Emma Courtland: One day in 1978, Judy Moise got a call from the Sacramento PD. They said there'd been an incident at the middle school involving her son, Todd. He was using this video camera they had to make movies for class.
Judy Moise: He was having trouble with it, so he picked it up and threw it against the wall. Well, they called the police right away. It was a shocking thing to do.
Emma: Up until this point, Judy had been living a pretty typical suburban lifestyle in Sacramento. She was a homemaker and a mother of two. She had the house with the lawn, and lived in the kind of neighborhood where people get together for cookouts on the weekends. The day Todd got kicked out of school was the beginning of the end of that life.
Judy Moise: I could see things going on, but I—I just didn't know how bad it was. He started staying in his room and being very quiet. And sleeping a lot. And he didn't want to talk about things.
Emma: At the time, Todd was 13, so initially they thought, this is fine, kids get crazy at this age. It's probably just hormones.
Judy Moise: But then he finally said that these people are talking to me. And I don't know why.
Emma: But these people who were talking to Todd? They weren't actually there. So Judy took him to see a psychiatrist.
Judy Moise: He got diagnosed with schizophrenia. And he was very angry about it.
Emma: Todd started lashing out physically—mostly at his sister Britt.
Britt Moise: You know, it's like the disease of schizophrenia kind of took over his personality, and he was, like, gone. It was scary, you know, to be around him for me as a sister.
Emma: Things came to a head one night when Todd hit Britt so hard he sent her to the hospital. Todd was forced into a temporary mental institution. The problem was, he couldn't live there long term. And now, Judy knew he couldn't live at home either.
Judy Moise: I just didn't know where to go or what to do. I mean, I didn't know that there were places for him that he could go to.
Emma: The mental health care system is outrageously complicated. There are so many conflicting policies and so little funding, trying to plod your way through it without a professional advocate can feel like trying to maneuver your way through a maze while blindfolded. Most people get so frustrated they just end up bailing. But not Judy. Judy threw herself at the system and learned everything she needed to navigate it on Todd's behalf. She got him on meds and found him housing, but every time she got him settled, something would go wrong. He'd quit his meds or have a violent outburst, and the staff would ask him to leave.
Judy Moise: So he'd be kicked out a lot of homes, and I'd find another one. I kept thinking something out there must be pretty good.
Emma: Again and again, Judy would have to pack Todd's bags and begin searching for yet another place willing to take him. And people took notice of this mom who seemed absolutely relentless in trying to help her son. And that's when something unexpected started to happen.
Judy Moise: I would have people on the street come up to me and say, "Can you help me? Can you help me get into the mental health system? I hear voices." And I would say, "Yeah."
Emma: There were so many people out there that needed help, the kind of help that Judy had to give. It was like all of a sudden, the universe snapped into alignment, and she knew what she was supposed to do.
Judy Moise: And that's when I decided to just join the mental health system.
Emma: At 49 years old, Judy started working with an organization called Volunteers of America. Despite its name, the VoA actually staffs very few volunteers. Employees are not technically social workers, but they function that way, by helping people who've fallen through the cracks in the system. In her VoA van, Judy and her counseling partner would spend their days driving around downtown Sacramento just looking for people to help.
Judy Moise: We would just go up to people and start talking to them. You know, "Would you like any help? We'd like to be very supportive." They'd say, "Well, can you find me a place to live that's not a hotel?" "Yeah, we could."
Emma: Mentally-ill clients can be especially challenging. They're often skeptical of the system and resistant to help. But Judy just loved working with them. After her struggles with Todd, she walked through the world with this awareness that any one of the people she saw on the street could be her own child, so she'd stop at nothing to help them. And people took notice. In 1987, Mental Health America named Judy the Mental Healthcare Worker of the Year. But then, just five years later, Judy had to leave the job entirely, because the people on the street who had looked to Judy for help started to see her differently. They recognized her from the news—and they were afraid of her.
Emma: All because of something that happened with this one man she tried to help. Something that went terribly, terribly wrong.
Emma: All these years later, with everything that's happened, if you could say something to Bert, what would you say?
Judy Moise: If I saw him, I'd—I'd say I'm sorry. But I didn't know. And I'm sorry. That's probably what I would say.
