Sacramento Police Department

Dorothea Puente may look like a harmless old lady, but behind her sweet appearance, she was a cold-blooded killer.

Quick notes:

– Dorothea Puente is one of the most notorious serial killers in the state of California, rumored to have killed up to 15 patients in her care home.

– ‘The Shadow Killer’ took advantage of everyone from the homeless to the mentally ill, stealing their social security checks post-mortem.

– She was convicted of three of the murders and sentenced to back-to-back life sentences, dying in prison in 2011.

“It occurs to me that if I were unaware of her past and talking with her outside of prison, she could come across as the little old lady next door.”

This quote comes from Martin Kuz, who, 20 years after Puente was imprisoned for the mass murder of multiple elderly patients under her care, sat down to interview Puente in prison. Before her arrest, that was all that her neighbors thought of her, too: she was a sweet, gentle old woman, incapable of hurting a fly. But that was the furthest thing from the truth.

When police excavated multiple bodies from Puente’s garden in 1988, the neighborhood, as well as the rest of the country, was left in shock. How could such a frail old woman be the most brutal female serial killer that the state of California had ever seen?

The making of a mass murderer

Although a crummy childhood doesn’t excuse becoming a murderer, Dorothea Puente didn’t exactly have an easy start in the world. Born in 1929 to alcoholic parents who abused and underfed her, Puente faced off with some of the ugliest traits of the human race from an early age… and she started to adapt accordingly. As a young adult, Puente charged into several disorderly relationships, as well as forged checks to make a living.

And, well, she was caught.

After serving six months of a year-long sentence in prison, she was released back into the world. She seemed pretty intent on wreaking as much havoc as she could. Shortly after her release, she married a soldier, having two daughters with him. She sent one away and put the other up for adoption. After a miscarriage, he left her. She began what would become a 14-year-long marriage with Roberto Puente. In light of their violent relationship, Puente didn’t hit the brakes on her crime spree.

In fact, Puente was just getting started.

After her first stint in jail, she kicked off the unstable business of running a brothel. When she was caught in 1960, she was forced to spend 90 illuminating days in jail. When she got out, she decided to dedicate herself to being a nurse for the elderly which, of course, leads us to the disastrous reality of her future: one spent as a stone-cold killer. Hold onto your hats.

In 1968, Puente chucked her fourth and final husband to the wind. After all, who needs romance when you could take over control of a murderous home for the elderly? Despite the fact that Puente wasn’t supposed to be living near the capital of California due to her criminal history, she took over a charming Victorian boarding house with enough space for 16 people at 2100 F Street in Sacramento, California.

The location was supposed to be a safe haven for the type of folks outcasted from society. However, the reality of Puente’s care house of horrors was no Tales of the City.

Puente’s Victorian house of horrors

At first glance, Puente seemed like a Saint. Her boarding house hosted a variety of individuals who didn’t do well in typical care environments, including disorderly and mentally ill patients, as well as homeless individuals. Sadly, these were the types of people who could get punted into space without a single soul wondering where they ended up. Puente took advantage of this.

Using a cocktail of tranquilizers and sleeping pills that her psychiatrist prescribed to her, Puente poisoned and murdered numerous individuals under her care. Once they were under the influence of sleeping pills, she could easily strangle the life out of them. She then cashed in their social security checks. These cold-hearted acts, disguised as acts of goodwill, were brought to light when a social worker reported the disappearance of one of her schizophrenic tenants, Alberto Montoya, to the police.

Authorities showed up looking for Montoya. They got far more than they bargained for.

When the police arrived and questioned Puente, they noticed that the soil of her property was disturbed. They asked for permission to dig from Puente, who they didn’t yet know was a murderer. That day, they dug up seven bodies in her garden, beginning with 78-year-old Leona Carpenter. Unfortunately, a quick-thinking Puente snuck off for a cup of coffee and ended up going off the map for five days.

When she was found and arrested for nine murders in an L.A. bar, Puente maintained her innocence.

Dubbed “The Shadow Keeper” for the fact that she preyed on the shadowy, unacknowledged figures in society, Puente became a media sensation. Her case took five years to get to trial, but when it did, over 130 witnesses were called to the stand to testify. The jury ultimately decided that the grandmotherly woman had murdered her patients, hiring stronger individuals to bury them six-feet-under in her garden.


Although she was tried for nine murders, she was convicted of only three. However, this was enough to earn her multiple life sentences with no possibility of parole. In prison, she thrived, befriending fellow inmates, cooking for them, and, in many ways, becoming a grandmother to her peers.

However, beyond the jailhouse walls, Puente is still the most notorious female serial killer in California, showing that anyone is capable of mass murder… even the little old lady next door.

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