The press dubbed Dorothea Puente the ‘Death House Landlady.’ The name sharply contrasted with her perception in the community. People viewed Puente as a sweet grandmother committed to giving back to society: she housed the old and homeless, attended political events, and donated money to charitable causes.
However, Dorothea’s outward demeanor was a smokescreen, concealing her murderous ways. She took in the old, mentally-ill, and homeless, not to take care of them but to murder them and profit from their social security checks.
Thanks to a dogged social security worker, police discovered a graveyard in the old lady’s backyard. Dorothea Puente’s story features in the new Netflix documentary Worst Roommate Ever.
Dorothea’s home is owned by a couple who’ve turned it into a family home
Authorities usually destroy houses owned by serial killers to rid the community of the crime and prevent visits from true crimes enthusiasts. However, Dorothea’s home is a historical site protected from demolition.
In the years after Puente’s incarceration, the house became famous for alleged supernatural activities. An episode of Ghost Adventures hosted by Zak Bagans investigated the possibility of ghosts roaming the property.
The tenant at the time, a woman named Peggy, stated that she felt a presence in her bedroom every night. She further claimed that she saw the ghost of an older woman grinning at her. Bagans supported her assertions, claiming that an unseen force had attacked him. His crew said that they felt the presence of a large man and older woman in the house.
Tom Williams and Barbara Holmes purchased the house fully aware of its history. “I thought we could put a fresh coat of paint on and make people forget,” Barbara said in a documentary titled The House Is Innocent.
It was unlikely that a fresh coat of paint would make the people of Sacramento forget that nine bodies were found buried in the property’s backyard. Therefore, Williams and Holmes decided to embrace the house’s history.
They endowed it with fun signs such as: “It was that awful, awful woman who did it! Don’t blame me! – The House.” Another one warns motorists not to park near the house: “The ghosts like to get out to terrorize the neighborhood.”
“The House is Innocent,” another sign reads. The property’s backyard reportedly features a mannequin styled to resemble Puente holding a shovel. In 2020, the owners added a gazebo, new turf, and playground, making the former makeshift graveyard child friendly.
The house has become a tourist destination for people interested in its sordid tale. “I like attention,” Williams said (per The Atlantic). “Sometimes I think I make too much light of it and I’m going to offend some people, but you know, you just have to take a chance.”
Williams and Holmes claim to have never encountered a ghost at the residence. However, Holmes’ mother, Juanita Holmes, said that a ghost woke her as she slept. “It was a woman, I felt, and she had really heavy perfume,” she told KCR. The former Puente’s boarding house is located at 1426 F St., Sacramento, CA 95814.
Puente maintained her innocence throughout the trial
Puente attracted the attention of authorities after Alvaro Montoya, a man placed in her boarding house, vanished. Dorothea told Judy from social services that Montoya traveled to Mexico with his brother; an explanation Judy refused to buy.
One of Puente’s tenants, John Sharp, fueled Judy’s suspicions by telling her: “She’s [Puente] been digging a lot of holes.” Police searched her house, and after finding nothing suspicious, they requested to dig up the garden.
Puente agreed, even handing them an extra shovel. Police discovered a body, and upon questioning Dorothea, she calmly answered all questions. “She was emotionless and she would look straight into my eyes and answer every question,” a policeman said on Worst Roommate Ever.
“She never flinched. She never said anything. She denied everything.” With nothing to link her to the murders, police allowed her to leave for coffee with a nephew to ‘calm her nerves.’ Authorities arrested her in Los Angeles five days later.
Dorothea had a tough upbringing: the orphaned girl was abused and suffered from a mental illness, which eventually led to a life of crime. After spending time in prison for forgery, Puente became a sex worker, in time running a brothel, which led to her arrest in 1960.
Nearly 20 years later, she was convicted of illegally cashing governments checks belonging to her tenants. While working as a caretaker in the 80s, she drugged her clients and stole from them. She served three years in prison for her crimes, and after her release, a psychologist recommended authorities closely monitor her.
Her criminal streak culminated in the murders of at least nine people. “It was incredibly shocking,” detective John Cabrera said in The House is Innocent. “Seven people were buried in her yard. One of the victims [was found with] no head, hands, feet. It was incredible that this individual—this little old lady—could be responsible for all these deaths.”
It took several days of deliberation for the jury to find her guilty of three murders. Some jury members found it difficult to believe that the innocent-looking grandma committed such heinous crimes.
“This could be my grandma, she was the little old lady next door,” the police said in Worst Roommate Ever. “You cannot judge a book by its cover and she had one heck of a cover.”