 7 bodies in her yard! Eventually those bodies were identified as 52 year old Alvaro “Bert” Montoya; 55 year old Benjamin Fink; 80 year old Leona Carpenter; 65 year old Dorothy Miller; 64 year old James Gallop; 65 year old Vera Faye Martin & 80 year old Betty Mae Palmer. She was also accused of the murders of Ruth Munroe & Everson Gilouth!!!!
It took 4 years for the case to come to trial!! Jury selection began on November 2, 1992; testimony began on February 9th, 1993, in Medina, California. (Because of the publicity surrounding the case, there was a change in venue and the trial was set in Medina). During the trial Dorothea tried to say that all the deaths were natural, and because it was against her probation to be running a boarding house, she had buried them in her yard so that she could continue running it. However, all of the bodies were found to contain a sleeping pill in their systems, Dalmane, also know as Florazapean!
After a year of testimony, and a ‘road trip’ to the scene of the crime (where the jurors walked in the garden where the bodies were found, and in the house where the victims had been murdered, and to the bars where Dorothea had met some of the victims!!), the jury went into deliberation…lasting 24 days!! (Apparently deadlocked on a number of the victims as well as whether or not she was to get the gas chamber or life imprisonment). Finally they returned on December 10th, 1993 with their verdicts! Dorothea, who showed no emotion during the reading of the verdicts, listened intently as they were read….she was ultimately charged with 1st degree murder in the deaths of 64 year old Dorothy Miller and 55 year old Benjamin Fink and 2nd degree murder in the death of 78 year old Leona Palmer. She was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole!
She eventually died at the Central California Women’s facility in Chowchilla on March 27th, 2011, at the age of 82 of natural causes!
It amazes me that this woman could go have gone unchecked for so long! That her background wasn’t looked into when the social workers were looking into places to put the un-placeable’s that they had! (Because of this case, many changes were made in the way people were placed in the State of California!) Thankfully one of the social workers finally became suspicious and was able to put a stop to this horrible woman’s schemes!!