Emma Courtland: Last time on Crime Show ...
Judy Moise: Well, the first day I started working for Volunteers of America, he was the first person I saw. I felt like he should be somewhere else. I said, "So what do you think about Dorothea?" And he said, "She's great."
Britt Moise: She wanted to know where Bert was.
Judy Moise: He went down to Mexico and he had a real good time.
Britt Moise: Why would you take him out of the house? Why would he be anywhere but with you?
Judy Moise: Then I said, "You know what? I'm gonna call the police on Monday."
John Cabrera: And I explained what we’re gonna do. We were gonna go out to see and meet Dorothea, and ask her about Bert.
John Cabrera: I just said, "You know, we have shovels, we're here. Why don't I just dig a few holes and then we'll be out of your hair?"
John Cabrera: So now I get down in the hole, I brace my legs, I get my hands cupped underneath, and I start yanking with everything I have. All of a sudden, it breaks loose, and I'm sitting there and I'm looking at it now. This is a femur bone. These are skeletal remains.
Emma: During his 15 years with the Sacramento PD, Detective John Cabrera had faced off against some stone cold criminals. In California, the 1980's were known as the serial killer decade—and Cabrera had a front row seat for some of the worst of them. There were big guys, tough guys, sleazy guys. But the woman sitting across from him in the interrogation room was none of those things.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Okay, you're D-O-R ...]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: O-T-H-E-A. P-U-E-N-T-E.]
Emma: Under the bright fluorescent lights, Dorothea Puente looked even smaller and more pale than she had an hour earlier when Detective Cabrera pulled a human femur out of her garden.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Now the questions we need to ask you, I need—I need all the truth from you, okay?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Mm-hmm.]
Emma: It would seem as if Cabrera was holding all the cards. He had, after all, found a human skeleton on her property. The problem was in Sacramento, finding skeletons in people's yards was not entirely uncommon. At-home burials had been legal until about 1940, so bodies would occasionally show up in people's backyards, particularly with old houses like Dorothea's.
Emma: Cabrera knew that—he'd been with the police department his entire adult life. But he was betting Dorothea didn't. And that doubt was something he could use to get her talking about the person he actually came to find: Bert Montoya.
Emma: Bert had been a tenant at Dorothea's boarding house until one day he wasn't. But the timing of his departure and the circumstances of it, were—as Cabrera would say—very suspicious.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Of course, you know how this whole thing got started was because of this last individual, Montoya. Now his disappearance is very suspicious. I can tell you that. There are a lot of inconsistencies in your statement. We talked to Mr. Sharp. Now Mr. Sharp says he hasn't seen him for three months. But you said the other day. And his social worker hasn't seen him. So who is lying to me? Who is lying to me, Dorothea?]
ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Well, I'm not. He was there Saturday and Sunday.]
Emma: Dorothea claimed Bert had returned from Mexico, that he was at F Street until his brother-in-law picked him up on Sunday. But as Cabrera kept pointing out, nobody else had seen him or heard from him.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: The social worker said she was in contact with Montoya up 'til about three months ago.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Okay.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: And she says she has not heard hide nor hair from him.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Well, he really didn't want to see them.]
Emma: Dorothea was sticking to her story. And Cabrera still didn't buy it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: I want the truth out of you. I'm trying to extract it. And by looking in your eye ...]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Well, I wish Mr. Montoya would show up right now.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: I just don't think he's going to.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: He is. He is.]
Emma: Cabrera knew Bert was missing, and that there were bones in Dorothea's yard. He also knew the bones were too old to be Bert's. But that didn't mean Dorothea wasn't in some way responsible for them. After all, she had a documented history of drugging her tenants. But he decided to take a beat. He needed a minute to strategize. So he said ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Okay. Well, let me go out and make a few phone calls. Do you want some more water?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Yes, please.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Okay.]
