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Guide to the California Superior Court (Sacramento County) case files for The People v. Dorothea Montalvo Puente (criminal case #18056) CNTY0004
CNTY0004  
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Collection Details
 
Table of contents What's This?
  • Immediate Source of Acquisition
  • Conditions Governing Access
  • Conditions Governing Use
  • Preferred Citation
  • Separated Materials
  • Biographical / Historical
  • Arrangement
  • Scope and Contents
  • Related Materials

  • Language of Material: English
    Contributing Institution: Center for Sacramento History
    Title: California Superior Court (Sacramento County) case files for The People v. Dorothea Montalvo Puente (criminal case #18056)
    Identifier/Call Number: CNTY0004
    Physical Description: 17.354 Linear Feet (22 boxes: 8 record cartons, 3 manuscript boxes, 7 poster rolls, 2 newspaper boxes, 1 oversize flat box, 1 video box.
    Date (inclusive): 1938-2001
    Date (bulk): 1982-1992
    Abstract: The collection is made up of exhibits and evidence from Sacramento County Superior Court criminal case #18056, The People v. Dorothea Montalvo Puente. Puente stood trial for the murders of her boyfriend and eight of her Sacramento boarding house tenants between 1982 and 1988 in order to collect their government benefit checks. All but two of those she murdered were found buried in the yard of her rented boarding house at 1426 F Street in Sacramento. Preliminary hearings began in 1990, and the trial and sentencing took place in 1993. Material covers the entirety of the trial, including evidence collected during the investigation, trial exhibits, photographs and video footage of the crime scene, video footage and transcripts of suspect and witness interrogations, and appeals records. Puente was sentenced to life in prison without parole and died at age 82 in 2011 at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.

    Immediate Source of Acquisition

    Sacramento County Superior Court (accession number 2014/002)

    Conditions Governing Access

    The collection is open for research. It has a number of access restrictions due to personally identifiable information (this includes address, phone number, driver's license number), social security numbers, financial records, medical records, and graphic photos and video. See below for restrictions:
    • Sealed records: no access, no reproductions
    • Personally identifiable information of deceased persons: no restrictions to access
    • Personally identifiable information of deceased persons: redact PII before access
    • Medical/psychiatric records of deceased or living persons: redact before access
    • Social security numbers of deceased or living persons: redact before access
    • Financial records of deceased or living persons: redact before access
    • Photos/videos made by or for the coroner showing dead bodies or body parts: viewable in-house only, no reproductions
    • Photos/videos not made by or for the coroner showing dead bodies or body parts: no restrictions to access

    Conditions Governing Use

    All requests to publish or quote from collections held by the Center for Sacramento History (CSH) must be submitted in writing to csh@cityofsacramento.org. Permission for publication is given on behalf of CSH as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the patron. No permission is necessary to publish or quote from public records. Photos/videos made by or for the coroner showing dead bodies or body parts are viewable in-house only and cannot be reproduced.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], CNTY0004, California Superior Court (Sacramento County) case files for The People v. Dorothea Montalvo Puente (criminal case #18056), Center for Sacramento History.

    Separated Materials

    Artifacts have been separated from the archival material. These include pill vials, a shovel, two hoes, two rakes, a garden trowel, a knife, a makeup compact, and a wallet.