Emma: I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.
Emma: There was nothing especially notable about Bert Montoya—not from the outside. He looked to be about middle aged, with white hair and a bushy, white beard. A bit of a belly. But he was just standing around outside the parking lot in this very industrial part of town. And that alone felt notable. Still, it was Judy's first day, and she had people to help. So she parked her car and got to work. But then, when Judy pulled up the next morning, there he was again, just standing around—and in the same clothes. He was there the next day, too. And the day after that. It finally occurred to her that maybe he needed help. So Judy went inside the VoA, and asked one of her colleagues at the detox center.
Judy Moise: Where I would check into was called detox, and what it was was it was for ...
Emma: It was a drunk tank.
Judy Moise: And I said, "Well, he's here all the time. Tell me about him, because he doesn't—he doesn't seem like a drinker to me." So they said, "Well, he's like our mascot." And they showed me a picture of him riding around on a bike.
Emma: Nobody could remember exactly when Bert first wandered into detox. Some said four years, others said six. But he'd become such a fixture of the place, it was as if he'd always been there. Bert's story was vague. They heard he'd immigrated from Costa Rica with his family, but now it seemed he was all alone. Bert didn't speak much, and when he did, it was mostly in Spanish. Like Todd, Bert had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teenage years. But unlike Todd, Bert had a reputation for being incredibly sweet and generous. The staff often found him walking around shirtless, because he would literally give the shirt off his back to strangers.
Emma: It was a quality that endeared him to some. And made him a target for others. Everyone saw it—it was the reason they were letting him live at detox, even though it wasn't set up for housing.
Judy Moise: I myself felt like it was a very poor place to live. You had to have a shower every night, and it's a cold shower. And they slept on the floor at night on just a little pad. And, you know, it wasn't—it wasn't a great place for him. To me. I felt like he should be somewhere else.
Emma: The problem was nowhere would take him. Even the most basic shelters require people to have an ID card. Bert didn't even have the documentation required to get an ID. So that summer in 1986, Judy decided she was gonna do whatever it took to get Bert out of detox. She'd spend the next year tracking down everything Bert needed to get an ID, then sign him up for benefits. And then she'd place him in a house, with warm showers and a real bed, where he could live out his life in safety and dignity. What she didn't know then was that that decision, to take Bert out of detox, would come to haunt her for the rest of her life.
Emma: All state-run housing facilities require patients with schizophrenia to take medication. But Bert didn't want to take medication. He told Judy he'd tried meds and they just made him feel worse. So there was really only one housing option available for Bert: board and care houses. Board and care houses aren't regulated by the state. They're just private houses that take in boarders, so they can choose to take unmedicated tenants. Most don't, though. And Judy knew that. Housing Bert was going to be a tall order. So she reached out to a colleague for help.
Judy Moise: I said, "Do you know of a place for him? It has to be quiet, and it has to be a nice house." And she said, "Yes, I do."
Emma: The house was run by an old Mexican lady named Dorothea Puente. Dorothea had a reputation for taking difficult cases: people with mental illness, people with substance abuse problems. The kind of people who had no other place inside the system. Judy's colleague said she'd placed 19 such clients with Dorothea. And all of them had loved her. Dorothea lived in a historic part of Sacramento. Every city has this kind of neighborhood—a place with once-grand homes that have long since lost their sparkle. So when Judy and her partner pulled up to the house at 1426 F Street, they were pleasantly surprised. There they found a fresh little two-story Victorian with a bright white trim and a pretty garden out front.
Emma: How did it compare to the other boarding houses you'd visited?
Judy Moise: Well, it was much nicer. I mean, it wasn't stylish, but it was—well, it was pretty immaculate.
Emma: But the most impressive part of the house was the landlady herself. When they arrived, they found Dorothea huddled over a cardboard box.
Judy Moise: A box of kittens that were just born, and she was feeding them milk in little bottles. Well, that was touching. And I saw her as a very gentle, kind person.