Emma: Cabrera left the room. And when he came back, he tried a technique used by cops around the world: throw a bunch of accusations against the wall and see what sticks.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Mr. Montoya is dead.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: No, he's not.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Somewhere in that backyard, Dorothea, that he's lying. Maybe along with other people.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: No.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Dorothea ...]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Do you really think I'm guilty?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Do you want me to be truthful with you?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Yes.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: I'm gonna be real truthful with you. Dorothea, I think you had—somehow you're involved in it. It may not have been by your hand, but it's by somebody's hand. And I think you are very, very frightened right now. Maybe you didn't kill anybody. That may be true. But maybe you know what really happened.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: No, I don't.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: I think you know about Mr. Montoya. Where is he? He's in that backyard, I believe, Dorthea. He's in that backyard or he's been disposed of some other manner.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: Not by me]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Dorothea, I'm asking you.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: I don't know. I don't know. I don't.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: I want to know what you know. I want to know what you know. You know, you are the leader of the house. You know what I'm talking about.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: I have never killed anybody in my life.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Then who did kill somebody? Tell me.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: I don't know!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Tell me now.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: I don't know.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Tell me now, Dorothea.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dorothea Puente: I don't know.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Dorothea, I know if we dig, we're gonna find more. I know that. I know that.]
Emma: Cabrera turned off the tape recorder and offered Dorothea a ride home. It was getting late, and Cabrera's questions had gotten him nowhere. Dorothea Puente was either completely innocent, or one hell of a liar. Either way, Cabrera wasn't gonna find out that night. He'd find out the next morning.
Emma: I'm Emma Courtland, and this is Crime Show.
Emma: Detective Cabrera's investigations did not often involve a shovel. Typically, when someone went missing, Cabrera would start with interviews. He'd talk to members of the person's community, their family and colleagues. What made this case so challenging was that Bert Montoya had nobody like that. It was the reason Bert had come to live with Dorothea in the first place. The social safety net that existed in Sacramento had holes big enough that entire adult humans could fall right through, and when they did, Dorothea Puente was one of the few people in the city who was there to catch them. Her board and care house was known for taking in the people who had no people—or place inside the system.
Emma: But according to one of Dorothea's other tenants, the board and care house had a few holes of its own—in a narrow yard out back. So the morning after the interrogation, without any other potential leads, Cabrera rolled up to the house on F Street with his shovel, a crew of detectives, and his personal video camera.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Today's date is 11/12/88, and the time is approximately 0900 hours. We are back at the dig site located to the rear of this residence.]
John Cabrera: I had made the decision we were gonna dig in other places. And I remember I specifically told Dorothea that. On that second day, I told her. I said, "Dorothea, we're gonna dig in some other areas. And she didn't have a problem whatsoever with that.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Let me get with the gloves, Jim. Let me just get the overall area.]
Emma: But once the crew fanned out and started putting shovel to soil, Dorothea's whole demeanor changed. By all accounts, she had spent a lot of time tending that yard. She didn't own the property, but every flower, every tree, every slab of concrete had been planted or poured on her watch. And now it was all coming up.
Emma: Cabrera had started digging in this little area between a patio and a shed. The spot was on the far side of the yard, but it had a clear view of the house.
John Cabrera: Well, at one point when I was digging, I looked up and I saw her standing there on the balcony outside. And she was just staring at me. And so I glanced up and then I just thought, "Hmm. Okay." And I continued digging. And shortly thereafter, I hear John McCauley's voice. I put my shovel down and I go to the porch. And I said, "Dorothea, you had a question for me?" And she walked right up to the screen and she said, "Yes, I do. Am I under arrest?"
John Cabrera: And of course, that just struck me very strange.
Emma: It wasn't really that strange. Dorothea had admitted to running a boarding house in clear violation of her parole. But that was federal parole, over which Cabrera had no jurisdiction. And this is actually a pretty important distinction because, legally speaking, Cabrera had no authority to be digging up her yard. The only reason he was allowed to be there at all was because she'd given her consent. Even with the remains he'd found in the yard, Dorothea could revoke that consent at any time. And Cabrera did not want that to happen.
