Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dorothea Puente, Killing for Profit


Dorothea Puente wore a blue dress and pearl necklace when she pleaded innocent to the nine counts of murder filed against her at the Sacramento Municipal Court on March 31, 1989.

Another four years would pass before all the evidence was sifted through and her trial began in February, 1993. Because of the extensive pretrial publicity, the venue was moved from Sacramento to Monterey, and it took three months to empanel the jury of eight men and four women.

Prosecutor John O'Mara
Prosecutor John O'Mara

Prosecutor John O'Mara was blunt in his summation of the case. It was a simple matter of predatory greed, he said: Puente murdered her lodgers to steal their government checks.

"She wanted people who had no relatives, no friends, no family: people who, when they're gone, won't have others coming around and asking questions," O'Mara told the court, according to the Chronicle.

Her defense team, Peter Vlautin and Kevin Clymo, contended that the tenants died of natural causes. Puente didn't call paramedics to retrieve the bodies, they maintained, because she was operating the boarding house in violation of her parole, and didn't want to get sent back to prison.

In his opening statement, Clymo described Puente as a benevolent soul who selflessly cared for "the dregs of society, people who had no place else to go," according to the Bee. He argued that the money from the tenants barely covered Puente's operating expenses. She stole money to cover her expenses, he suggested, but she was not a killer.

Dorothea Puente with lawyers
Dorothea Puente with lawyers

The five month-long trial included 153 witnesses, 3,100 pieces of evidence and a scale model of the Victorian boarding house, which rested on a table at the front of the court room like a misplaced dollhouse.

In the courtroom, Puente cultivated her sweet little granny look to the nines, dressing in flowered frocks and lacquering her hair into a silky white poof. She managed to keep her poker face during the most damning testimony, but dashed off frequent notes to her attorneys.

When the prosecution showed photos of Puente's alleged victims — first alive and smiling, then rotting in the garden — Puente gazed at the images through her thick glasses without flinching, USA Today reported.

"Dorothea Puente murdered nine people," O'Mara told jurors after the grim photo exhibition. "Don't turn your back on reason."


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