Emma: Dorothea welcomed them in and showed them around the house. If Judy and her partner were looking for evidence that Dorothea really was as wonderful as their colleague made her out to be, they found it all over her walls. There were framed photos and awards that testified to a life of philanthropy and service. There she was dancing with the governor of California, and there, being thanked for her service to the Hispanic community. Life had been good to her, she said. Her late husband left her with plenty of money but no children, so she used what she had to enrich the people around her. The boarding house was her favorite way of giving back. As for Bert, he could be wary of new people, but he warmed to Dorothea as soon as she started speaking to him.
Judy Moise: Right away, she started talking to him in Spanish, because he spoke better Spanish than he did English. She said, "You know, I cook a lot of good meals here." And she had a roast in the oven at the time. She said, "You know, well, I have meat every night, meat or chicken every night, and we always had vegetables. We have mashed potatoes." He's looking real excited about it. Well, I was impressed. The box of kittens—she didn't know we were coming, the box of kittens were there. Her feeding them. And that impressed me.
Emma: The whole thing seemed almost too good to be true, so Judy pulled one of the boarders aside—a man named John Sharp—just to make sure there wasn't something she was overlooking. Judy actually knew John from the street. She liked him, and trusted his opinion.
Judy Moise: And I said, "So what do you think about Dorothea?" And he said, "She's great." And he talked about how she also bought him a recliner and a TV. And he said, "No, she's a wonderful person. She has really good meals."
Emma: It was like Judy had stumbled upon the mythical unicorn of boarding houses. So it was decided: Bert moved into Dorothea Puente's house on February 1, 1988. And right away, he flourished.
Judy Moise: Right away, she—of her own, she bought him nice clothes, which he really didn't have.
Emma: When Judy first met Bert, it was hard for him to speak more than a few words. And he rarely made eye contact. Now when she came to visit, he looked her in the eye and spoke full sentences. And he was so well fed, he'd started verging on rotund. When Bert came to visit his friends back at detox, people were stunned. To the social workers in Sacramento, Dorothea was officially a miracle worker. But there was one person who didn't buy the miracle. One day, a veteran social worker named Mary Ellen came to talk to Judy about Dorothea. Or a Dorothea that she'd had a run-in with years ago. She said the Dorothea she knew had also run a board and care house on F Street until she got arrested for drugging her clients.
Judy Moise: She had gone to jail for drugging a man. And then she went to a lot of bars all the time. That didn't sound like Dorothea.
Emma: The Dorothea Judy knew was generous and warm. She nursed kittens from a bottle! The physical descriptions didn't match either. Mary Ellen's Dorothea was young and chubby; Judy's Dorothea was old and frail. And their houses were on different parts of F Street. Still, the most compelling evidence to support Dorothea was Bert himself. He was living proof of something they all wanted to believe: that when you really care about people, even in the most seemingly hopeless cases, remarkable transformations are possible. So even if this was the same Dorothea, to Judy, it was clear that she'd changed. So she politely ignored the warning. Looking back on it now, this is one of the things Judy regrets most.
Judy Moise: I felt bad about things like that. You know, I should have listened.
Emma: By the summer of 1988, Bert was happily settled into his new home at Dorothea Puentes' house, so Judy began to turn her focus to other cases. But she still called and visited from time to time, to say hello and check in on Bert. It was during one of these visits that Dorothea made an announcement: she'd be taking everyone—all her tenants—to visit her family in Mexico. Including Bert.
Judy Moise: And I said, "Not him, because he shouldn't be—he shouldn't cross the border. I know that."
Emma: Bert had schizophrenia and a history of wandering. And Dorothea wanted to take him to a country he'd never visited before. To Judy, that sounded like a disaster waiting to happen.
Judy Moise: I just didn't want him to go.
Emma: Dorothea said, "Okay, no problem." As it happened, Judy was scheduled to take a vacation of her own, so she went away. And when she returned a week later, she checked in with a colleague, another person who'd been close to Bert at detox. She said, "Hey, have you heard from our friend Bert lately?" And the colleague said ...
Judy Moise: He went down to Mexico, and he had a real good time with Dorothea Puente.
Emma: In fact, according to Dorothea, he had such a great time he decided to stay.
Judy Moise: Then I thought, "I don't like that." I thought, "Why would she do that? Why would she do that when I asked her not to do it?
