No . . . not me. Although I may have thought of it from time to time. I’m talking about Dorothea Helen Puente. Ever heard of her? She’s apparently quite famous, but I hadn’t known of her until I visited the Museum of Death in New Orleans where a few of her very sweet handwritten notes are on display.
Dorothea was born in Redlands, California in 1929 and after a deprived childhood and the death of her parents was given up for adoption. Married multiple times, she was a chronic thief who targeted elderly pensioners and stole their funds. Convicted of theft and fraud, she spent several years in prison.
In the 1980s, however, Dorothea found her true métier. She rented a house at 1426 F Street in Sacramento where she cared for elderly and mentally and physically disabled pensioners. She was the darling of local social workers because she was willing to take on the most difficult cases. Her tenants praised her for her acts of kindness and delicious home cooked meals.
In April, 1982, her friend Ruth, who lived at the F Street home, died from an overdose of codeine and acetaminophen. Ruth’s death was ruled a suicide. A few weeks later, a 74 year old pensioner, Malcom McKenzie, accused Puente of drugging and stealing from him. Dorothea was convicted of theft once again and spent the following three years in jail. After her release, she married her fifth husband, a 77 year old retiree from Oregon.
In 1985, Dorothea hired a handyman to build a 6’x3’x2’ wooden box, then asked him to transport the box to a storage space. On the way to the storage site, she instructed the man to dump the box at a river bank. A few months later, a fisherman spotted the box and notified authorities, but it was another three years before the police identified the body as that of Dorothea’s fifth and latest husband. Of course, all during this time she continued to collect her husband’s pension benefits.
Neighbors finally became suspicious when they noticed her latest handyman, a homeless man named “Chief” digging in the basement of the home and carting soil away. Chief later demolished the garage and laid a concrete slab in the back yard. Chief disappeared soon after.
In 1988, a social worker reported a disabled man as missing and police finally began to investigate the home on F Street. Seven bodies were discovered buried in the back yard. Dorothea was eventually charged with the murder of nine individuals, convicted of three, and sentenced to two life sentences. Newspapers dubbed her the “Death House Landlady.”
While incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California she began a correspondence with writer Shane Bugbee. Dorothea shared her recipes with the writer and in 2004, Bugbee published her cookbook ~ Cooking with a Serial Killer ~ remember what a great cook her tenants thought she was?
Dorothea died in 2011 of natural causes in Chowchilla at the age of 82. She continued to maintain her innocence claiming that all her tenants had died of “natural causes.”