Sacramento Murder House Seeks Atonement

By Jerika L.H.

Barbara and Thomas were not mountain folk. Although they once dreamed of a quiet homestead tucked away in the idyllic setting of California’s gold country, their energetic ambitions pulled them back towards the urbane life. Turning in their Jeep for a Prius, they set their eyes towards the beautiful Victorian corridors of downtown Sacramento. It would be a new change of pace for the couple, both previously married. Barbara spent most of her career managing projects for Kaiser, and Tom is a jack-of-all-trades type. Coincidentally, they both worked at the same Kaiser facility for awhile, though never crossing paths until much later in life. After Tom lost his wife of 24 years, he was lucky enough to find love again in Barbara, whom he calls “a force of nature.” His adoration of her is palpable in our initial interview as he jokes that, after 18 years of marriage, his still expecting Barbara to “wake up soon and realize her mistake.” Still, there are no cracks on the horizon – as enduring Tom affords one a front row ticket to his witty humor.

The pair, however, were not immune to the 2008 financial crisis, as their independent bookstore Hidden Passage Books of Placerville officially closed its doors in 2010 after seven years of business. After the loss of their brainchild, they needed another adventure.

Their next endeavor took the form of homeownership in historical downtown. Finding the perfect dwelling is a job in itself (and the subject of countless reality shows), but Barbara and Tom took a different approach. Ironically, they were unknowingly after the house that nobody else wanted (and were about to be in a different kind of theatrical spotlight). Of course, nothing seemed off when they first visited the lovely Victorian gem on 1426 F Street. The neighborhood was nice and the old-fashioned feel of the place was a home run for the artistic pair. But, as they would soon find, the historical integrity of the house would prove even grander than their initial judgments. The apple of their eye was none other than the infamous murder house, where serial killer Dorothea Puente killed fifteen of her elderly boarding house tenants and buried their bodies in the backyard.

While this might be too much for some to swallow, Barbara and Tom were entirely up for it. Along with the bargain price tag, the mystique of haunted real estate lured them in (no pun intended). A google search of the address was their first exposure to its ominous past – it was the first time they stumbled upon the name Dorothea Puente. The name that had been on the neighborhood’s lips for the better part of thirty years – and for good reason.

Death House Landlady

It was a story which stunned the nation when it hit news outlets in 1988. As the headshot of a white-haired 60-year-old woman with thick coke bottle glasses circulated around America’s TV’s, people were shocked as the gruesome details emerged and, slowly, more and more bodies were exhumed from the Sacramento home’s foreground. Even more stupefying was the unlikely psychological profile of the woman standing on trial. Resembling an older version of Rose Nylund, the grandmotherly Puente was the last kind of mass murderer anyone would expect. In fact, no one had ever seen her coming.

A native Californian, Puente was no stranger to the inside of a jail cell. Psychologists would later attribute her propensity for deceit as a side effect spawning from her orphaned childhood and an abusive adolescent marriage. These lies included her claims to be a Mexican national and that her still-living first husband had widowed her. Her modus operandi was selling herself as someone she wasn’t. By around 1950, Puente’s proclivity for fakery went above her normal biographical revamping. She was arrested for forging checks and then again for running an illegal brothel. After a spout of several violent marriages, she turned to fiduciary abuse by way of exploiting older men for their state benefits. Thirty-four counts of treasury fraud eventually landed her even more time behind bars. Her life took a sharp left turn when she undertook a career in nursing. Although those who knew her considered this change as a positive breath of fresh air,  her new responsibilities to care for the disabled and elderly would later play an integral role in her murderous master plan.  In 1981, Puente began running a 16-room boarding house on the tree-lined street of F Street.

That is where Barbara and Tom’s lovely new house comes into the story.

Macabre Manor

Puente’s homecooked meals were described as a force to reckon with. Although blatantly stingy with money, Dorothea was well liked by her tenants, mostly because she loved to cook them extravagant meals. Her neighbors, however, noticed something strange about the old woman’s fascination with gardening. It was a nuisance, rather. Along with her homeless alcoholic “adoptee” who went only by “Chief,” Puente was often seen re-landscaping the property at all hours of the night. The pairing was short-lived, however, as Chief later went missing permanently.

It was November 11, 1988, when police first knocked on the door asking about a missing developmentally disabled man whose last known address had led them there. Although everything checked out all right, the freshly disturbed soil in the front garden stuck in investigators’ minds. It was the site where they would later come to exhume seven bodies.

Puente’s motives were exceedingly financial. The boarding house afforded her the niche of handling her tenant’s monthly income. Over the next several years, Dorothea would slowly poison her victims, co-opt their social security checks, and dispose of them in the backyard. The 10×10 “murder room” in the upstairs portion of the house was where she laid her victims out to die before interring them into the landscape. All in all, her bloody source of salary earned her around $5000 a month in ill-begotten funds stolen from her victims. Exactly how many of them remains unknown, as she also was known to pay handymen to dump homemade coffins into the Sacramento River at Garden Hwy. She told them it was filled with molded “junk” from the basement, and was nailed shut to keep its contents from spilling out on I-5 during the ride there. An unassuming fisherman would later come to discover Dorothea’s dead fiancé residing within one of the wooden deathtraps. As a police spokesperson attested, “We [have gotten] a large number of calls from people with relatives who have stayed here [and went missing] – and there are a lot more than seven names.”

The reputation remains. Or remained until November 2010 when Barbara and Tom moved in.

“Trespassers will be buried in the yard.”

Of course, the job of un-haunting a house takes a little more than just a fresh coat of paint. Re-enchanting the former death house and absolving it from its former glory was not something that could be done overnight. After all, it’s hard to sell a place as ‘just a normal house’ when teenagers frequently gather on its front stoop to conduct séances. Nonetheless, Barbara and Tom insist that’s precisely what it is. Just a normal house.

