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Grandma Puente's Ghastly Bone Garden
Appearing like a sweet little grandmotherly lady no one would have suspected 59 year old Dorothea Puente of being a serial killer. For all intents and purposes, the little white haired lady living at the 2 story Victorian style house at 1426 F Street in Sacramento, looked to be an upstanding pillar of the community, supporting various charities and mingling with the socially elite.
Puente’s livelihood was renting out rooms to elderly and sickly lodgers. But, in hindsight it’s amazing how she managed to keep what was happening under the roof of her house of horrors a secret for so long. The affable little woman was killing her tenants and stealing their government benefit checks.
Everyone living in her neighborhood had grown accustomed to unpleasant odors emanating from her property. But when questioned about the problem she always had a quick pat answer. “The sewer's backed up," dead rats under the house or fish emulsion fertilizer she liberally applied to her immaculately kept garden were common excuses. The only things in her garden were the bones of her victims.
However, it’s not like she didn’t try to cover up the offensive smells. She poured gallons of bleach on the yard, applied untold numbers of bags of lime and tried every type of air freshener on the market. But, the odor remained. But, it wouldn’t be long before the source of the sickening aroma would be discovered.
A concerned social worker notified police one of her clients living at the Puente house, mentally retarded Alvaro Montoya, was missing. On the morning of November 11, 1988, local authorities went to investigate. Inside the house there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. But, the backyard was a different story. They discovered the remains of a small gray haired female body buried in the garden.
Puente, hearing the commotion, walked up and looked into the hole. When she saw what had been discovered she did a superb imitation of the “Home Alone” movie poster slapping her hands to her cheeks. The men decided to come back the following day armed with proper equipment.
Early the next morning a team of forensic scientists, officials from the coroner's office and a county work crew arrived. Word of the discovery had leaked out and a crowd of rubber necking spectators and reporters were also present to observe the proceedings. The carnival like atmosphere changed however, when another body was dug up.
Puente, acting innocently, approached a detective and asked if she was under arrest. The detective said she wasn’t so Puente asked if she might go to a nearby hotel to get some coffee and was told it was alright. Within four hours five more bodies had been discovered around the yard. About that time it was noticed Puente was nowhere to be found…she was already hundreds of miles away. She had called a cab from the hotel, stopped at a bar and had four vodka and grapefruit drinks. Then she called another taxi which took her to Stockton and caught a bus to Los Angeles. The end tally of bodies discovered was seven.
Another search of the boardinghouse produced a document on which Puente had written the amount she was getting from each of her victim’s disability and Social Security checks. It totaled about $5,000 a month.
Rules for residents at the boardinghouse were strictly enforced. Boarders paid $350 a month for a private room and two hot meals a day. But if they were late getting to the table, they went hungry. They were also forbidden to use the phone or touch the mail. If they did either, Puente would get extremely upset and scream at them. Apparently, she didn’t want them to see checks arriving for boarders no longer living there, or contacting any family or friends with suspicions of any wrongdoing.
Although residents were not allowed to have alcoholic beverages, Puente kept a well-stocked bar for herself. She often frequented bars where she plied lonely old men with drinks until she managed to find out how much money they had. If it was worth her while, she would try and entice them into moving to her boarding house.
Once her grandmotherly cover was blown, her life story began to be pieced together. She was born Dorothea Helen Gray, January 9th, 1929 in Redlands, California. She had a sad childhood. Her father died of Tuberculosis when she was eight and her mother died a year later in a motorcycle accident.
According to relatives the Gray children were then farmed out to different family member homes. At 16, records indicate she briefly attended school in Los Angeles, but, moved to Olympia, Washington in 1945, where she changed her name and worked in a milkshake parlor. But, shortly afterwards she and a friend moved into a motel and turned to prostitution. That’s when she met Fred McFaul, a 22-year-old soldier who had just returned from the Philippines.
The couple married a few months later. However, the 16-year-old Puente had told McFaul she was 30. McFaul soon discovered his new bride was a compulsive liar.
McFaul and Puente moved to Gardnerville, Nevada and had two daughters. Shortly after the birth of their second daughter, she became pregnant again but miscarried. But, McFaul had had enough of all the lies and exaggerations and left her. In following years, in addition to prostitution, she began forging and passing bad checks.
In 1952, she married Axel Johansson, a merchant seaman. When he returned from long absences, he'd sometimes find other men living with his wife. The couple repeatedly fought, separated and made up. Amazingly, they remained married for over 14 years.
In 1968, Puente, then 39, married a 3rd time to 21-year-old Robert Jose Puente. The pair opened a halfway house for alcoholics called "The Samaritans." The marriage lasted only a year as did the halfway house.
Soon afterward, she opened the boarding house in Sacramento. In 1976, she married one of the tenants, 52 year old Pedro Angel Montalvo. Two years later she was charged with forging checks she'd stolen from the tenants. She served five years on probation and ordered to undergo counseling. A psychiatrist diagnosed her as a schizophrenic and a "very disturbed woman."
It’s thought Puente committed her first murder in the spring of 1982. 61-year-old Ruth Munroe died of a drug overdose shortly after moving in with Puente. However, the coroner ruled Munroe’s death as suicide. A month later, however, Puente was arrested and charged with drugging and robbing four elderly people. Puente was sentenced to five years in the California Institution for Women at Frontera. She was released after serving only 3 three and ordered to avoid any dealings with the elderly and not handle anyone’s government check other than her own. But the warnings fell on deaf ears.
She had already violated parole conditions before she walked out the door. She had been writing a 77-year-old man from Oregon named Everson Gillmouth. Unfortunately, he had already revealed the fact he was receiving a substantial pension. Gillmouth’s body was found in a plywood coffin by the Sacramento River in January 1986. It would be 3 years before his body would be identified.
However, Puente’s killing spree was about to come to an end. She met 59-year-old retired carpenter, Charles Willgues having a beer at the Monte Carlo tavern in downtown Los Angeles. After talking a while, Willgues thought the woman who had introduced herself as widower Donna Johansson, looked vaguely familiar but at the time couldn’t place her. Puente, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Willgues they should move in together. Later, at his home the woman’s name came to him. She was the one he had seen on TV when the police had found dead bodies in her yard.
She was arrested by Los Angeles police at the motel she had been staying at. On December 10, 1993, Puente was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Puente was 64 when she was sent to Central California Women's Facility near Chowchilla. She died there March 27, 2011.