Emma: Judy's mind started spinning with questions. What if he wandered off? He didn't have official documentation. What if he got stuck at the border? The questions gnawed at her until she couldn't take it anymore. At 5:00 a.m. the next morning, Judy called Dorothea to confront her.
Judy Moise: I called her up and I said, "Dorothea, when is he coming back? And you knew I didn't want him out of town like that." And she said, "Well, you know, he's having a really good time, but if you want him to come home now, I can have him come home any time." I said, "Well, yeah, have him come home. That'll be great."
Emma: Days passed without word from Dorothea, so Judy called again.
Judy Moise: "Well, he's coming back next week."
Emma: But then the next week would come, and Bert wouldn't be there. Judy started calling Dorothea constantly. At the time, Judy's daughter Britt was in her early 20s, but she remembers her mom telling her about these calls.
Britt Moise: You know, I remember her talking about continuing to call Dorothea.
Judy Moise: I would call Dorothea and I'd say, "So when exactly is he coming back?"
Britt Moise: She wanted to know where Bert was.
Judy Moise: And she said he wanted to stay with her brother a few more days because there was a fiesta that he wanted to go to. Well, that wasn't like Bert at all. He wasn't a kind of guy like, "Hey, a fiesta. Yeah. I'll go." It's not—he was too shy. He wasn't that kind of guy.
Britt Moise: She saw something really wrong. The answers Dorothea Puente was giving her were really wrong.
Judy Moise: I knew he wasn't there, so why was he not there? What is—what is wrong with her?
Britt Moise: Like, why would you take him out of the house? Why would he be anywhere but with you?
Judy Moise: I just felt terrible. I thought something's really wrong.
Emma: She wasn't sure what, but Judy was certain there was something Dorothea wasn't telling her. And she couldn't let it go any longer.
Judy Moise: Then I said, "You know what? I'm gonna call the police on Monday if he's not back this week." So then she called and said, "He'll be here on Saturday."
Emma: Judy couldn't make it on Saturday. So she said "I'll be there Monday."
Judy Moise: And then on Monday, I couldn't wait to get to work because I thought if he is not here, I'm going to go to the police. She's got too many reasons why he's not here. And I had let her know that.
Emma: But as soon as Judy got to the office, the phone rang. Judy answered, and the person on the other end introduced himself as Bert's brother-in-law. Already this was odd, because Judy was pretty sure Bert didn't have a brother-in-law. Then the guy said he was calling from Shreveport. He'd picked up Bert on Saturday, and driven him back to their family home over the weekend. Shreveport is in Louisiana, 2,000 miles away. And that just seemed like a very long drive.
Judy Moise: I said, "They went to Shreveport? Why was that?" And he said, "Oh, Shreveport in Nevada." Well, there's no Shreveport in—I thought, whoever is on this phone ...
Emma: Judy hung up the phone and immediately called Dorothea. Dorothea said, "Yes, I brought Bert back, just like you asked me to. And then his brother-in-law picked him up. Judy didn't buy it. She picked up the phone again and dialed 911.
Judy Moise: I told the police to report a missing person. And I said, "Talk to John Sharp."
Emma: John Sharp was that other tenant from the boarding house—the one Judy trusted.
Judy Moise: He'll know things that nobody else is gonna know.
Emma: Judy expected John to confirm her theory: that Bert had never come back from Mexico. That he'd wandered off, and Dorothea had invented this brother-in-law story to get herself out of trouble. But all that changed when John showed up at the VoA later that day. John confirmed Bert was not at the house on Sunday. In fact, he said, he hadn't seen Bert in months. But that wasn't the only reason he came to talk to Judy. There was something else. Something potentially more sinister that he needed her to know.
Emma: Shortly after Bert went missing, there'd been a smell. A sickly-sweet that grew until it permeated every inch of the property, and then spilled out onto the sidewalk. At one point, it got so bad the neighbors had started to complain. Dorothea claimed there was a broken sewer pipe. She even hired some guys to dig it out. But John wasn't convinced.
Judy Moise: He said, "I worked in a mortuary at one time. I know the smell of bodies."
Emma: Suddenly, what had felt like a potentially alarming situation became downright urgent. Judy had to tell her boss.
