Online Exclusive

Tour Lets Calif. Detective Revisit Scene of Crimes

A bubbling fountain in the front yard of a Queen Anne-style home gave little hint of the house's macabre history.

"Five feet down from the front fountain, we found our last victim," said John Cabrera, pointing to the spot where a religious statue had once stood. It was where the severed body of Betty Palmer, 78, was uncovered in 1988.

Cabrera, a retired Sacramento police detective, was one of the first people Sunday who visited the infamous Dorothea Puente house, at 1426 F St. It was one of five featured homes on the Sacramento Old City Association Home Tour this year.

In the early 1980s, Puente had run a boarding home for the elderly and disabled at the Mansion Flats address. In November 1988, tipped off by a suspicious social worker, police had contacted Puente about a missing mentally disabled man, Bert Montoya, 52. The questioning led to the discovery of seven bodies -- four female, three male -- buried in the front and back yards. Puente was accused of drugging and killing her victims, and cashing in their Social Security checks. She was later convicted of three counts of murder, and died in prison in 2011 at the age of 82.

The house passed through a number of hands before it was finally sold in 2010 to current owners Barbara Holmes and Tom Williams.

Even though it has been 25 years, Cabrera, who was the lead homicide detective in the Puente case, can remember vividly details about the house.

Inside the house Sunday, he noticed that the new owners had taken down a wall that separated the dining room from the kitchen. "We found evidence on the table," he said, adding that the current dining table was in the same place as it was when Puente drugged her victims.

The first room to the right was Puente's bedroom, and the second room -- now the master bedroom -- was the "death room" where Puente had placed the corpses of her victims to let their bodily fluids drain. They were then wrapped in blankets, sheets and plastic, which Cabrera had found piled in the room.

"There was bookshelf and a day bed," he recalled of the "death room." "The room had two carpets and I pulled the carpet and saw there were stains. I knew right away it was body fluid."

A closet is now in the space where the old bathroom used to be, and the new bathroom -- with a shower curtain that has a police crime scene tape design -- now occupies what was once tenant John McCauley's room. McCauley had been arrested as Puente's accomplice but was later released.

The rear of the bathroom led to the back stairs, which Puente used to have the bodies carried down to the backyard. Now, the walls to the stairs are filled with images of a British call box, including a small replica hanging in the corner.

Asked whether Puente had help moving the bodies, Cabrera said she probably did, but it is still unknown who that might have been. He also said that Puente had hired parolees to dig holes in the yard for her, telling them that she needed to have plumbing done or new plants in the yard. "She was an ex-con hiring ex-cons," he said.

The lower level is now an apartment for the other of one of the owners. But back in 1988, the small rooms that divided up the space were where Puente's tenants lived.

In the front room on the lower level, Cabrera pointed to a closet door that was marked off-limits Sunday. "There's a trap door in there, and I used that to crawl underneath the house" (to check for additional bodies)," he said.

In the backyard, Cabrera noted the locations where bodies were found. Montoya's was fully clothed near the back fence, while another was unearthed close to what is now the step of a new shed. In 1988, yet another body was found underneath a shed.

For the tour, a female mannequin representing Puente, dressed in a red coat and holding a green shovel, stood guard at one corner of a patio deck. Cabrera said that another body was found underneath what is now the middle of the deck, and one was found in another spot that now is covered with artificial turf. One body was unearthed under what is now a short walkway.

Cabrera said he was impressed with the renovations to the house. "I'm very happy to be back and happy to see the changes," he said. "I love this house. It's happy. This veil of darkness has been lifted."

Another visitor to the house Sunday was Laura Santos, who as deputy coroner worked the Puente case. She brought her daughter Kara Synhorst, 37, and granddaughter, Azadeh Peigahi, 5, on the house tour. "I go on all these tours," she said. "It was a birthday present from my daughter."

Santos said she had never been inside the house, even when she was working on the Puente case, as she spent all of her time in the yard.

But after touring the house, she said it had a pleasant atmosphere. "They (the owners) have a good sense of humor."

Many of the visitors Sunday noticed the sly references to the Puente case in signs posted in various spots around the house and in the yard.

"I think you have to have a sense of humor if you're going to live in a place like this," said Susan Fishel, 65, of Sacramento.

But others were more impressed with the house itself.

"I think it's beautiful," said Joyce Anderson, 60, of Fairfield, who was curious about the backyard. "The renovation is great."

Karen Alkons, 55, of Sacramento was nonplussed by the house's past. "A house is just a house," she said.

Copyright 2013 - The Sacramento Bee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service