Sunday, July 21, 2024

Dorothea Puente – Landlady of the “Death House”

Written By Riva Agarwal (Grade 9)

A philanthropist – donating to charities, sending clothes to the underprivileged, and even going as far as taking people into her own house – the ones she considered “tough cases”; mentally ill, elderly people, recovering alcoholics. They all had one thing in common besides their illness – they had little/no family. Social workers in 1970s admired Dorothea Puente, for she showed the front of a sweet, elderly grandmother, who had a heart of gold. Local politicians, too, were in contact with her; Afterall, she funded their campaigns. She had a high position in society, and that is probably what made her so unquestionable. 

“I was once a good person.” She’d said, on the Sacramento airport tarmac, in handcuffs. How did she end up there? Let’s see.

Puente had a tough childhood, she lost both her parents at a young age. Growing up, she was a prostitute, and later became a madame (person in charge of other prostitutes in a brothel.) She was arrested for being both a prostitute and madame, served her sentence, and was let free. not soon after, she became a con woman, posing as a nurse for the elderly- she would use paralyzing drugs on them, and steal their belongings. She got caught and arrested for that too. Due to her habit of drugging people and stealing their belongings, she was not allowed to open a boarding house, as victims would be in close proximity.  Right after completing this sentence, she opened a boarding house where she would take in marginally homeless tenants and take care of them. Her parole officers would stop by and see the tenants, who, as she claimed, were her friends or guests – as to not violate her parole. Soon after, these tenants started going missing, but as they had no close family or friends, no one would notice. It was not until a tenant named “Bert” went missing, that anyone even questioned Puente. A social worker in Sacramento sent Bert to Puente’s house – Bert had a mental illness and had no contact with his family since he was a child. The social worker would often check in with Puente, about Bert’s wellbeing. Within two weeks of Bert moving in, Puente told the social worker, his “brother came to take him to Mexico.” The worker knew that wasn’t possible, something was wrong because he had no brother. The worker knew a man called John Sharp, a tenant at Puente’s house, and asked him whether something was wrong at Puente’s. “She has been digging lots of holes,” said Sharp. Anxious, the worker insisted the police went to Puente’s house to find out Bert’s whereabouts and take a shovel to dig around in her backyard. The first thing the police found, was that Puente is in violation of her parole. But that was not, by far, the most shocking thing they uncovered. 

During their search, they uncovered 9 bodies from her backyard- decomposed bodies, of her tenants, 2 feet below the ground. But what would she have to gain from killing homeless, poor, ill people? $100,000. $10,000 from cashing their social security checks by making herself payee. Basically, as long as no one noticed the tenants were dead, their social security checks would keep coming to Puente. And that’s what happened.

Charged with 9 murders and convicted of only 3, Dorothea served a life sentence, until 2011 when she died. All killed in a similar way – drugged, paralyzed, killed. However, from the start of this nightmare to the end of her lifetime, Dorothea insisted she was innocent, and not once did she crack. She insisted they all died of natural causes, and she was wrongly convicted.

Featured Image Courtesy – New York Post


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