Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dorothea Puente, Killing for Profit

"Sewer Problems"

The stench hovered over the Sacramento neighborhood like a putrid fog, sickly sweet and pungent. Everyone knew where it came from — the yard of the pale blue Victorian at 1426 F Street, where Dorothea Puente rented out rooms to elderly and infirm boarders.

During the summer it got so bad that some neighbors preferred to turn off their air conditioners and suffer the blazing Delta heat rather than have the fans suck the stench into their homes.

Dorothea Puente
Dorothea Puente

"The sewer's backed up," the 59-year-old boardinghouse mistress told people when they complained. Other times she blamed rats rotting under the floorboards or the fish emulsion she'd used to fertilize the garden.

She tried to blot out the fetor by dumping bags of lime and gallons of bleach into the yard and spraying her parlor with lemon-scented air freshener when guests dropped in. But no matter what she tried, the stench refused to fade; it clung to the boardinghouse like a curse.

When her boarders started disappearing, a concerned social worker tipped off police, who made a gruesome discovery: seven bodies buried in the garden.

Not long afterward, Puente appeared in court, accused of murdering her tenants so she could steal their government benefit checks and buy herself luxuries ranging from fancy clothes to a face lift.

This is a story of keeping up appearances. Dorothea Puente tried hard to project a polished exterior with cosmetic surgery and tailored clothes. She also projected herself as a upstanding member of Sacramento society, a small-time socialite who gave to charity and rubbed elbows with second-tier politicians.

No one suspected that the sweet-faced, grandmotherly Puente was systematically drugging and killing her frail boarders and burying their remains in the yard she so lovingly tended. With her careful exterior, she got away with murder for years.

 

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