But a remodeling was undoubtedly necessary if the two wanted to sell the idea to Barbara’s mother. After all, she was the one that would have to live in the basement – the potter’s field. After a full modernization, she ultimately decided the premises were livable. Although the space had been significantly lightened up to a budding new granny unit, Barbara’s mother quickly returned the décor back to its original Victorian esthetic. “She has an affinity for cabinets with missing legs and wall hangings that would frighten ghosts away. Not to mention her 1890ish brothel shower curtain,” jokes Tom.

The upstairs was another bear to tackle. It was Dorothea’s domain, with tall ceilings and creaky wooden floors which were once littered with old pill bottles. The rooms were gutted and it the walls were leveled to transform it into one big studio space – Manhattan style. Then came the revamping.

The house has channeled an eclectic motif in its much-needed makeover. It now stands out on the block for reasons other than its morbid past. The jury is still out about the exact amount of feng shui needed to purge evil residue from a murder house. This question could keep designers in debate for the next few centuries. But Barbara and Tom’s own little touches seemed to do the trick.

In one corner stands a mannequin of James Bond, Spider-man hovers over the dining room, and Barbara’s art projects are often scattered around. The dark, brooding presence of Dorothea has been replaced with giddy novelty. And books. Once the interior had undergone rebirth, Barbara set her efforts on the façade. However, as they soon found out, one cannot simply throw flowers at the situation. The new renovation still continues to get a few odd looks.

“We found that passersby did not share our enthusiasm for the place. The darkness seemed all too real for everyone and the most common inquiries wondered how we could possible live in an evil house” says Tom.

By nature of its past, many had regarded the house as inherently uninhabitable. But what is a house, after all. Is it simply a few walls, doors, and a good wi-fi connection? Was the house to be deemed guilty for Dorothea’s crimes and no longer serve its purpose as, well… a house? Tom says no:

This was a good house. I’m baffled by the blame still heaped [upon it], even after 20+ years. I felt the need to stick up for the house and put up a sign saying:

“It was the awful, awful woman who did it. Don’t blame me.                                                           -Signed, The House.”

It got some laughs and, better yet, seemed to lighten the mood in general. More signs followed, always with a real world purpose, but with a little humor to soften the blow. Instead of putting up a sign that said KEEP OUT, I did one that said:

   “Trespassers will be drugged and buried in the yard.”

Interestingly, Tom testifies that while the murder house is not haunted, his former Hidden Passage Books store in the heart of Placerville is. Barbara’s mother disagrees. “She says she sees spirits and has smelled heavy perfume. Dorothea Puente was a renowned perfume splasher.”

Overall, the most annoying attribute of the house to date is the frequency with which Barbara and Tom’s invited guests seemingly tend to cancel their stopovers at the home. Some even refuse to visit the house outright. The dark history is simply too much. But Barbara and Tom are far from bothered.

When we first moved in neighborhood negativity was heavy, but we feel like we weathered that and get a lot more smiles than frowns now. We have become friends with John Cabrera, the detective who uncovered the bodies and led the case against Dorothea Puente, and he has re-dubbed the house more fun than grim, as it was when he originally experienced it. “

While the forward thinking new owners are untroubled in looking past the house’s dark chapter, people’s preoccupation with the murder house remains prolific. The home has been featured on the Discovery channel, Crime TV, and countless other ghost hunting shows, as horror enthusiasts have become obsessed with channeling paranormal activity in the house.

But, in a chance turn of events, the top cinematic honors would soon go to Barbara and Tom. It was coincidental, really. The kind of idea that could only spring from a few too many bottles of wine and some nice over-fermented French cheese. “Everyone was reasonably juiced and enjoying a laugh when our friend Nicholas Coles threw the idea out there,” says Tom.

Their documentary “The House is Innocent” has since gone on to win countless awards, including a Cannes, and has been shown in over 70 film festivals internationally.

The House is Innocent – Trailer from Blackburn Pictures on Vimeo.

The only thing that could top this bizarre story would be Dorothea’s late-in-life attempt at writing a cookbook in prison. She lent her name to the culinary manual “Cooking with a Serial Killer” as well as to its clever opening line: “Dorothea has been accused of a lot of things… being a bad cook isn’t one of them.” Albeit irreverent, Tom is surely not the only one with a sense of humor about the situation.

Dorothea is now deceased and the house is vibrating full of new life. The eccentric take on the house’s new reprieve has given it the feel of a modern bungalow. Of course, some people still shudder when they walk by, but Barbara and Tom do their best to reassure the public that the house is perfectly friendly. They insist that the house is no different than the other towering Victorian beauties that surround it. Perhaps the two are simply ahead of their time  As the synopsis of their documentary reads, “What sorts of people knowingly purchase the former residence of a notorious serial killer and the location of multiple murders? Meet Tom and Barbara.”

For them, the house has been a source of new life after the loss of their beloved bookstore. Hope ventures that within a few years, the community will simply come to see the place as Tom and Barbara’s house. Not the “murder house” or the “Killer Landlady Graveyard.” Just a house, serving its purpose. Four walls and a roof. A place to display Barbara’s artwork and keep Tom busy when the shutters get clogged. The perfect nook for Sunday morning brunches or summertime sit-outs on the lawn.

Atonement has proven to be a lengthy process, but that’s okay. The house has time. And after enough time, people might just be able to see it as just a house again. A house that happens to belong to Tom and Barbara. A house whose only ghastly attributes are Barbara’s mom’s tacky antique collection.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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1 Comment

  1. John Hobbs

    As a Sacramentan who once lived a few blocks away from the Puente house and who still walks or drives by several times/year, I would not give it any notice were it not for articles like this one.

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