MARCH 11, 2019
This piece appears in the upcoming issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly Journal: The Epistolary Issue, No. 21
December 22, 1985
Everson and I got married early Dec. We are quite happy. We will stay here with his longtime friend until Dec 29th, then go to my family in Tulsa. I have three grown children. Hope this finds you well. Everson will write after we get settled.
Irene & Everson
Every sentence of this short note is untrue. There was no wedding, and certainly no happiness. Irene and Everson were not staying anywhere with a longtime friend, nor were they going to Tulsa. Irene, the letter’s writer, did not have three grown children. Everson would not write after they got settled, because at the time this letter was written, he was dead. Irene was not in fact the writer’s real name. That was the alias of Dorothea Puente, a serial murderer who had killed Everson and dumped his body in a box alongside the Sacramento River only a few weeks before she wrote this note.
Dorothea Puente seemed an unlikely killer. She appeared to be an innocent, grand-motherly woman, who, in the 1980s, ran a boarding house out of an old blue-and-white, two-story Victorian at 1426 F Street, a lovely tree-lined street in one of Sacramento’s oldest neighborhoods. She had a reputation among social workers for taking in their most difficult cases, surely a sign of compassion. Her front yard boasted roses and other well-tended flowers. Her appearance was very important to her; she spent a lot of money on beauty products and treatments, clothes, and perfumes. If you look her up, you’ll find pictures of a petite person, with groomed white hair, a shrewd face, and large glasses. She would not, in most cases, appear frightening. Over the course of the 1980s, however, several of her tenants disappeared. Seven were eventually found buried in the yard. She was also ultimately implicated in the death of her boyfriend Everson as well as the overdose of a former roommate.
Almost all of the investigative evidence and trial exhibits from Dorothea Puente’s 1992–93 criminal court case files — including this letter and many others like it — are housed in a collection at the Center for Sacramento History, the official Sacramento city and county archives. As one of the Center’s archivists, I processed the entire Puente collection over the course of six months starting in January 2018. Though I had access to a large range of documents dealing with the entirety of Puente’s wrongdoings, most of the records felt remarkably impersonal. Murder, mental illness, and elder abuse were all presented clinically and coldly: evidence collected during the investigation, crime scene and autopsy photographs, diagrams of Puente’s house and yard, testimony and interview transcripts, cashed checks, handwriting samples, toxicology reports, shovels, pill vials. But the letters were extraordinarily revealing.
Puente was a serial liar in addition to being a serial killer. She had lied her entire life, whether or not it made strategic sense, and often her lies were the kind that could — and would — unravel easily over time. She lied big and small. The number of children she had changed constantly. She claimed to know the rich and famous and powerful. She once told a reporter she’d been a Rockette. Was her lying calculated or delusional? Perhaps both. The letters she wrote and the letters she forged, as well as the letters written by others about her, reveal the elaborate network of deception and scheming that allowed her to steal from and eventually kill nine elderly people. These people lived mostly solitary existences, on the outskirts of society. In some cases, they were forgotten while they were still alive, and their deaths could have easily gone unnoticed, as Puente had hoped.
Puente had a long history of forgery, theft, and involuntary drugging. In the 1970s, she ran a boarding house for the elderly and needy at 2100 F Street — a large, gorgeous Victorian just six blocks east of the house where the deaths in this story took place. By 1978 she was arrested and convicted of forging her tenants’ signatures on their benefits checks. She was placed on five years’ probation, which expressly forbid her from operating a boarding house. Puente instead began working as an in-home caregiver. In April 1982, her friend, roommate, and business partner, Ruth Munroe, died in an apparent overdose, which was then ruled a suicide. A few months later, Puente went to prison for drugging and robbing a man she met at a bar.
Puente was released in 1985, under the terms of parole that she not handle other people’s social security checks or work with the elderly. She immediately began doing both of those things. She once again opened a boarding house — this time at 1426 F Street — and began taking in vulnerable tenants, targeting those without strong social networks or people to look after them. Her boarders were usually elderly; they often had problems with addiction or mental illness. She targeted those who had recently been released from jail, or had experienced homelessness, or were, simply, alone. Once tenants moved in, Puente started stealing their money under the guise of managing their finances. She would either set up a joint account with a tenant, or forge and cash the tenant’s checks and keep the funds in her own account, subtracting room, board, and other expenses and giving the tenant an allowance from the remainder. Incidentally, she did quite a bit of her banking at Joe’s Corner, a dive bar down the street at F and 15th, writing checks to “cash” in exchange for money from the bar’s till.