John Cabrera: I just looked at her and said, "No, why do you ask?" And she said, "Well, all of this is making me nervous, and I'd like to get a cup of coffee over at the hotel where my nephew works."
Emma: Cabrera's a super by-the-book kind of guy. He doesn't cut a lot of slack, doesn't show a lot of emotion—but he does understand the law. Dorothea had the right to leave. She'd been abundantly cooperative. And anyway, the hotel was just down the street. So he said, "Yeah, you can go get a cup of coffee."
John Cabrera: And she says, "Okay." So I said, "However, I'd like to walk you over there."
Emma: Dorothea grabbed a little red coat and a little red purse, and Cabrera escorted her outside.
John Cabrera: I walked her down to the corner, and I got to a point where I then said, "Okay, I'll watch you from here." And I watched her cross over, go all the way down and then disappear at the hotel.
Emma: Once he knew she was inside the hotel, Cabrera turned around and walked the short way back to the house and resumed digging. And almost immediately, his shovel hit something.
John Cabrera: And I took my shovel, and I thought, "Wow, there's something down here." And I reached down in the dirt and pulled it up.
Emma: It was a slab of concrete like a paving stone, buried in the earth. Certainly, an odd thing to find in the ground. But what Cabrera discovered underneath the paver?
John Cabrera: And I could see that it was like a limb, like a leg wrapped in a sheet material that was in my shovel. And I yelled out at my commander, "We got another one!"
Emma: Another one. Another human body, wrapped like a mummy and buried in the yard. And like the last one, too decomposed to be Bert. Cabrera's commander rushed over and looked inside the hole.
John Cabrera: And the first thing he asked is, "Where's Dorothea?" And I said, "I took her over to the coffee shop." And so he said, "Okay," and he took off. He was gonna go get her.
Emma: The cops ran right back to the hotel, to the place where Cabrera last saw her. But when they got there, they realized Dorothea was gone. They asked the hotel manager, had she seen where the old lady with the red coat was going?
John Cabrera: And she said, "Yes. The lady with the red coat came in, went over, picked up the phone and called for a taxi cab. Waited a few minutes and a taxi cab showed up."
Emma: Dorothea had walked in one door and out the other, and the police had no idea where she was headed. Cabrera had to act quickly. He picked up the phone and started making orders. CSI was to come handle the bones in the yard. Officers on desk duty were to call every cab company in the area, while officers on patrol fanned out in every direction, zig-zagging up and down the streets of Sacramento.
Emma: The police had no idea which way Dorothea was headed, but the most popular theory was that she would try to get back to Mexico. So Cabrera started running the numbers: if Dorothea paid the cab to drive straight to the border, she'd be out of the country—and out of American jurisdiction—in a little over eight hours. If she managed to catch a plane, that could be less than six. The clock was ticking. Every minute that passed represented another mile that Dorothea might have traveled. She was slipping further from their grasp—possibly for good.
Emma: So the Sacramento Police Department sent APBs all over the place. Every checkpoint, every border crossing, every airport and bus station in every state along the southwest border of the US. All of them would know to be on the lookout for Dorothea Puente. The problem was, at the time, these APBs were just text documents.
John Cabrera: Like what you'd see in the old police movies, where the thing is going "Chi chi chi chi." And It's making all that noise, and it's printing out this print. And that's basically all you have.
Emma: So all they're really sending is a piece of paper that says, "Be on the lookout for an old lady with big glasses and a red coat."
John Cabrera: If agencies are requesting photographs or anything like that, we are mailing them to them.
Emma: That's USPS snail mail. Even a viejita like Dorothea could travel faster than that. And just when they thought the pressure couldn't get any higher ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, detective: We're gonna need some—some muscle in here.]
Emma: Another body was found in the yard.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, detective: He weighs about 200 pounds. Get the gurney. See if we can get the gurney to here. And then put a towel ...]
Emma: In the parlance of mass burials, this would come to be known as "Body Number 3"—the one that changed everything. Unlike the first two bodies, "Body Number 3" still had flesh on its bones. The grave was fresh, too. Maybe only a few months old, based on the soil conditions.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, detective: Probe! Probe! Can we get the probe?]