    Biographical / Historical

    Sacramento County Superior Court criminal case #18056, The People v. Dorothea Montalvo Puente, is the murder trial of Sacramento, California, serial killer Dorothea Puente. Preliminary hearings began in 1990, and the trial and sentencing took place in 1993. Puente was accused of murdering nine people between 1982 and 1988 and cashing their government support checks. Victims included Puente's boyfriend Everson Gillmouth, 77, and eight tenants who lived at the boarding house she operated at 1426 F Street in Sacramento: Ruth Munroe, 61; Leona Carpenter, 78; Alvaro "Bert/Alberto" Gonzales Montoya, 51; Dorothy Miller, 64; Benjamin Fink, 55; James Gallop, 62; Vera Faye Martin, 64; and Betty Palmer, 78. The first victim, Munroe, died at 1426 F Street in 1982, but her death was deemed a suicide by drug overdose, although her family suspected Puente was behind her death and pressed for further investigation. Gillmouth's body was found in January 1986 in a wooden box on the bank of the Sacramento River near Verona, just north of Sacramento. The rest of the victims were found buried in Puente's backyard in November 1988 during a police investigation.
    Puente had a long and varied criminal history, including forgery and fraud, that started when she was a young woman. She also had a history of working in caregiving roles with vulnerable and disadvantaged populations who did not have a strong family or social support network, like the elderly, the homeless, and people with addiction and mental health problems. In the 1970s, she ran a boarding house for the elderly and needy at 2100 F Street in Sacramento, and in 1978 she was arrested and put on five years' probation for forging her tenants' signatures on their benefits checks. One of her probation stipulations was that she could not operate a boarding house, so Puente instead began working as an in-home caregiver. In 1982 she was convicted of robbery and administering stupefying drugs to commit robbery, stemming from accusations of drugging and stealing from her clients and a man she met in a bar. She was sentenced to prison for five years, serving three with two years' credit for good behavior. Puente was released on parole in September 1985 with the stipulation that she could not run a boarding house, care for the elderly, or handle other people's government support checks.
    While in prison, Puente began corresponding with Gillmouth, and the two got together upon her release, opening a joint bank account. Not long after her release, Puente killed Gillmouth and continued cashing his support checks, while writing letters to his friends and family under the guise that he was still alive. Puente hired local handyman Ismael Florez to do some work at her house and build a lidded box about the size of a coffin. Part of his promised payment was Gillmouth's truck, which Puente said belonged to her boyfriend who was away in Los Angeles and no longer wanted it. A few days after building the box, Florez returned to the house to find the lid nailed shut. Puente asked him to help her transport it to a storage unit north of town, but on the way, she suggested they dump it by the river instead. The next month, in January 1986, a fisherman found the box, which contained Gillmouth's remains. His remains were not identified until early 1989, after the bodies were found in Puente's yard and she was linked through witnesses to Gillmouth's death. Florez maintained that he was unaware a body was in the box when he helped transport and dump it.
    Also upon her 1985 release from prison, Puente began operating the boarding house at 1426 F Street, against her parole stipulations. She again took in mostly the elderly and people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, many of whom were in and out of homelessness. Puente arranged to be signors on their government support checks, giving the tenants a small stipend then depositing the rest into her own accounts or joint accounts, which she justified as payment for room, board, and other expenses. At some point, she began killing some of her tenants by drugging them with prescription medications she got from several doctors. She would keep their bodies in an upstairs room in the house and then, later, bury them in her yard; it is suspected that she had her mentally disabled tenant Alvaro "Bert" Montoya help her with the burials. After their deaths, she continued to collect their government support checks.
    Suspicions were raised against Puente starting in mid-1988, when Brenda Trujillo, a woman who had been in prison with Puente and had briefly lived at 1426 F Street, complained to police that Puente had drugged her and cashed her checks — some reports also say she told police Puente had buried tenants in the backyard. In late 1988, Montoya's social worker Judy Moise became concerned when she could not get a hold of him, and after talking to Puente, who gave conflicting stories about his whereabouts, she filed a missing person's report, which was the impetus for the investigation at the Puente house. On November 11, Sacramento Police Detective John Cabrera and other officers arrived to question Puente and search the house, and upon finding nothing suspicious, they asked to dig in the backyard. Puente consented to the dig, and the detectives soon turned up the remains of tenant Leona Carpenter. As digging continued, Puente was questioned then released due to insufficient evidence to hold her. She fled to Los Angeles, where she was picked up by police four days later after a man she met in a bar turned her in. By that time, police had recovered the bodies of seven of Puente's tenants, including Montoya. After questioning Florez, Puente was linked to Gillmouth's death. Investigators also began to suspect Puente in the 1982 death of Ruth Munroe.
    In all, Puente was charged with nine murders: the seven tenants found buried in her yard, Gillmouth, and Munroe. Preliminary hearings began in April 1990, and in August she pled not guilty to the charges. Her trial was moved to Monterey after a judge ruled she could not get a fair trial in Sacramento due to the media coverage there, and it ran from February to July of 1993. The jurors deliberated for 24 days before finding her guilty of three counts of murder, deadlocking on the other six. Puente was sentenced to life in prison without parole and died March 27, 2011, at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla at the age of 82.