Within three years of her 1985 release from prison and the opening of her second boarding house, at least seven of her tenants had died at her hands. Their social security checks continued to come in, and Puente continued to forge their signatures and collect the cash. She drugged all the people she killed — Dalmane, a sedative used to treat insomnia, was one of her drugs of choice; it was found in every one of her victims’ bodies. It’s unclear, as far as the coroner’s reports, if the victims were killed by the drugs alone, or if Puente finished them off by smothering them with a pillow while they were in a stupor. In many cases, she left her victims in an upstairs room for a few days to either let them die slowly from the drugs or to prepare the body for burial, wrapping them in sheets or tarps and waiting for a good moment to sneak them outside. In one case, for reasons unknown, she dismembered a body, and the discarded parts were never found. She buried six of the tenants in her backyard and one, boldly, in her front yard.
April 19, 1986
On March 13th I received a letter dated March 10th from you stating you will mail my check to me here at the house. I have not received it, and have closed my account at the Bank of America at 8th & I streets. My account no. at the bank was [redacted]. But the checks should be coming here at the house: 1426 F Street. My social security number is [redacted]. I need my check and would appreciate it if you’d send it to me.
[Letter to Social Security Administration, written in Puente’s handwriting]
Everson Gillmouth, or Gil, was an expert woodcarver. There is a photo in the collection that depicts him standing proudly with one of his carvings. This photo, out of all the materials I handled, made me tear up when I first saw it, and it still does today as I write about it. I know very little about Gil, aside from what I see in his photographs. He looked like someone’s sweet old grandpa. He had white hair and large glasses; he wore a big smile, smart button-ups, and a silver or gold watch. While processing the collection, I was able to identify his unlabeled autopsy photographs using that watch, which was still on his wrist. Gil met Puente while she was in prison, and they exchanged letters until her 1985 release. He picked her up from prison in his red truck, and they planned to get married. She suggested they open a joint banking account.
Shortly after Puente’s release, Gil’s family and friends stopped hearing from him, and started hearing from Puente — or “Irene” — instead. Puente killed Gil in late November or early December 1985. She then hired a handyman to build a man-sized wooden lidded box for some “books” she wanted to store. Puente placed Gil in the box, nailed the lid shut, and, when the handyman returned, asked him to drive the box to her storage unit. On the way, she suggested they just dump the books by the river and offered Gil’s truck to the handyman as payment, saying her boyfriend was in Los Angeles and didn’t need it. Puente then began corresponding with Gil’s family and friends and the government on his behalf. They all thought he was still alive, and Puente cashed his checks.
November 2, 1985
Leaving for Palm Springs at 11:30 a.m. today. Tried to call but line busy. Decided to go on. You’d try to stop me. Will return to Dorothea’s for Thanksgiving but will be in touch with you before. Please don’t worry.
[Telegram to Everson Gillmouth’s sister Reba]
April 26, 1986
We came to Sacramento to pick up the rest of Everson’s things from storage. They told us you had been worried and had the police come over. We are O.K. He had a small stroke in January. He can’t drive anymore. He sold his trailer and truck, but we have a new car. I got it in Dec. We love the deserts and the warm and dry weather. We are going to Canada in August, so will stop and see you. Everson wrote to you in Feb. When we get the phone in June, we will call. He’s lost about 15 lbs. And feels much better. We are both health nuts, so we are doing O.K. And I work, so our income is pretty good. We go to church each week. It was 90 all week and he did not care for Tulsa Okla. at all. But guess we will buy a small home with the money from my home.
Irene & Everson
[Letter to Everson’s sister Reba]
When someone disappeared from the boarding house, Puente told the other tenants that the person had moved out, or that she had thrown them out because of excessive drinking. People came and went frequently, so it wasn’t unusual that the other tenants didn’t question the disappearance of one of their housemates. If they did have suspicions, they didn’t press them or follow through. And no one outside of the house really noticed — except Puente’s former prison cellmate Brenda Trujillo, who had briefly lived at 1426 F Street.
November 29, 1987
To whom it may concern:
I believe that my SSI checks were being cashed by a woman by the name of oneDorothea Gray, Dorothea Montalvo, Dorothea Puente, is all the same person. I am right now incarcerated at Rio Cosumnes, waiting on transportation to CIW. I spoke to two of your employees there, they ask me to write you. This letter I file for SSI in January 1987. I was at that time renting a room at Ms. Dorothea Gray’s home and my SSI checks were going to her address, which is 1426 F Street, Sacramento, Calif. She has nevertold me that my checks were coming. I had to ask my doctor to check into it for me. She told me that my checks were being sent there in the beginning of July 1987. The first check was worth $3,000, which the social security man I spoke to inform me also that I was getting a check each month after that for $500. I have been incarcerated all this time and would like to take further action concerning this matter. The woman is on federal parole for the same offence. So thank you for your time.
