We now return to our regularly scheduled programming: Dorothea Puente doesn’t fit the pattern of most serial killers and not because she’s a woman. She was 64 years old when she committed her first confirmed murder. Now, there have been elderly serial killers before Puente, Albert Fish was in his 70s when he committed his last murder. But like most serial killers, Fish committed his first murder when he was in his late twenties or early thirties.
Furthermore, Puente was a for profit killer. Puente ran a boarding house in the 1980s for the elderly. It was a pretty good racket. She and her best friend/business partner (Ruth Monroe) would take the lodgers to cash their social security checks. Once the checks were cashed, Dorothea and Ruth took all the money for their expenses in the boarding house and dispensed them a monthly stipend of their money. Dorothea and Ruth seemed fairly content with this arrangement. Then in April 1982, Ruth moved into the boarding house. Her husband had become ill and been forced to move into a nursing home to receive full time care. A few weeks later, Ruth was dead. The official cause of death was ruled suicide. Lethal overdose amounts of Tylenol and codeine were found in her system and Dorothea told investigators that over the last few months, Ruth had sunk into a deep depression over her husband’s illness.
For some reason, after Ruth’s death, Dorothea decided maybe her current scam wasn’t good enough. In the summer of 1982; she drugged one of her 72 year old residents and while he was unconscious snuck into his room and stole the stipend she was doling out to her residents. Needless to say, the 72 year old was not happy. He filed a criminal complaint regarding the theft. The 72 year old told police he’d been drugged and when he woke up, his money was gone. And blood tests revealed that he had indeed been roofied. Dorothea was quickly arrested; she was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 5 years in jail.
Unfortunately, Puente also serves as a cautionary tale of why you don’t become pen-pals with criminals serving prison time. While Puente was serving her sentence, a man named Everson Gilmouth became penpals with Dorothea. There are conflicting reports on how this penpal friendship began. Some say it was solicited by Dorothea and that Gilmouth was a friend of someone Dorothea knew. And some sources say it was through a prison penpal program. Yet a third source I found, stated Gilmouth initiated the penpal relationship after seeing Dorothea’s booking photos in the newspaper and becoming smitten. Just like some women are attracted to violent men because the threat of violence excites them (this is exclusively a female thing, go figure), some men are attracted to female criminals because they are sure they can “save the lost soul” (this is not an exclusively male thing to do and plenty of women become attracted to men with the idea that the man will be so smitten with them, they will change their ways to be with the woman). However, it happened, Gilmouth and Dorothea became frequent penpals. Gilmouth was 77 years old when Dorothea Puente was released from jail. She had served three years of her five year sentence.
Dorothea had put her time in jail to good use, beyond being penpals with Gilmouth. If she wanted to continue her schemes once on the outside, she needed to try to prevent victims from filing police reports. I will mention here, that as a condition of her release, she was ordered to have no contact with elderly people. However, Dorothea immediately took back over her boarding house for the elderly and disabled. She also immediately returned to stealing their pension checks for room and board and paying her residents monthly stipends. Oddly, parole officers checked in with her every two weeks at that boarding house and never violated her parole, even though it was obvious that she back in the business of running a boarding house for the elderly.
And Dorothea really needed all that extra money, because she needed some stuff built to facilitate the next stage of her plan to continue to defraud the government and ruin the lives of her fellow elderly Californians. She and Gilmouth had become romantically involved upon her release. Also, within months of her release from jail, Puente hired a handyman to install wood panelling throughout the boarding house. Once he finished the job, she paid him for part of it in cash and part of with by giving him a 1980 Ford truck that she said her boyfriend who had moved to LA had given her. Oh, and she had another job for him. She had a bunch of old clothes, books, magazines, and brick-a-brack that she needed to get rid of. If he could build her a box that was six feet long, by three feet deep, and two feet wide, she’d give him more money. The handyman built the box and thought nothing of it. Then Dorothea called him and said the box was full, but she couldn’t haul it away by herself. She’d gladly pay him to help her move and dispose of the heavy box. Which he did. They disposed of the box on the banks of a river.
On New Year’s Day, 1986 a fisherman in Sutter County, California discovered a large wooden box near his favorite fishing spot. Because he was curious about what could possibly be in this large box, he opened it… then he notified police that he had found a dead body in a box along the bank of the river. The body was decomposed enough that the remains went unidentified for some time and they weren’t even sure what the cause of death was.
Then Dorothea became eccentric. She took in a homeless called Chief. She actually told the neighbors she had adopted him, despite him being an adult and an alcoholic. Not exactly, the idea person to adopt, even by an old woman. She put Chief to work around the property as a handyman. His primary tasks were to remove garbage that was accumulating on the property and to remove a bunch of soil from Dorothea’s basement.
She then had Chief pour a concrete slab in the basement. Within a few weeks, he disappeared and she told neighbors different stories according to my research. But honestly, he was a homeless man with a drinking problem, so no one really paid much attention to his disappearance.
In 1988, one of Dorothea’s tenants disappeared. His name was Alvaro Montoya. He had developmental disabilities as well as schizophrenia. After Montoya missed one of his regular weekly appointments with a counselor, a social worker notified police he was missing. They immediately went to the boarding house and instigated a search. They were in for a shocking surprise.
During their search, police noticed disturbed soil in the backyard as well as the basement. They ordered some of the disturbed soil in the backyard turned over just to check it out and discovered a body… But it wasn’t Alvaro Montoya. There are two locations involved in this case, which makes it a bit confusing. Puente had an apartment in her house that she rented (Ruth Monroe died in this apartment) and for a time, Ruth and Dorothea ran a 16-room boarding house, before Dorothea went to jail for drugging and stealing from one of her tenants. Some of my research said all seven bodies found in the backyard had rented the upstairs apartment in Dorothea’s house. Other sources said the bodies, which were found at the home where Dorothea lived, were a mixture of people from the 16-room boarding house and her upstairs apartment. My personal feeling leans more towards the second account of the bodies being a combination of tenants from the boarding house and tenants from the apartment in her own home, because of how fast the bodies seemed to pile up. All nine of Dorothea’s confirmed victims were killed between 1982 and 1988. That’s a lot of tenants to have move in and disappear in just six years, three of which she was in prison for.
Also, for the record, the body of Chief was discovered in her basement. While she wasn’t tried for Ruth Monroe’s death, she was strongly suspected after police finally identified the body in the box as belong to Everson Gilmouth. And the truck Dorothea had used to pay her handyman’s bill, was later identified as belonging to Gilmouth. And in another complicated twist, Dorothea and Ruth had been taking out life insurance policies on some of the elderly tenants of the boarding house. And in total, 25 residents went missing during the time that Dorothea and Ruth were running it.
There has been speculation that after Ruth’s husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness and she moved in with Dorothea; the two quarrelled about their get rich schemes and Dorothea killed Ruth to prevent her from going to the police about it. All in all, Dorothea was suspected of killing as many as 30 people, some possibly with Ruth’s assistance and some with the assistance of a resident. He was never charged due to insufficient evidence.
And in the final twist, while police dug up Dorothea’s backyard in their initial search for Alvaro Montoya, Dorothea Puente escaped. It was also learned that neighbors had been calling in complaints for several months prior to the search because Dorothea’s property smelled really bad and stunk up the entire neighborhood. It was followed up on, but Dorothea said she was using a new fish based fertilizer and that was the source of the foul smell.