Emma: The body was still too decomposed to know who he was or how he died, but one thing was certain: he'd been buried on the property while Dorothea was living there. And that certainty changed the nature of Cabrera's search for Dorothea. It wasn't just a matter of capturing her anymore, there was an active murderer on the loose. People needed to be warned. People needed to see her face. And in 1988, the best way to do that was to get it on TV.
Emma: There was already a handful of local reporters outside the boarding house. All the police had to do was engage them, fan the fires of media frenzy, get them to plaster Dorothea's photo all over the news, and hope for a phone call.
[NEWS CLIP: Good evening, everyone. It happened around 10 o'clock this morning when Sacramento police went to a house at 1426 F Street.]
[NEWS CLIP: Our Keith Oppenheim has been following this story all night and joins us from the scene. And Keith, do we know who lives in the house yet?]
[NEWS CLIP: Yes, Martha. This is the home of Dorothea Puente.]
[NEWS CLIP: Some say the suspect was the perfect grandmotherly type who trimmed her front door to match each season, and dotted her well-landscaped yard with darling decorations. Others found her curious, claiming that she dug and planted in her yard at night. Some bodies have been found beneath young shrubs and trees.]
Emma: Across town, Judy Moise sat glued to her television. Only 24 hours earlier, she had been at the center of this story. But now she was watching from the outside. Bodies were being pulled out of the ground, just like she said they'd be. But she didn't feel vindicated. She didn't feel sad or scared, either. That day, all of her feelings were eclipsed by this one question. It was the same question that got this whole thing started.
Judy Moise: I just wanted to know what happened to Bert. It was really only Bert.
Emma: But now that Dorothea was on the lam, Judy didn't know what to do with herself or where to go. At home, she laid awake wondering if her life was in danger. At work, she was hounded by reporters.
Judy Moise: I didn't really want to go to work. Yeah, we couldn't have walked around. you know, we were working on the street so they could—you know, these press could come up and talk with you. So I told my boss, "I'm not going in next week. I can't do it."
Emma: Outside the boarding house too, the scene had turned into a veritable media circus. Martin Kuz is a reporter who's written about the case.
Martin Kuz: You had reporters from across the country showing up, and a few from outside the country. And photographs of the crime scene showed people climbing up in trees to try to get a glimpse of what was going on in the backyard as the police continued to dig holes.
Emma: People from all over the city swarmed the 1400 block of F Street.
Martin Kuz: The idea of a grandmotherly-like figure burying bodies in her backyard is so extraordinary and so beyond imagination for most people. And I think so kind of mortifying.
Emma: Already there were people who'd figured out how to cash in on the tragedy. There were vendors selling snacks and drinks—and even a person selling t-shirts, hot off the silk screen. On the front of the shirt was a caricature of Dorothea holding a shovel. Next to her, a zombie hand sprouted out of the ground above the words "I dig Sacramento."
John Cabrera: Every day was like a circus.
Emma: Here's Detective Cabrera again.
John Cabrera: It was just incredible. And you had to keep your focus away from that. We had to concentrate on the scene every day. And because every day we were finding bodies. Every day. Every time we tore up something, we were finding a body.
Emma: On day three of the dig, with still no sign of Dorothea, back at her house investigators found a body buried in the southeast corner of the yard.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: We're gonna call this site excavation site number four. Just north of the first excavation site.]
Emma: The next day, two more bodies were found.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Cabrera: Excavation site number five.]
Emma: Under every tree and flower bed and every footpath in the yard, the police were finding bodies. Most had no visible signs of trauma, so the police couldn't be sure how they died. But inside the house, Cabrera was starting to stitch together a narrative. Each room he searched contained a different piece to a sinister picture. In the kitchen ...
John Cabrera: First thing I saw on the table was a book, and it was named "Drugs and Their Effects."
Emma: In Dorothea's bedroom ...