[Letter to Social Security Administration]
Before sending this letter to the Social Security Administration, Brenda had talked to the police about Puente’s crimes, trying to use what she knew to her advantage during one of her frequent arrests. By the time she filed her complaints with the SSA, Puente had been stealing money from her tenants for several years without anyone else catching on. Living on the fringes, in and out of police custody for heroin and prostitution, Brenda wasn’t taken seriously.
January 4, 1988
I’m supposed to go to Social Security next week for you. Don’t know if they will accept the power of attorney. Will try. I’m going to say you are sick … Anyhow, don’t ever mention to anyone about this, that way you’ll always be o.k. Not your mom. No one.
Puente was ultimately caught because of a persistent social worker. Alvaro “Bert” Montoya was Puente’s most vulnerable tenant — developmentally disabled, practically silent, and mentally ill. Bert was often homeless and largely defenseless, described as having the demeanor of a child. It’s likely that Puente used Bert in her crimes, enlisting his help in dragging bodies down the narrow back stairs to their graves, which she may have also had him dig. When Bert’s social worker, Judy Moise, couldn’t find him in late 1988, Puente gave conflicting stories: He was in Utah, or he moved back to Mexico (Bert was from Costa Rica).
Judy filed a missing person’s report, and the police came to Puente’s house looking for him. Though they searched the house, they didn’t find anything suspicious and the other tenants seemed to back up Puente’s story about where Bert had gone. Then a tenant named John Sharp quietly flashed a note to a detective, taking advantage of a moment when Puente left the two men alone. The chilling note — which I filed in the collection along with the video of Sharp’s compelling witness interview — read, “She wants me to lie to you.”The cops were now suspicious. A few days later, they came back and asked if they could dig in the backyard. Puente said yes. They found a femur, and then seven bodies. Letters and notes had allowed Puente’s murderous scamming to go on for years. In the end, it was another brief written message that landed her in court, and then prison, where she died in 2011.
Her case is notorious in Sacramento and to serial killer buffs everywhere. But who the victims were and the horrible way they spent the last months of their lives tends to get glossed over. They’re forgotten about, the details of their lives seemingly less important than the manner in which they died. At the beginning of the project, I knew them all as coroner’s ID numbers without names. I saw photos of the excavations and autopsies, meeting their decomposed corpses before I ever saw photos of them as living, smiling people. As I familiarized myself with the collection, I kept a list of names I came across, along with coroner’s ID numbers, burial site numbers, and other little details that allowed me to piece together who the people murdered at 1426 F Street really were.
At the end of the project, I knew their names and faces, their problems, their financial situations, and sometimes their personalities. I was able to match the burial site with the coroner’s ID with the name with the face. They went from unknown bodies to real people, who lived complicated lives, who smiled in pictures, who didn’t deserve the horrible deaths Puente meted out to them. They were almost all isolated by mental illness, addiction, bad luck, bad decisions, or just plain orneriness. But Dorothy Miller was also a veteran. Leona Carpenter, the oldest of the group, had already made her funeral plans before she was killed. Ben Fink, the alcoholic former sailor, made everybody laugh. James Gallop helped Puente out around the house. Bert Alvaro was a tender man who almost never talked, and when he did, it was mostly nonsensical. Two of the victims, Betty Mae Palmer and Vera Faye Martin, are still just faces to me. But faces I’ll always recognize.
The families of Puente’s first two victims tried to find answers to their deaths, which might have inspired her to be more prudent when selecting her other victims. The sons of Ruth Munroe, Puente’s first apparent victim, checked on her while she lived with Puente in 1982. They noticed that her demeanor and health had rapidly changed. After Munroe’s overdose, they went to the authorities and accused Puente of murdering her. Puente was cleared at the time, but they testified at her 1992–93 trial and Ruth was added to the list of victims. Gil’s family also noticed that something was wrong. They also contacted the police, but Puente kept writing letters to them with plausible excuses for why he wasn’t getting in touch. Gil’s body was found the month after she dumped it, though it wasn’t identified until after she was arrested and implicated in his death by the handyman three years later. There’s no mention of friends or family of any other victims in the collection.
Long before I was an archivist, I was a teenager writing the obituaries for my hometown newspaper. When I started, my editor stressed the importance of the obituary and the need to write each one with care. For most people, it would be the only time their name would be mentioned in the newspaper, a public record of their existence. Puente’s victims’ names appeared as part of a gruesome news story. They were lost — though hardly anyone knew it — and then, suddenly, they were found. I never saw any obituaries for them. But now they live on through the archives, where the Puente collection contains more details about their lives than probably any other source. There aren’t a lot of details, but they’re there. And they can be found again, and again.