This’sweet little granny’ was actually a serial murderer with insane tendencies.
Dorothea Puente, with her chiffon skirts, thick-rimmed spectacles, grey hair, and brood of cats, gave the impression of a nice elderly lady, even insisting on being called “Grandma” by some.
However, appearances may be deceiving, and the seemingly innocent landlady, in this case, was actually a horrific serial murderer who committed at least nine killings within her boarding home in Sacramento, California during the 1980s.
Puente took in the poor and destitute between 1982 and 1989, poisoning and strangling several of her visitors before burying them on her land and receiving their social security payments.
For years, the disappearances of these “shadow people” went undiscovered, until a social worker named Judy Moise – who appears in the new Netflix documentary Worst Roommate Ever — reported a tenant missing.
However, the cops could never have predicted that they would later discover six victims buried in this “little old lady’s” backyard.
‘She’s been digging a lot of holes,’ says the narrator.
Suspicions about Puente initially surfaced in 1988, when Judy, an outreach counsellor with Volunteers of America, noted that 52-year-old Alvaro Montoya, whom she had put at Puente’s home, had gone.
Judy didn’t believe Puente’s storey that he’d gone to Mexico with his brother for a vacation – especially since she knew he didn’t communicate to his family – since Alvaro had suffered from his mental health and had been homeless for years.
Judy also questioned John Sharp, another of Puente’s tenants, who said, “Something is wrong.” She’s been putting a lot of holes in the ground.”
She called the cops, who arrived at the residence to find the same response: Alvaro was on vacation.
However, John left them a message. “She’s forcing me to tell lies for her.”
In the garden, rotting meat was discovered.
After searching the residence and finding nothing, the cops requested permission to dig up the garden “so they could inform the social worker they’ve done everything they can.”
Puente consented, even supplying them with an additional shovel.
One of the officers involved in the investigation recounts digging up the garden and discovering “bits of fabric, eggshells, and leather pants that looked like beef jerky” in the book Worst Roommate Ever.
He explains, “We were simply digging and digging.” “And I could see Dorothea, who was above us, peering out the window at us.”
Finally, the 78-year-old Leona Carpenter’s body was discovered, and the police recognised that what they thought was beef jerky was actually human flesh.
In the documentary, one states, “I had been extracting it off the bone.”
Puente was cool and defiant when originally questioned by authorities.
“She was heartless and she would stare right into my eyes and answer every question,” the officer who interviewed her says in the documentary.
“She never flinched a single time.” She remained silent the entire time. She vehemently denied everything.”
However, the next day, when the cops began digging up more parts of the garden, she requested permission to meet her nephew for coffee to “quiet her anxieties.”
She was permitted to depart since there was no proof linking her to the corpse – but she managed to run all the way to Los Angeles, where she was discovered five days later when a man in a bar recognised her from television.
Meanwhile, the bodies of 51-year-old Alberto Montoya, 64-year-old Dorothy Miller, 55-year-old Benjamin Fink, 62-year-old James Gallop, 64-year-old Vera Faye Martin, and 78-year-old Betty Palmer were discovered in Puente’s back yard.
There have been two additional killings.
She’d also been linked to two other fatalities that were now deemed too similar to be dismissed.
One of these was Ruth Monroe, a 61-year-old widow who Puente convinced to move into her home when her husband died in April 1982.
Puente had even instructed her children to “call me Grandma” since they’d grown so close.
Ruth died soon after from an overdose of codeine and acetaminophen, which authorities attributed to suicide because Puente said she had been sad since her husband’s death.
Everson Gillmouth, a 77-year-old retiree who had built a pen pal relationship with Puente while she was in prison, was another victim.
They moved in together when she was freed in 1985, but he then vanished.
Dorothea Puente hired Ismael Florez, a handyman, to install wood panelling in her home in November 1985.
Puente had one more request after Florez finished the job: construct her a six-foot-long box so she could load it with books and a few other miscellaneous objects before the two of them took it to a storage facility.
However, on the route to the storage facility, Puente requested Florez to pull over to the side of the road along a riverbank and just push the box into the water.
A fisherman observed the box on New Year’s Day, though it looked suspiciously like a coffin and called the cops. Inside, investigators discovered the rotting remains of an older man.
Authorities would have to wait three years to identify the body as Everson, and that was only because of the parallels between him and the victims discovered in Puente’s garden.
‘I used to be a really nice guy.’
Puente was flown back to Sacramento after being charged with nine murders. She reiterated to reporters on her way back that she had not killed anybody, saying, “I used to be a really wonderful person at one point.”
Puente was presented as either a nice grandma-like figure or a crafty crook who preyed on the poor throughout the trial.
Her attorneys maintained that while she was a thief, she was not a murderer. Pathologists testified that no cause of death could be determined for any of the bodies.
The prosecution, John O’Mara, put over 130 witnesses to the stand. Puente allegedly drugged her tenants with sleeping medications, smothered them, and then paid convicts to bury them in the yard, according to the prosecutors.
Dalmane, an insomnia medicine, was discovered in all seven remains that were unearthed.
Puente was described as one of the most “cold and calculated female murderers the country has ever seen,” according to prosecutors.
Dorothea Puente was convicted of three murders and got back-to-back life sentences in 1993, after several days of deliberation and a hung jury (thanks in part to her grandmotherly temperament).
A tumultuous past
This wasn’t the first time Puente had gotten himself into legal trouble.
She was convicted of fraud and sentenced to four months in jail in 1948, after which she worked as a prostitute for years before being arrested for running a brothel in 1960.
She was then charged with and convicted of fraudulently cashing 34 state and federal cheques that belonged to her renters in 1978. She was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $4,000 in reparation.
She worked as a personal caretaker in the 1980s, drugging her clients and stealing their goods.
Puente was sentenced to jail for her thefts in 1982. She was freed three years later, despite the fact that she was labelled as a schizophrenic with no “remorse or sorrow” who needed to be “closely supervised” by a state psychologist.
On March 27, 2011, she died in jail of natural causes at the age of 82.
“This could be my granny,” officers remark in the video. “She was the tiny old lady next door.” You can’t judge a book by its cover, and hers was spectacular.”
Worst Roommate Ever is now available on Netflix.