    Arrangement

    The collection is arranged into 7 series:
    • Series 1. Preliminary transcripts, 1990-1992
    • Series 2. Pre-trial and joint exhibits, 1982-1989
    • Series 3. People's exhibits, 1938-1993, bulk 1988-1992
    • Series 4. Defendant's exhibits, 1974-1993, bulk 1988-1993
    • Series 5. Appeals records and exhibits, 1992-2001
    • Series 6. Sealed records and special proceedings, 1980-1992
    • Series 7. Artifacts, ca. 1980-1988

    Scope and Contents

    The collection is made up of exhibits and evidence from Puente's criminal trial for the murders of her boyfriend and eight of her boarding house tenants. An official list of pre-trial, joint, prosecution, and defendant's exhibits was found in the collection. When compared to that list, the collection is nearly complete, with only a few exhibits missing upon donation. Missing exhibits for the most part consist of photographs, renter's assistance claims and checks belonging to Puente tenants, and vials of medications belonging to Puente and her tenants.
    Material covers the entirety of the trial, including evidence collected during the investigation, crime scene photographs and video footage, trial exhibits, testimony and interview transcripts, and appeals records. The material is broken up into series according to the different phases of the trial.
    The vast majority of material consists of the People's exhibits from the trial (Series 3), which document Puente's criminal history starting in the late 1970s, including the drugging and robbery of Malcolm McKenzie, Ruth Munroe's 1982 overdose death at Puente's house, Puente's relationship with Gillmouth and disposal of his body, Puente's financial accounts and forging of her tenant's support checks, prescription medication histories, and the discovery of the tenants buried in her yard. Diagrams of Puente's house and yard from police evidence sheets, along with photos, show the locations of bodies found in the yard and various points of interest inside the house. The excavations are well-documented with photographs and video; autopsy photographs are also included. The material also provides an overview of the lives of Puente's victims, including some of their personal and medical histories. At the beginning of the investigation, before they were identified, the buried victims were referred to by a coroner's identification number or excavation site number (see list below). These numbers are used throughout the collection in the identification of remains, burial locations, and autopsy records.
    • Leona Carpenter: coroner's ID #88-3372; site 1, body 1.
    • Alvaro "Bert/Alberto" Gonzales Montoya: coroner's ID #88-3381; site 1, body 2.
    • Dorothy Miller: coroner's ID #88-3374; site 2.
    • Benjamin Fink: coroner's ID #88-3382; site 4.
    • James Gallop: coroner's ID #88-3384; site 5.
    • Vera Faye Martin: coroner's ID #88-3394; site 6.
    • Betty Palmer: coroner's ID #88-3395; site 7.
    The next largest series in the collection consists of the defendant's exhibits from the trial (series 4). This contains a significantly smaller amount of material compared to the People's exhibits. The Defendant's exhibits attempt to show Puente as a flawed but sympathetic individual whose difficult, abusive childhood negatively impacted her behavior and judgment as an adult; her victims as unhealthy, suggesting their deaths were natural or caused by their own behaviors, and that Puente buried them instead of reporting the deaths because of her negative experience being questioned and suspected in Munroe's death; and that Puente had been unfairly tried and convicted in the press. They also provide evidence showing that Puente gave back to her community and had the respect and support of several people.
    The smaller series in the collection (series 1, 2, and 5) include transcripts from the trial's preliminary hearings and testimonies, case files from Puente's prior criminal trials, and records from her appeal of this trial. Series 6 contains sealed documents and records from special proceedings that cannot be accessed without a court order, and series 7 contains artifacts that were separated from the rest of the collection for conservations and storage purposes.
    Series 1. Preliminary transcripts, 1990-1992 This series is made up of transcripts of preliminary hearings and testimonies from various witnesses and experts. These include Puente tenants John Sharp, Julius Kelley, and Brenda Trujillo; handyman Ismael Florez, who Puente hired to build the box Everson Gillmouth was found in; Puente's friend and landlord Ricardo Ordorica; Sacramento County Coroner's Office toxicologist James Beede; Sacramento Police Detective John Cabrera, who led the investigation of Puente; Judy Moise, the social worker who filed the missing person's report for victim Alvaro Montoya, which spurred the investigation; family members of Ruth Munroe, who died of a drug overdose in 1982 while living at Puente's home and is considered her first victim; and many others. This series is arranged chronologically.
