On November 11, 1988, police unearth a corpse buried in the lawn of Dorothea Puente's home in Sacramento, California. Puente operated a residential home for elderly people, and an investigation led to the discovery of six more bodies buried on her property.
Puente was a diagnosed schizophrenic who had already been in trouble with the law. She had previously served prison time for check forgery, as well as drugging and robbing people she met in bars. After her release, she opened a boarding house for elderly people. Beginning in 1986, social worker Peggy Nickerson sent 19 clients to Puente's home. When some of the residents mysteriously disappeared, Nickerson grew suspicious. Puente's neighbors, who reported the smell of rotting flesh emanating from her vicinity, validated Nickerson's concern. Although all the buried bodies were found to contain traces of a sedative, the coroner was never able to identify an exact cause of death. During a trial that lasted five months and included 3,100 exhibits, prosecutors were able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Puente had murdered her boarders, most likely to collect their Social Security checks. Though she was formally charged with nine counts of murder and convicted on three, authorities suspected that Puente might have been responsible for as many as 25 deaths. After several days of deliberations, the jury was deadlocked 7–5 for life. The judge, Michael J. Virga, declared a mistrial when the jury said further deliberations would not change their minds. Under the law, Puente received life without the possibility of parole. For the rest of her life she maintained her innocence and insisted all her tenants had died of natural causes. Puente died on March 27, 2011 in prison at the age of 82 from natural causes.
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