Judy Moise: So I went and talked to my boss. And I said, "We've got to do something. And I'm hoping that he is lost in Mexico. I don't think it could happen, but I want to believe that it could. So we've got to work with this." And then he said, "This is what I think you should do. Don't do any more. Just let it go. It's taken up a lot of your time, if the police are gonna do something, let them alone. They will or they won't. So you drop all of this now."
Emma: Maybe he didn't believe her, or maybe he just couldn't afford the overtime. Either way, the message was the same: shut this down.
Judy Moise: And then I said, "Oh, okay. I didn't argue with him.
Emma: Judy put her head down and walked away, with her partner following close behind. But as soon as they got to the parking lot, Judy turned to her partner and said ...
Judy Moise: "I'm gonna go to Social Security." "Why are you going to Social Security?" I said, "I want to find out if there's any more people that she has in her house." And she said, "Well, we're gonna get in trouble." I said, "We're not gonna get in trouble. It's not—I mean, yeah, he asked us not to and we agreed. But I can't not do it." I went directly to Social Security. I didn't have any authority at all, but I walked in as if I did. And I said, "There's some big problems here, and I want to know how many people she gets a check from." They came out and they said she gets 12 checks for 12 different people. Well, she didn't have 12 people in the house.
Emma: Including Bert, there were only three tenants living at the boarding house. So who were these other people? And why were their checks still going to Dorothea?
Emma: Bert had been missing for months, and Judy couldn't seem to get anyone to take it seriously. She'd raised flags with Dorothea, her boss and the police. But the cops hadn't even called her back. So Judy called them back and asked for an update. They said the case had been transferred to a detective in the Missing Persons and Homicide Unit named John Cabrera.
John Cabrera: Yeah, she had called the office, and she wanted to know if we had received the report that she had filed. And I said yes. And she was like, "What are you guys gonna do? Are you gonna go out and talk to her?" And I could tell she was very anxious for us to get out and talk to her.
Judy Moise: I called Detective Cabrera, He said, "Well, we're working on it, so you don't have to worry." And so then I called them the next day. I said, "Hey, are you—are you still working on it?"
Emma: Cabrera had the report on Bert Montoya, a man with schizophrenia and a history of wandering. Statistically, he was more likely missing than murdered.
John Cabrera: And so I told her. I said, "Look ..."
Judy Moise: And he said, "Look, I've got about 6,000 cases here, and I can't just take care of what you're asking about like that." I said, "How high on the list is it?" He was really pissed off.
John Cabrera: It wasn't like, "Well, gentlemen, when you get time, can you go out and ...?" No, it was more of an urgency. We needed to get out and talk with her and find out what was happening.
Emma: But Cabrera's a detective. He's not knocking on doors without knowing who's inside, so he ducked into the archive and started researching Dorothea. And fairly quickly, he found out she had a record. Dorothea had convictions for theft, forging checks, and yes—just as Judy's colleague said—drugging her clients. In fact, she was still on parole for one of those convictions, which meant she couldn't run a boarding house—which is what she was doing. It didn't mean she was responsible for Bert's disappearance, but it was something. So Cabrera said to Judy, "Why don't you and your partner come down to the station on Friday, and I'll take an official statement.
Emma: So that Friday when Judy arrived at the station, she was met at the door and escorted to a small interrogation room. Cabrera came in with his pen and pad, and listened as Judy told him the whole story—about the trip to Mexico, the call from Bert's supposed brother-in-law, and the thing John Sharp said about the smell in the yard.
John Cabrera: And I explained what we were gonna do, we were gonna go out to see and meet Dorothea and ask her about Bert. And she tells me, "You better take some shovels with you."
Emma: Judy says—Judy says that?
John Cabrera: Yes! Judy says that to me.
Emma: So Cabrera grabbed some shovels and drove over to Dorothea's.
John Cabrera: And we pulled up. You know, I saw that it was a two-story Victorian home. A lot of them built in the late-1800s. It was well-kept on the outside, had a lot of greenery. And so there was nothing unusual about the house that struck me.
Emma: The officers parked, walked up the stairs, and knocked on the door.
