Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part Two

Serial Killers

Dorothea Puente
Dorothea Puente

Dorothea Puente ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California, and loved tending her garden. She was quick to help those down on their luck, and during the 1980s, this 59-year-old woman opened her home to welfare and social security recipients. She offered low rent and hot meals, but the turnover was high. When neighbors inquired about someone they hadn't seen in a while, she would tell them that so-and-so had simply moved on. Yet the government checks kept coming and getting cashed, so a social worker went to check on a client reported missing. She heard about the bad smells coming from the house and felt sure her client wouldn't just run away, so she notified police. Upon investigating, the police dug up the lawns and gardens and soon discovered the source of the stench. There were seven bodies covered in lime and plastic, one of which had been beheaded and dismembered. Autopsies later confirmed that these people had died by drug overdoses.

In the meantime, Puente had fooled the police with her grandmotherly ways and had skipped town, but an elderly man that she tried to pick up in a bar recognized her as the hunted fugitive. When arrested, she said, "Did you know I used to be a very good person once?" It turned out that she had forged signatures on over 60 checks and had served prison time even before all of this for theft and fraud. Upon release, she had even been considered a danger to the elderly.

Book cover: Serial Murderers and Their Victims
Book cover: Serial Murderers
and Their Victims

Puente was tried for nine murders — two bodies being found elsewhere — but convicted of three because one male juror refused to agree to anything more. She got life in prison.

How a man could decide that Puente had murdered three people found buried in her garden but not all seven is at the heart of how the American public views female killers. There's a pervasive sense that women — especially elderly women — just cannot be that dangerous. While males acquire such aggressive monikers as Jack the Ripper and the Southside Slasher, women get the more passive-sounding Damsel of Doom, Angel-Maker, or Giggling Granny. Media stereotypes help to form the impression that women are less lethal than men.

However, statistics say otherwise. Just because someone might choose poison as a weapon over a knife or gun does not make her victims any less dead. Although Aileen Wuornos was designated a "rare female serial killer," her rarity was that she used a gun to kill strangers, which is not generally the female's weapon of choice. However, it's a mistake to think that just because they're not acting like males, few women have been serial killers.

Book cover: The New Predator
Book cover: The New Predator

In Serial Murderers and Their Victims, Hickey examines the cases of 62 female serial killers, which is only a sample and not an exhaustive list. They represented 16% of the killers in his study, and collectively had murdered from 400 to 600 people. More than nine out of ten were white, and two-thirds acted alone. Many were "black widows," or health-care providers, and they tended to be older and to get away with their crimes for a longer period of time than did their male counterparts. One had been killing for 34 years. Those who killed with male partners were more likely to be violent than those who acted alone, where poisoning was preferred. Their average number of victims was seven to nine and most of them had no prior criminal records.

According to Deborah Schurman-Kauflin in The New Predator, most of these women had a history of cruelty toward animals and levels of isolation that fed self-absorbed fantasies. The sources of their violence include attachment disorders, abandonment, harsh discipline, and abuse, but a few have been stone-cold psychopaths. Some have even gotten others to kill for them so they could get what they wanted without being caught and incarcerated. Let's take a closer look at that category.