Since the concept of law enforcement has existed, police have been trying to profile criminals and figure out what it is that leads them to commit crimes. The more serious the crime, the more intense this sort of research can be, with the study of serial killers a key interest of any budding criminologist. However, the truth is that it’s virtually impossible to predict the type of person who could actually be driven to murder, as history has terrifyingly taught us time and again. Profilers have compiled a list of characteristics they find common amongst psychopaths, but a shocking number of people have come along and completely shattered these expectations.
One of the least likely humans ever put behind bars for taking countless lives would have to be Dorothea Puente. Upon first glance, Puente looked like an average everyday grandmother. However, a deeper inspection would reveal she herself would never know if that was the case, having given away all her own children in one way or another way before they became adults. Amazingly, this poor treatment of her children was far from the worst thing she did in her life, as Puente is also suspected of having murdered up to 15 people and was convicted of killing at least three.
As is the case with most serial killers, the story of how Dorothea Puente became a killer is wildly complicated and more or less begins with her difficult childhood. Not that this excuses any of her crimes in the slightest, as a poor upbringing alone hardly explains how she committed the deeds she did throughout the 1980s, nor the lesser crime sprees she went on before her murderous instinct shone through. Keep reading to learn 15 facts about the World’s Most Evil Granny, Dorothea Puente.
15 She Was A Former Pr-------e Who Owned Brothels
Without parents, family, or any sort of support system, Dorothea didn’t have that many options in life. This is most likely the reason her life of crime began while she was so young, when she was only 16 years old and became a prostitute. She met her first husband working at a cathouse but almost immediately lost interest in him and continued her life in the red light district. Unsurprisingly, this eventually led to him leaving her, which may have triggered her crimes intensifying. During this time, she also became an alcoholic, and her lies expanded from revisionist history about her childhood to extravagant tall tales about meeting movie stars and being in Asia during World War II, claiming to survive both the bombing of Hiroshima and the Bataan Death March. Before long, the sex work escalated from being a mere hooker to owning her own brothel, though she kept on prostituting herself along with her clients, as well. One has to imagine that if Puente acted like she did while a prostitute when she committed her more serious crimes, the whole “Granny” nickname would feel way less appropriate.
14 She Was Arrested Dozens Of Times Before The Killing Started
Given the antics this article has already covered, it should be no surprise Dorothea Puente spent much of her life in and out of jail even before the killings began. Most prostitutes who get started as teenagers will eventually wind up behind bars once or twice, and that was the case with Dorothea like any other. However, the first time she was sent to jail was actually unrelated to her sex work and instead would predict the MO she would later develop as a serial killer. Driven by money and a desire for social status, Dorothea’s initial conviction was related to forging checks, her sentence: six months in jail. Combining her love of prostitution and making money, she graduated to owning a brothel, as previously mentioned, though we left out the fact it led to another arrest in 1960. Almost immediately after her release, a third arrest for vagrancy came next, and several more fraud charges came afterward. Amazingly, judges were always very lenient on her, offering short sentences or probation and demanding she stop handling government checks.
13 Eight Bodies Were Found In Her Backyard
In the end, Dorothea Puente’s downfall was the same practice she used to find her victims. Because she focused on the elderly and enfeebled, Dorothea needed her victims to come to her lest she raise suspicion, and that meant advertising herself to social workers as the best possible landlord for disturbed or older clients. What she failed to realize is that some social workers care deeply about their clients, like Judy Moise did about Alvaro “Bert” Montoya. Once Montoya disappeared, Moise became deeply concerned, launching a private investigation that very quickly made her call the police. After just one visit where they spoke to a single other tenant, officers realized something seriously fishy was going on, and with Dorothea’s permission, they began digging her backyard. Dorothea stood and watched as the first body was found, reacting with possibly genuine horror by letting out an audible gasp and covering her mouth. Sure, she had to know what the police were going to find, but the terror of being caught may well have been genuine. By the time police dug up seven more victims, she was already gone.
12 She Immediately Fled From Police When Suspicions Arose
Not every police officer is entirely prepared for a serious investigation, let alone one of a serial killer. Officer Richard Ewing definitely wasn’t expecting a routine missing persons report to turn into a potential murder case, and that’s why he called in Detective Sergeant John Cabrera for help. In turn, Cabrera asked detective Terry Brown and parole agent James Wilson to come along for the journey when they started digging Dorothea Puente’s backyard. Defying all logic, and despite all of these dedicated law enforcement officers being on board, not a single one of them made any effort at stopping Puente when she asked if she could go to a coffee shop around the corner to calm down while the digging continued. In fact, Cabrera escorted her off the scene, apparently never believing an elderly looking woman like her could have possibly committed those crimes. Once more bodies were found, the officers almost instantly noticed their mistake, but when they went to find this coffee shop, nothing was found.