John Cabrera: The door opens, and there stands a elderly—and when I say elderly, I was only 36 at the time. An elderly woman that was nicely dressed in a chiffon dress, looked fine. You know, hair combed, everything nice. And in fact, she just looked like a grandmotherly-type woman. And I introduced myself. "I'm Detective Cabrera. This is my partner, Terry Brown." This is a thing that struck me is she says, "I've been expecting you gentlemen."
John Cabrera: And I said, "Well, you know we're here to find out what happened to Bert." And she goes, "Yes, I do." And I said, "You know, a report was made by his social worker, Judy Moise." "Yes, I know her." And I knew right away okay, there's bad blood there. "You know, we'd like to talk about what information you have, go over the report. Would it be okay if we come inside?" And she said, "Sure."
Emma: The officers came in and asked Dorothea some questions.
John Cabrera: So after that, I looked at her and I asked her. I said, "Dorothea, what is it that you're running here?" And she said, "I'm in violation of my parole." She says, "I'm running a board and care house, and I know I'm in violation." I then said, "You know, Dorothea, I understand now what's gonna happen, but I just want to take care of this thing with Bert with you. Would it be okay to search your place?" And she said, "Yeah." She didn't have any problem with it.
Emma: So Cabrera sleuthed around upstairs.
John Cabrera: I look under the bed. I look in the closets. No Bert. I was even tapping on walls. You know, who would put a man in a wall? But I mean, I had to go all out and try.
Emma: Still, Cabrera found nothing incriminating.
John Cabrera: I said, "Thank you for letting me search. Now I can tell that social worker, I can tell her that I searched your place and we found no Bert."
Emma: There was just one more place he wanted to look.
John Cabrera: I said, "Would you have any problem of us digging in your yard?" And she kind of looked at me strangely and said, you know, "What for?" And I said, "Well, you know, the social worker, she said that she had saw some mounds of dirt in the yard and stuff, and so we just wanted to dig so I could tell her that we dug around and we found nothing." She says, "Okay. All right. Anything to, you know, basically get that woman off my back."
Emma: So they all headed toward the yard, shovels in hand. But then suddenly, Dorothea called out to Cabrera.
John Cabrera: She says, "Mr. Cabrera?" And I thought, "Oh, no. Here it comes. She's gonna tell us to go home." And I turn around and I said, "Yes?" And she said, "Why don't we do this? Why don't you let me make some phone calls, get some people over here to dig up the yard, and then you can come back and take a look at what they've dug up?" 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."
Emma: Dorothea agreed, so the officers grabbed their shovels and went down to the yard to dig. Mostly what they found was garbage. Apparently, Dorothea used to bury it for some reason.
John Cabrera: And as I'm digging along in this hole, I started bringing out pieces of a material. And it's a colored material, it's kind of an orange-colored material. And I keep finding these pieces in the dirt as I'm digging down in this hole. I'm down about two feet now, and I'm looking at and I'm thinking, "What is this? It's in a thin cotton." So I'm piling it up. Is it part of a skirt or a dress, or what exactly is this? So I continue digging, and now I come across what I think to be a tree root, because there's a large, 35-foot avocado tree in the yard also. So I figured it's a tree root. So I start hitting it with my shovel, and trying to cut it or dislodge it to get it out of the hole. I keep banging on it, and it just doesn't want to give. I keep banging on it with the shovel. It doesn't give. So now I get down in the hole. I brace my legs, I get my hands cupped up underneath and I start yanking with everything I have. I yank and I yank and I yank. All of a sudden, it breaks loose. And I'm sitting there and I'm looking at it now. This is a femur bone.
John Cabrera: And it was attached to something. I immediately tell those guys: we call the supervisor and saying we think we found human remains.
Emma: There was just one problem.
John Cabrera: Bert's only been missing three months. These are skeletal remains.
Emma: In other words...
John Cabrera: That can't be Bert.
Emma: Next time on Crime Show: where's Bert, and whose body is in Dorothea's yard?
Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Emma Courtland. Our producers are Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht, and Jade Abdul-Malik. Our senior producer is Mitch Hansen. Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Research by Julie Carli. Production help from Anya Schultz.
Emma: Our theme song is 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.