Arsenic and Old Lace captured the concept of quietly and efficiently killing a victim with arsenic and a “touch” of cyanide. The original black and white 1944 film starring Cary Grant centered around two little old ladies, Abby and Martha Brewster, who somehow made lacing a victim’s food and drink with poison drily humorous. Grant is struck dumb when his aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster, inform him about the male boarders whom they suspect are mortally ill and thus it is their duty to assist them in shuffling off their mortal coils. Grant cautions them, “This is developing into a very bad habit!” A real life Brewster named Dorothea Puente ran a home for elderly, disabled, and homeless people in Sacramento, California. WIthin a short time of living with Dorothea, a boarder usually looked and felt much better, maintaining personal hygiene and sometimes lodging with Dorothea for months at a time. Others were drug-addicted transients, and true to their nature, came and went after a short stay. Unlike Abby and Martha, Dorothy didn’t kill for altruistic reasons: she murdered her boarders to secure their social security checks and steal their identities to obtain her weapon of choice: the prescription medication Dalmane. Sometimes her boarders unknowingly complained themselves into their own graves about not receiving their money.
From birth, Dorothea Punete was alone in the world. When Dorothea was 8 her father died of tuberculosis. Her alcoholic mother locked Dorothea in a closet and disappeared for days at a time. When she returned sick from alcohol poisoning, she made her young daughter clean up the mess.When Dorothea was 9, her mother died in a motorcycle accident. From her earliest moments, Dorothea was surrounded by death. This resulted in a mindset of sympathy and hatred for the sick. Dorothea was sent to orphanages and was passed around among houses until the age of 16. When Dorothea got out on her own, she still moved around often, inventing new identities for herself to escape her painful past. She supported herself through prostitution. In 1945, at the age of 16, she married a soldier named Fred McFaul. McFaul soon found out that Dorothea was a pathological liar. She loved to adorn her body with expensive clothes, silk stockings and flirty dresses, she loved to embellish her background. She lied to make herself seem more interesting, a habit that stuck for life. She claimed to have lived through the Bataan Death March in World War II (when she was 13), and the bombing of Hiroshima. She was the sister of the ambassador to Sweden, she told people, and a close friend of Rita Hayworth. Dorothea had two daughters between 1946 and 1948, but she sent one to be raised by McFaul’s parents in Sacramento, and gave the other up for adoption. Lucky girls. In late 1948, McFaul left her. Humiliated, Dorothea lied that her husband died of a heart attack.
The easy money she got from hooking was a hard habit for Dorothea to shake. In 1948, she stole checks from an acquaintance to buy a hat, purse, shoes and panty hose, was caught, sentenced to a year in jail, and was paroled after six months. She was convicted of forgery, served four years in jail, then skipped town when she was on probation. Soon she was impregnated by a man she barely knew and gave birth to a daughter, whom she gave up for adoption. Her youthful lifestyle seemed to be in giving birth. Her elderly lifestyle came through death. Bizarre dovetail, that one. In 1952, Dorothea married Axel Johanson, and had a turbulent 14-year marriage. Whenever her husband was away at sea, neighbors complained of taxis dropping off strange men at all hours of the night. The couple fought, separated, made up, separated, and continued this pattern during their marriage.In 1960, she was arrested for owning and managing a brothel and was sentenced to 90 days in the Sacramento County Jail. After her release, she was arrested for vagrancy (sit-lie and begging in public), and sentenced to another 90 days. Meh, free room and board without having to panhandle or hook, and a few companions to pass the time. Not a bad deal. Not surprisingly, she worked as a nurse’s aide, caring for disabled and elderly people in private homes. Soon she started managing boarding houses. She finally decided to settle down and get serious with her criminal career. That’s called career planning.Our jack-of-all-trades in misdemeanour offences would one day become a master in felony murder.
She divorced Johansen in 1966 and our little cookie married Roberto Puente, a man 19 years her junior, in Mexico City. It lasted two years. Roberto claimed Dorothea liked to live as if she was rich. She “wanted new pantyhose every day.” By 1969 Dorothea told people she was a lawyer and a doctor. She kept herself beautifully coiffed and wore silk dresses. Dorothea took over a three-story, 16-bedroom care home at 2100 F Street in Sacramento, California. She actually married for the fourth time in 1976 to Pedro Montalvo, a violent alcoholic. The marriage lasted a few months, and Dorothea spent time in local bars looking for older men who were receiving benefits. She forged their signatures to steal their money, but was caught and charged with 34 counts of treasury fraud. While on probation, she continued to commit the same fraud. According to California Court of Appeal records, in 1981 Dorothea began renting an upstairs apartment at 1426 F Street in downtown Sacramento.