John Cabrera: I found some empty blue capsules. They were pulled apart as though you would pull them apart and dump out the contents.
Emma: In the basement ...
John Cabrera: There was a can, and I had it photographed. And it was a can of lye. L-Y-E. I don't know what you would do with lye.
Emma: If you were Dorothea Puente, you would dissolve a human body. That's what you would do with lye. Every day, there were new discoveries. And every discovery revealed a new horror. But none of them hit Cabrera as hard as "Body Number Six."
John Cabrera: I remember the doctor saying, "Hey, you know, there's something here." And I went over and I looked, and I could see where the legs were. I could see that the dirt was compacted above that area, and it made like a little bridge over that particular area of the legs.
Emma: At all the other gravesites, the bodies were packed in dirt so tightly the police needed special equipment to excavate the remains. But here at site number six, the dirt was compacted around the body, forming a kind of protective shell. Like a subterranean matryoshka doll. Cabrera didn't understand why the site looked so different from the others. So he asked the anthropologist, what could've caused this? The anthropologist gave two answers. The first was body shrinkage. The second answer was ...
John Cabrera: That whoever was put in the ground here wasn't dead. Might have been in a stupor. Could have awakened confused, and the only thing that they could move would be their legs, and so they banged them upward, which would be against the base of this shed. And by banging the dirt upwards a little bit, it would compact the dirt around the legs. And that's what we had found.
Emma: You found someone that had been buried alive?
John Cabrera: Yeah, it's—it was hard for me to internalize how I would feel if I woke up in pure darkness with a weight on me of some sort, and actually knowing that I'm—I'm alive and I'm trying to breathe. And am I in a dream? And then shortly thereafter, you know, the life was sucked out of you because there's no air.
Emma: Cabrera is a seasoned detective. He doesn't trip over morbid details or get surprised very easily. But this was different.
John Cabrera: Just because, you know, you work homicide as many years as I did, and you see so many bodies and you see so many deaths and you see so many ways that people have actually killed somebody, and you can't even fathom that it's possible. You know, you don't try to internalize it. You know, it's a job. But there are just some things that—you know, and I don't—I don't share that with people. You know, I share it with my wife. And my wife knew. You know, she was there. It was—it was tough. I'm a human being. Yeah, I don't want to say anymore about that.
Emma: Between Friday morning—when Cabrera first visited F Street—and Monday afternoon when the police finished their dig, a total of seven bodies had been discovered at the boarding house. Three men and four women. Nobody knew who they were or how and when they died. But there'd be plenty of time to figure that out. As Cabrera's commanding officer reminded him: they weren't going anywhere. Unlike Dorothea, who they still couldn't find, the police had gotten scores of calls on the tip line, but none of them ever panned out.
John Cabrera: You know, all I could think about is getting a phone call from an agency, and the agency would say, "We have her in custody." And I waited for that. You know, and each day would go by and each day would go by. And so, yeah, it just—it really weighed a lot on me.
Emma: But that call never came. Instead, on the night of November 16, Cabrera got something even better.
John Cabrera: The news comes on and it's, I believe, the 10 o'clock news, and the first thing that pops up is the boarding house woman is captured.
Emma: Six hours south in a dive bar in Los Angeles, an old lady had sidled up next to an old man. Her face looked familiar. Turns out, he'd seen it on TV.
Emma: Dorothea was flown back to Sacramento and taken into custody. Eight days later, the coroner began to identify the people buried in her yard. According to records, all of them had lived at Dorothea's house on F Street. All of them had struggled with substance abuse or mental illness, and they all had such tenuous ties to friends and family that nobody had even reported them missing. All except one of them.
Emma: On Thanksgiving Day, 1988, almost a month after Judy Moise reported Bert missing, she got the call she'd been waiting for. They'd identified the body of Bert Montoya. His was the third body they'd found. "Body Number Three." The one that changed everything.
Judy Moise: They didn't ask me to come and identify the body, but apparently it was quite obvious because Bert, after he lived at her house, he had a real big belly. And it was just a sad, sad thing. And everybody—everybody liked him. He was so likable and needed—he needed support badly. And we all felt like we failed him.
