Thursday, September 3, 2009

The (evil) Little Old Lady Who Lived on F Street

Twenty years ago last November, a Sacramento sheriff made a grisly discovery.  A grandmotherly lady named Dorothea Puente, who ran a boarding house for indigents and the elderly, had buried seven of nine boarding house residents that she allegedly killed.  In her yard beneath her garden and concrete slabs, law enforcement found the bodies in various stages of decomposition.  Unbeknownst to them as they discovered the victims, Puente successfully planned and executed an escape.  Luckily, the sensationalism achieved through newspaper and television journalistic efforts resulted in Puente being recognized and captured in Los Angeles.  She was returned to Sacramento, granted a change of venue to Monterey and convicted of three of the nine deaths.  At last report, she was serving life without parole in Chowchilla State Penitentiary.  This story gained world-wide attention back in 1988 because of its uniqueness.  Puente did not fit the typical profile of a serial killer.  She was a woman of advanced age who was known in the community for her kindness and generosity.  She also had rubbed elbows with celebrities and politicians, including several California governors.  In reality, she was a diagnosed schizophrenic, psychopath and sociopath.  She was also a skillful liar with a significant criminal history that included forgery, prostitution and theft by deception. 

In spite of far-reaching notoriety, I don’t recall the national media coverage of Puente’s case(I was living on the East coast and pre-occupied with small children).  My first exposure to her story was in 2004, when I first read Daniel J. Blackburn’s book “Human Harvest: The Sacramento Murder Story”.  Blackburn’s account--and several others--chronicle the Puente story, among them “The Bone Garden” by William P. Wood, “Disturbed Ground” by Carla Norton, and an unusual recipe book titled “Cooking with a Serial Killer Recipes From Dorothea Puente” by Shane Bugbee.  Blackburn’s version is the only one I have read and is an excellent account of the events and background of the case.

My second exposure to the Puente case came after I began working as a deputy coroner.  An intern in our office was preparing a presentation and had retrieved newspaper articles and investigative items from the coroner’s archives.  I loaned her my copy of Blackburn’s book to further her research.

Yesterday, I was perusing the August/September 09 edition of “Sactown” magazine and discovered an article on the Puente case titled “The Life and Deaths of Dorothea Puente” written by Martin Kuz.  In his article, Kuz detailed six months of correspondence and prison visits with Puente as she told her story, clinging still to her denial of killing anyone.

True crime, especially notorious murders, has long fascinated me. Additionally, I have always been drawn to fictional murder mysteries.  I remember watching Perry Mason reruns on television as early as age nine.  I even owned a paperback copy of Erle Stanley Gardner’s “The Case of the Crimson Kiss” and it was heavily dog-eared.  In more recent years, I have become a fan of both fiction and nonfiction works by authors such as John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and Dan Brown.  A huge turning point for me came during my senior year in college.  I had signed up for a course in popular literature, and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” was on the required reading list.  That book changed me.  It was then that I first considered writing a book.  I am now in the very earliest planning stages for that book and yes, it is a true story of murder that [to my knowledge] has not yet been told.  I will also occasionally share stories from my time as deputy coroner, some of them were true crime murders, often they were heartbreaking, all of them were fascinating, and occasionally, some were humorous (yes, Virginia, circumstances around death can sometimes be funny). 

I shared this with you so you can comprehend my inspiration for some of my future posts.  In turn, I hope I have inspired you.

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