Some tenants in Dorothea’s boarding house resented her stinginess and complained she refused to give them their mail or money; others praised her for her kindness or for her home-made meals. Dorothea’s motives for killing tenants were financial, with her ill-gotten income totaling more than $5,000 per month. The murders appear to have begun shortly after Dorothea rented out space in the home at 1426 F Street. In April 1982, 61-year-old friend and business partner Ruth Monroe began living in her upstairs apartment, but a scant two weeks after she’d moved in, Ruth ran into a friend at a beauty parlor and blurted out: “I feel like I’m going to die.” When the friend asked her why, according to the reports, Munroe told the woman, “I don’t know.” Poor Ruth soon died from an overdose of codeine and Tylenol. Dorothea told police the woman was depressed because her husband was terminally ill. They believed her and judged the incident a suicide. Weeks later, the police were back after 74-year-old pensioner Malcolm McKenzie accused Dorothea of drugging and stealing from him. She was convicted of three charges of theft on August 18, 1982, and sentenced to five years in jail. When Dorothea was released after serving three years of her sentence, she was ordered to “stay away from the elderly and refrain from handling government checks”, Of course Dorothea had already violated that condition in prison when she began corresponding with a 77-year-old retiree living in Oregon, Everson Gillmouth, who made the mistake of telling her he earned a cozy pension and owned an Airstream trailer.They began a relationship and the couple was soon making wedding plans. Gullible Gillmouth even made Dorothea a signatory on his checking account. Uh-oh. That cannot be a good sign with our Ms. Puente.
In November 1985, she hired Ismael Florez to install wood paneling in her apartment. Dorothea paid him $800 and gave him Gillmouth’s red 1980 Ford pickup she told Florez her husband didn’t need anymore. She certainly didn’t lie about that. Florez built her a box 6 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet to store “books and other items“. Florez and Dorothea drove the box onto Garden Highway in Sutter County and dumped the box on the river bank. On January 1, 1986, a fisherman spotted the box three feet from the bank of the river and informed police. Investigators found a decomposed and unidentifiable body of an elderly man inside (any bets as to whom). Dorothea collected Everson Gillmouth’s pension and wrote letters to his family, explaining that the reason he had not contacted them was because he was ill. She took in 40 new tenants. Girl’s gotta pay the rent. Gillmouth’s body remained unidentified for three years.
Dorothea continued to accept elderly tenants, and was popular with local social workers because she accepted “tough cases“, including drug addicts and abusive tenants. Social workers described her as “the best the system had to offer.” I can’t imagine the worst. During this period, parole agents visited Dorothea, who had been ordered as a condition of her parole, to stay away from the elderly and refrain from handling government checks, fifteen times. No violations were noted. It was inconceivable that federal parole agents, who visited Dorothea 15 times during the two years leading up to her arrest, never realized she was running a boarding house for the elderly, in direct violation of her parole.One afternoon, social worker Peggy Nickerson overheard Dorothea shouting obscenities at a tenant and refused to send anymore clients to 1426 F Street. Suspicion was aroused when neighbors noticed the odd activities of a homeless alcoholic known as “Chief“, whom Dorothy stated she “adopted” and made her personal handyman. Chief dug up dirt in the basement and carted soil and rubbish away in a wheelbarrow. Chief took down a garage in the backyard and installed a concrete slab. Then, Chief disappeared.
On November 11, 1988, police inquired after the disappearance of tenant Alvaro Montoya, a developmentally disabled schizophrenic whose social worker reported him missing. Dorothea was only too happy to invite police inside, offering them tea (not laced with arsenic or sleeping pills although that would have made for a great story) which they politely refused, and allowing them to search and dig in her backyard. After noticing disturbed soil on the property, they uncovered the body of tenant Leona Carpenter, 78. When Leona disappeared, social workers weren’t alarmed: Leona was known as a transient and in the habit of moving away. Seven bodies were eventually found. During the initial investigation, Dorothea was not a suspect, and was allowed to leave the property, ostensibly to buy a cup of coffee at a nearby hotel. Instead, she fled to Los Angeles, where she was up to her old tricks again, befriending an elderly pensioner she met in a bar, Charles Willgues, a 59-year-old retired carpenter, was nursing a mid-afternoon beer at the Monte Carlo tavern when an elegant stranger in a bright red overcoat took a stool next to him. Dorothea ordered a vodka and orange juice and introduced herself to Willgues as Donna Johansson. She told Willgues the cabbie who’d dropped her off at the $25-a-night Royal Viking Motel had driven off with her suitcases, and the heels of her only remaining pair of shoes were broken.
Willgues felt sorry for the woman and took her shoes to a cobbler across the street to have them repaired. When he returned, the woman asked him how much money he got from Social Security a month. He he told her $576 a month. He thought it strange when Dorothea told him she was a good cook and suggested they move in together. They were two lonely souls in the world, so why not keep each other company? “I’ve got all I can handle right now,” he responded. He had no idea how ironic those words would prove. They went for a chicken dinner, parted ways and back at his apartment, Willgues realized he’d seen her on television, along with the bodies they’d pulled from her yard. He called a local TV station, which in turn called the police.
It was discovered that Dorothea used sleeping pills to put her tenants to sleep, then suffocated them. The nine murders with which she was charged in 1988 (she was convicted in 1993 of three) were associated with the upstairs apartment and not her previous 16-room boarding house. Dorothea was charged with a total of nine murders. During her trial Dorothea cultivated her sweet little granny look, dressing in flowered frocks and lacquering her hair into a silky white poof. This time, appearances weren’t deceiving and the tactic didn’t help. Dorothea was convicted of three murders and sentenced to two life sentences. She was 64 when she went to prison. Dorothea died in a Chowchilla, California prison at the age of 82 from colon cancer, having served 18 years of her 2 life sentences. Although they didn’t bury her in a garden, she ended up in dirt like the her tenants. Dorothea’s criminal “career” is proof that people have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.