    Series 2. Pre-trial and joint exhibits, 1982-1989 This series contains pre-trial and joint exhibits. The joint exhibits include intake forms from the Camelia City Center and St. Paul's Center Elderly Homeless Program from 1986 to 1989, which include Puente tenants and victims. These will have social security numbers redacted upon access. The pre-trial exhibits consist of records related to Puente's 1982 trial for robbery and administering stupefying drugs (Sacramento Superior Court cases 63029, 63695, 60133-F, 61030-F, 61082-F, and 97682, plus complaint number 59425F), including case files, transcripts, initial discovery documents, attorney memos, and records on the deaths of Ruth Munroe and Esther Busby. This series is arranged by exhibit number.
    Series 3. People's exhibits, 1938-1993, bulk 1988-1992 This series is made up of exhibits used by prosecuting attorneys during the trial, including evidence obtained during the investigation. This is the largest series in the collection, and some of the information in the material will be redacted upon access to comply with HIPAA and other privacy regulations. Many of the photographs and videos are graphic and thereby limited to in-house viewing only with no reproductions possible. Material in this series includes photographs of the yard excavations, autopsies, interior and exteriors of the Puente house, and the Everson Gillmouth crime scene; video footage of the yard excavations, Gillmouth crime scene, and police interviews; hand-drawn diagrams of the house and yard showing the burial and excavation sites; photographs of Puente, her victims, and her tenants; victims and other tenants' government support checks, some signed by Puente; tenant applications for government assistance; handwriting samples; Puente's bank account and other financial records; Ricardo Ordorica's financial records; transcripts of interviews with Puente and witnesses; victims' personal and financial records; Puente and victims' prescription and medical histories; victim toxicology and autopsy reports; falsified driver's licenses using Puente's photograph and her victim Betty Palmer's name; records related to the sale of Gillmouth's truck and trailer; Puente's personal correspondence, some of which was written to fool victims' families into thinking they were still alive; and much more. Some of the material is presented as oversized exhibit posters. The videos in this series are particularly interesting. The excavation footage not only shows the digging but includes the narration and commentary of the people working, who describe what they're finding. Police interview footage shows interviews with Puente, Mervin "John" McCauley, Ricardo Ordorica, John Sharp, and Ismael Florez. Also included is footage of Julius Kelley's conditional exam and the Gillmouth crime scene. This series is arranged by exhibit number.
    Series 4. Defendant's exhibits, 1974-1993, bulk 1988-1993 This series consists of exhibits used by the defense attorneys during the trial. Some of the information in the material will be redacted upon access to comply with HIPAA and other privacy regulations. Material includes information on Puente's family history and childhood; letters, articles, and essays supporting Puente; victims' medical histories, toxicology reports, and other personal information; Puente's bank account and other financial records; news articles and video footage covering the crime; and more. This series is arranged by exhibit number.
    Series 5, Appeals records and exhibits, 1992-2001 This series comprises records from appeals proceedings, including juror questionnaires, declarations, and correspondence; petitions for writ of prohibition and application for stay of proceedings; petition for habeas corpus; and lists of trial exhibits. This series is arranged alphabetically.
    Series 6. Sealed records and special proceedings, 1980-1992 This series contains sealed court documents and special proceedings records that cannot be accessed without a court order. These consist of a variety of material including transcripts and Puente's psychiatric records from Dr. Thomas Doody. This series is unprocessed.
    Series 7. Artifacts, ca. 1980-1988 This series contains artifacts that were taken as evidence during the police investigation and used as exhibits in the trial. They were separated from the text and photographic portion of the collection for conservation and storage purposes. Included are pill vials, a shovel, two hoes, two rakes, a garden trowel, a knife, a makeup compact with "Brenda Trujillo" scratched on it, and a wallet.

    Related Materials

    CSH holds the the Sacramento County (Calif.) Coroner's Office records (CNTY0005), which contain material created and collected by Laura (Synhorst) Santos, the county's first deputy coroner, who worked on the Puente case. Santos' material makes up series 4 of CNTY0005 and includes handwritten notes from the crime scene and coroner's investigation, crime scene diagrams, victims' coroner's reports with handwritten notes, notes documenting the identification of the victims, newspaper clippings, and a presentation on the Puente case created by Santos and Detective John Cabrera.
    CSH also holds the John Cabrera collection (2010/027). Detective John Cabrera investigated Puente and the crime scene. His collection includes the rubber boots he wore while searching Puente's yard, a Puente prescription drug label, and a copy of a Sacramento Bee photograph showing Cabrera and Puente in front of her house during the investigation. The drug label and photo are housed with this collection (CNTY0004).