11 She Was Spotted Right Away Trying To Commit Another Crime
Now on the lam, Dorothea instantly did the one thing she knew how to do at that point, which was tricking the elderly into giving her money. Somehow making it all the way from Sacramento to Los Angeles with little money or supplies, Puente walked into a bar, sat next to an elderly patron named Charles Willgues, and began telling her infamous lies. Calling herself Donna Johansson, she claimed her husband had just died, causing her to fall on some hard times. Within minutes, Puente was telling him about how he could increase the benefits on his pension checks, and soon, she suggested they have Thanksgiving dinner together. The flaw in her plan was that Willgues had seen a news report earlier in that day which gave rise to his suspicions, and after a call to the television station, he was almost certain Donna Johansson was Dorothea Puente. The police were informed and sent to the hotel room where she told Willgues to reach her at and where they arrested Puente without incident.
10 An Earlier Victim Was Found During The Discovery Process
Once the police and then mainstream media became aware of Puente’s crimes, both organizations desperately began seeking any information they could find about this mysterious old woman. More specifically, they wanted to know if there were any more bodies buried or discarded somewhere other than her backyard. Though it wasn’t proven or included in the crimes she was later convicted of, there was plenty of evidence pointing to her having also murdered her former friend and business partner, Ruth Munroe. Puente and Munroe ran a small catering business together in the early 80s, until Munroe suddenly committed suicide -- or at least that was Puente’s story. The two were living together at that time, and Munroe’s son always believed something suspicious had gone down since his mother had never appeared suicidal in the slightest. Once the other bodies were discovered, police reopened the investigation and discovered Munroe’s body floating in a box in the Sacramento River, a dubious method of suicide, to say the least. Putting two and two together, Puente’s body count retroactively rose.
9 Juries Had Trouble Convicting Someone With Her Image
By simply looking at her nickname, let alone the pictures of her throughout this article, it should be pretty easy to understand why juries and media found it so hard to imagine Dorothea Puente committing the crimes of which she was accused. She’s called the World Most Evil Granny because she looked like a grandmother, and according to reports, she dug into this image as much as possible even before her trial began. While actually in her early 60s, Puente told police she was in her 70s, making it even harder to imagine her as being capable of killing multiple people. On top of this, much of Puente’s life was spent making her lies as believable as possible, and this meant that to anyone who wasn’t a victim, she truly looked like a generously wealthy elderly woman, trying to make life as good and meaningful as possible for her even more elderly tenants. It wasn’t enough to keep her out of prison, but she did escape the death penalty, possibly because, as one jury member is reported to have said, “executing Puente would be like executing my or your Grandma.”
8 She Maintained Innocence Until Her Death
Despite a jury of Dorothea Puente’s peers convicting her of three murders, and 11 of said jury members believing she was guilty of at least six more, plus the fact she spent the rest of her life in jail for those crimes, Puente herself never admitted to killing a single living person. As her trial progressed, it became impossible for her to deny knowledge of the bodies in her backyard, especially when former helpers confessed to digging the holes for her (though she never would explain why she wanted them to do that). Instead of admitting who she was once and for all, Puente tried to argue that all seven of the bodies found in her backyard, plus the others that were connected to her, had all mysteriously died of natural causes. She even confessed to burying her victims' bodies in order to continue robbing them of their social security benefits far beyond their deaths but treated all of her other questionable behavior like a total coincidence that didn’t prove anything. No one believed her, though, and Puente remained in jail from her initial capture in 1988 all the way to her death in 2011.
7 She Released A Cookbook From Jail
No matter how severe or vicious the atrocities serial killers commit in their lifetime, it seems like just about all of them wind up with a fan club. For some killers, this means misguided young women writing to them in jail and declaring their love. For others like Charles Manson, it means he was somehow able to record albums from behind bars. Given Dorothea Puente's image, this meant the controversial artist, Shane Bugbee, would collaborate with her on a cookbook. Removed from her violent crimes, it actually makes perfect sense to use Puente’s image on a cookbook, as she has the perfect visage of a kind old lady who probably knows a secret recipe or two that her tenants all would agree was to die for. However, because she was, in fact, a repeat murderer with victims numbering potentially in the double-digits, it might be fair to say Cooking With A Serial Killer leaves a pretty sour taste in one’s mouth.
6 She’s Been The Focus Of Multiple Movies And TV Shows
Fans of classic literature might read the story of Dorothea Puente and be reminded of the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Written as a play in 1941 and adapted into a film starring Cary Grant two years later, Arsenic is about two elderly women who suddenly take up the habit of murdering people with the title drug. Of course, none of the humor seen in that play was present in Puente’s many crimes, as can often happen without Cary Grant’s charm keeping things at a madcap pace. The murder site often being as famous as the crime itself, Puente’s house has also gained notoriety in recent years through the documentary The House Is Innocent. There are also live tours through the old apartments where the murders actually took place, which might just feel a little bit too sensationalist for some people.
