Dorothea Puente, also called the Landlady from Hell, was an American Serial Killer who murdered her elderly boarders for their Social Security checks.
Dorothea Helen Gray was born on January 9th, 1929 in Redlands, California. Her parents, Trudy Mae and Jesse James Gray, were both alcoholics and her mother was also a sex worker. Her father had even attempted to commit suicide in front of her. Jesse James died of tuberculosis in 1937 when she was 8, and her mother died in a car crash in 1938. Dorothea was sent to an orphanage and she was subjected to sexual abuse.
In 1945, Dorothea married a soldier named Fred McFaul. She was 16 years old at the time. Two daughters were produced from this marriage in 1946 and 1948, but Dorothea sent one daughter to live with relatives and gave the other up for adoption. She became pregnant in 1948 for the third time, but lost the child due to a miscarriage. Later the same year, her husband left her.
Dorothea was given a prison sentence of a year for forging checks, however, she was paroled after six months. After being released, she got pregnant for a man she barely knew, and after giving birth to a daughter, she placed the child for adoption. She married a Swede man named Axel Johanson in 1952, and the two stayed together for 14 years.
She was arrested again in the 1960’s for owning a brothel, and spent ninety days in jail. After her release, Dorothea was arrested for vagrancy, and spent another ninety days in jail. After her release, she began a criminal career that spanned for years.
Dorothea found a job as a nurse’s aide, caring for the disabled and elderly in private homes. Shortly after, she started managing boarding homes.
She divorced her husband in 1966 and married a man named Roberto Puente, who was 19 years her junior, in Mexico City. The marriage ended after two years, and soon after, she took over a three story, 16 bedroom care home in Sacramento.
Dorothea married a man named Pedro Montalvo in 1976, and discovered that he was an abusive alcoholic. This marriage only lasted a few months, and Dorothea began spending her time in bars looking for older men who were receiving benefits. She began forging their signatures to steal their money, and was soon caught and charged for treasury fraud.
Dorothea began committing murders shortly after renting out her apartment in Sacramento. In April 1982, 61 year old Ruth Munroe began living with her, but soon died from an overdose of acetaminophen and codeine. When questioned by police, Dorothea told them that Munroe was depressed over her terminally ill husband. Authorities accepted this explanation and Munroe’s death was ruled a suicide.
A few weeks later, police were called back after 74 year old Malcolm McKenzie accused Dorothea of drugging and stealing from him. On August 18th, 1982, she was convicted of three charges of theft, and sent to jail for five years. Here, she started corresponding with 77 year old retiree Everson Gillmouth, who was living on Oregon.
Dorothea was released in 1985 after serving three years, and Gillmouth came for her in a red 1980 for pickup. Their relationship quickly developed, and they talked of getting married.
Dorothea hired a man named Ismael Florez in November 1985 to install wood paneling in her apartment. He was paid $800 and Dorothea gave him the red pickup, stating it belonged to her boyfriend who was in Los Angeles and no longer needed it. She also asked Florez to build her a box 6-by-3-by-2 for her to store books and other items in. The box was nailed shut, and Florez agreed to take it to a storage depot with Dorothea.
While on the way to the storage depot, Dorothea asked Florez to stop on the Garden Highway in Sutter County and dump the box on the river bank. She told him the box only contained junk. On January 1st, 1986, a fisherman spotted the box sitting on the bank of the river and called the police. Upon opening the box, police found a badly decomposed body of an elderly person inside. They were unable to identify Gillmouth’s body for three years.
Dorothea continued to collect Gillmouth’s pension, and to cover her tracks, she wrote letters to his family saying that he was ill and unable to contact anyone. She maintained her room and board business, and took on 40 new tenants. Dorothea was popular with social workers because she usually took on drug addicts and abusive tenants. She collected the tenants’ mail before they had a chance to see it, and paid them in stipends while pocketing the rest.
During this time, parole agents visited Dorothea, and advised her not to handle the elderly or government checks, but they usually left after fifteen minutes.
Neighbors became suspicious of Dorothea when they noticed the odd activities of a homeless alcoholic who went by the name of Chief. Dorothea had him dig in the basement of the boarding house, and cart soil away in a wheelbarrow. The basement floor was then covered with concrete. She then had him take down the garage in the backyard, and that area was covered with concrete as well. Shortly after, Chief disappeared.
Arrest, Trial & Imprisonment
On November 11th, 1988, police questioned Dorothea on the disappearance of her tenant Alberto Montoya, who was a mentally disabled man with schizophrenia. His social worker had reported him missing. Police noticed disturbed soil on the property, and after digging up the area, they discovered the body of 78 year old tenant Leona Carpenter.
Seven additional bodies were found on the property.
Dorothea was not regarded as a suspected immediately during the investigation, so she was allowed to leave the property as she pleased. She left the boarding house under the guise of buying coffee from a nearby hotel. After getting the coffee, she fled Sacramento to Los Angeles, where she befriended an elderly pensioner in a bar. The pensioner recognized her from reports on television and contacted the police.
She was charged with nine murders including her boyfriend, Everson Gillmouth, and eight tenants: 61 year old Ruth Munroe, 78 year old Leona Carpenter, 51 year old Alvaro 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. Her attorneys filed a change of venue motion, and her trial was moved to Monterey County, California.
Her trial began in October 1992, and ended a year later. Over 130 witnesses were called, and the prosecutor argued that Dorothea used sleeping pills to put her tenants to sleep, then suffocated them to death. The jury took a month to deliberate, and Dorothea was found guilty of three murders and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
She was incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility, where she died on March 27th, 2011 of natural causes. She was 82 years old.