Emma: Bert's body was released to the Volunteers of America. And on a cold morning in January, exactly two months after his body had been excavated from the yard behind F Street, Bert was lowered into the ground again, this time, with full Catholic rites, in a casket, surrounded by friends. All any of them wanted to do was help him. Instead, they'd put him directly in harm's way. What happened to Bert could easily happen to any of their other clients. And that was something none of them could shake.
Emma: Bert was in the ground again, and Dorothea was in jail awaiting trial. But nobody felt settled. There were still too many unanswered questions. At the top of the list: Who was Dorothea, really? And why would she have done this? But when it came to Dorothea Puente, the answers were often as unsettling as the questions.
Emma: For a lot of people, it was hard to reconcile the Dorothea they knew with the crimes she was accused of. Particularly in Sacramento's Latino community, Dorothea was practically considered a saint. She was the person you'd go to if you were in trouble. If you needed medical care or money, Dorothea offered it freely. She also donated huge sums of money to Latino charities, and political campaigns and local arts groups.
Emma: The money she gave was so welcome and so needed, nobody bothered to ask where it was coming from. On the rare occasion that someone did ask, Dorothea explained the money had been left to her by her late husband. But this—like so many of Dorothea's other explanations—would turn out to be a lie.
Emma: While Dorothea sat in jail awaiting her trial, reporters started to dig into her background. Not just her criminal record, but her life before the boarding house. Here's Martin Kuz again.
Martin Kuz: Reporters are trying to understand what they're looking at and who this person is. And so their coverage was, in a sense, like a mystery novel in real time, as they're trying to understand who she was and what her motivations were.
Emma: They discovered that the little old Mexican widow was not, in fact, old. Or widowed. Or even Mexican. Turns out, Dorothea was just 59—not much older than Judy. Dorothea Puente was born Dorothea Helen Gray in Redlands, California, a city not far from LA. And although she had been married—four times—all of her ex-husbands were very much alive. Also, Dorothea was not wealthy. She didn't receive alimony or any kind of inheritance. Dorothea Puente had just one source of income: her tenants. At the time of her arrest, Dorothea was collecting an estimated $40,000 a year from social security checks addressed to the people buried in her yard.
Emma: And as far as Dorothea's lies go, that was really just the tip of the iceberg.
Martin Kuz: She claimed that she'd danced for the Radio City Rockettes. She claimed that she was on the LPGA Tour. She claimed that she was friends with Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman. And, you know, of course, there was no evidence that she had danced with the Rockettes or anything like that. But she told the stories with absolute conviction.
Emma: Dorothea lied so often and about such weird, inconsequential things, it was hard to understand what exactly was motivating the lies.
Martin Kuz: Her stories to me suggested someone who wanted acceptance, and who even perhaps craved celebrity.
Emma: Kuz is not a psychologist, but he's one of the only journalists who ever got to interview Dorothea. He met with her six times, and during those sessions he did start to get a sense of what mattered to her, if not who she actually was.
Martin Kuz: She wanted to imagine that she was a good person, and that she had lived a life of meaning, and again, of celebrity, and that these other things that she was accused of were not her.
Emma: But of course, the life Dorothea actually lived was neither of those things. When Dorothea's case went to trial—a whole five years after her arrest—her lawyers presented a story about a girl so psychologically damaged by the circumstances of her upbringing, she'd completely lost her moral compass.
Emma: According to the information her attorneys were able to stitch together—which has since been vetted by reporters—Dorothea was orphaned at a young age, And then passed from one relative to another. Then turned over to the foster system. She'd been sexually abused and emotionally discarded Over and over again until she was able to start supporting herself. First, through small grifts, then prostitution, then an ever-escalating string of hustles and scams until she found herself in that courtroom on trial for murder.
Emma: The irony of Dorothea's story was that, up until that final chapter, it was actually pretty similar to the stories of the people who would come to live with her. It's likely that symmetry was lost on most people in the courtroom. But not Judy Moise. She heard stories like this constantly, from her clients on the streets.