5 Could Her House Be Haunted?!
The existence or non-existence of ghosts is something that people simply believe in or they don’t. Quite frankly, were someone to put no stock into this idea whatsoever, we probably wouldn’t blame them. That said, some people do believe in ghosts with a great passion, and many of them seem to believe Dorothea Puente’s actions were the exact sort of activities that lead to an eventual haunting. Future residents even claimed her spirit would visit them at night, leading to an investigation by Ghost Adventures. Detractors of the show would probably castigate the investigation as being just as silly as everything else the so-called paranormal experts investigate. At the same time, true believers will, no doubt, find themselves freaked out at the news that their investigation actually had results, causing the investigators to believe that Dorothea had even more victims than police currently know. One of the ghost hunters, Zak Bagans, even believed these unseen forces momentarily paralyzed him. Fact? Fiction? Who knows? But it’s not like this story needs any more sensationalism even without its supernatural aspect.
4 Her Targets Were The Weak And Elderly
Having developed an appetite for crime throughout her long life, Dorothea waited until the early 1980s before she started taking lives. At that point, she was in her early 60s herself, so it probably wasn’t possible for her to take lives through brute strength, regardless of who the victims were. Either way, the kill wasn’t the thrill for her, as Puente was always merely after the money. Knowing she could bilk Social Security checks out of elderly victims for years by pretending they were still alive, Puente first opened a boarding house where she earned their trust and control of their mail. For reasons that remain unclear to this day, neither the parole board nor the social workers who sent clients to Puente’s boarding house raised any questions about whether or not her past crimes should have precluded her from this sort of work. As for her tenants, anyone who started asking questions or realized Puente was keeping their government benefits for herself would soon wind up dead. Family members may have been sad or surprised that their elderly relatives disappeared, but to police, that wasn’t unusual behavior for the elderly, well... at least until their bodies showed up, that is.
3 Both Her Parents Died When She Was Young
Not coming to infamy until her fourth marriage and subsequent name change, Dorothea Puente was born Dorothea Gray in 1929. Her father Jesse served in World War I, where he was badly injured, leaving him frail and weak for the brief remainder of his life. Her mother Trudy was rumored to be a prostitute, and if not that, she definitely cheated on Jesse, and the two couldn’t get along even before that started happening. These issues would keep escalating until they finally reached a breaking point when Jesse died in 1937, while Trudy was in and out of jail. Dorothea and her six siblings were sent to an orphanage when Trudy was deemed an unfit parent. Less than two years later, Trudy died in a motorcycle accident, leaving the children orphans and Dorothea, in particular, deeply scarred by the experience. Lonely, gradually separated from her siblings, and without any close friends, Dorothea soon started lying about her past and upbringing, a practice that would heighten considerably as her own troubled adulthood began.
2 She Was Married Four Times
In addition to the husband she met while working as a prostitute, Dorothea Puente somehow enticed three other men to tie the knot at various points in her life. Backtracking a bit, that first husband was named Fred McFaul, and to recap, he left Dorothea when it became clear her prostitution and lying would never end. Despite bringing it upon herself, Dorothea was shattered by the divorce, inventing lies about McFaul dying rather than dare admit she was abandoned. Less than four years later, she married again to a Swedish man named Axel Johanson, whom she would remain with for 14 highly volatile years. Of course, those years would be a bit turbulent, as they coincided with Dorothea’s years as a madam. Eventually, Johanson, too, had enough, and this time, Dorothea wasted absolutely no time in running to Mexico and getting remarried to a man 19 years younger than she. Said husband was Roberto Puente, explaining the surname Dorothea used in later years. However, there was still a fourth husband not ten years later, when Dorothea again got hitched, this time to Pedro Montalvo. The wisest of all her husbands, Montalvo left her within months.
1 She Abandoned Multiple Children
Truth be told, it’s a little hard tracking down exactly how many children Dorothea Puente had in her life. With four husbands and countless clients in her days as a prostitute, the number of times she could have theoretically been impregnated is quite high. Sure, one might argue that it’s hard for a woman to hide giving birth, at least more so than it would be for a man to ignore having a child. However, given Puente’s penchant for lying, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that she could have gotten pregnant, hidden for a couple months, and “gotten rid of the child,” by whatever means necessary. Think that sounds a little speculative? Well, then you must not know Puente pretty much did exactly that at least three times, twice with her first husband and then again with a random stranger shortly after her first stint in jail. Each time, she gave her children away as quickly as possible, her first daughter sent to her husband’s relatives and the next two put up for adoption.
Sources: LA Times, Chicago Reader, KCRA, The Sacramento Bee, About Serial Killers