Emma: Every day for a month, Judy drove down to the courthouse. She listened to testimony from people who'd been hurt by Dorothea—and people who'd been helped by her. Then it was Judy's turn to testify. She took the seat next to the judge and looked out at the courtroom, where she locked eyes with Dorothea. It was the first time they'd seen each other since Bert had gone missing.
Judy Moise: Her eyes were really on me. And I started looking at her. And it was so odd. She looked pathetic, which she never acted pathetic. She was always very informed. And then I felt sorry for her, which sounds funny, but I—she was a killer, so it wasn't like I really—but here she was, and she was gonna go to prison for life. And I'm glad that she would never get out. But she had tears and things. She looked really genuinely sad.
Emma: Dorothea would live out the rest of her life in prison. And that was a relief, because after five and a half years of headlines about Dorothea Puente, people were ready for things to get back to normal, back to feeling like their city was relatively safe, and the mental health system was working just fine. But for Judy, things would never go back to normal.
Emma: After the trial, Judy resigned from her job at the Volunteers of America. She said she just couldn't do it anymore. The people on the street that she used to work with, they didn't want her help. They knew what happened to Bert, and they were afraid it would happen to them. And frankly, Judy couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't. Nobody could. Dorothea had fooled everybody. And yes, Judy had stopped Dorothea, bBut she had to break about a dozen rules and threaten police to get it done.
Emma: This should've been a wake-up call that the system was broken. But it wasn't. In response to the Dorothea Puente case, Congress made a few tweaks to the social security system. Because money. But that's about it.
Emma: And that's where I think we, the people who tell crime stories, have to take some responsibility for the fact that nothing changed here. Right now on Spotify, there are more than 30 podcast episodes about Dorothea Puente, the boarding house butcher. It's a serial killer story. And I understand why people tell it that way. The stakes are clear, and the danger is palpable. Serial killer stories are sexy. And easy to put a bow on
Emma: Because there's nothing actionable about a serial killer story. Their deviant psychology is fascinating and terrifying, and once they're captured, the threat is gone. We can more or less go back to feeling safe.
Emma: But the thing is, Dorothea doesn't really meet the criteria for the traditional serial killer. We have no reason to think she enjoyed killing, and she didn't prowl the streets looking for victims. They were dropped off at her doorstep by people who were just trying to help them. People like Judy, who'd largely been left out of the story.
Emma: For years, Judy was approached by journalists who wanted soundbites for their stories about Dorothea Puente, the Boardinghouse Butcher. But Judy didn't want to have anything to do with them, or this case. She blamed herself for what happened to Bert. But it was hard to pinpoint the moment she'd messed up, or imagine a world where things would've ended differently. Bert's life was in danger before he ever met Dorothea Puente. And that was the thing she needed people to understand.
Emma: So Judy sat down and wrote her one and only public statement to the Sacramento Bee. Here's what it said: "The focus in this tragedy has been on the spectacle of mass murder. I work constantly, however, with people who live in the continuing jeopardy of homelessness, poverty and mental illness. I think we should all focus even more intently on these people whose daily lives are a tragic exercise in futility and abandonment. We have a national tragedy going on that we must deal with."
Emma: 30 years later, not much has changed. Not for our country, not for Judy. She's 84 years old now, and she is still struggling to find stable housing for her son Todd, whose mental illness was the reason she got involved in advocacy in the first place.
Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production.
Emma: This episode was written and produced by Mitch Hansen and me, Emma Courtland. Crime Show is produced by Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht and Jade Abdul-Malik. Mitch Hansen is our senior producer.
Emma: Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Research by Julie Carli. Production help from Anya Schultz.
Emma: Theme song by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Original music by So Wylie and Dara Hirsch.
Emma: Special thanks to Rachel Strom, Nicole Pasulka and Jonah Delso. Additional research on this story came from a book about this case called "Disturbed Ground" by Carla Norton.