MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) _ Did landlady Dorothea Puente just steal benefit checks from her sick, elderly boarders who later turned up dead? Or is she the nation's deadliest known woman serial killer?

It's up to a jury to decide.

The Monterey County jury was expected to begin deliberating the murder trial of the Sacramento boardinghouse operator Wednesday.

Puente, 64, was arrested in November 1988 after authorities dug up seven bodies buried in a side yard at Puente's Victorian house in the state capital. An eighth body was found in along the Sacramento River in 1985 but wasn't identified until the other bodies were discovered. Another died at Puente's board-and-care home in 1982, and the death was initially ruled a suicide.

A day after the buried bodies were discovered, Puente went to Los Angeles, where she was arrested a few days later. At the time, she was on parole after serving a prison term for drugging and stealing from her tenants.

Prosecutor John O'Mara said the victims, mostly elderly alcoholics and people with multiple ailments, all had traces of codeine or tranquilizers in their bodies. He said Puente poisoned them for money.

O'Mara entered evidence indicating Puente cashed Social Security and other government and pension checks meant for her boarders, after they had died.

But he conceded much of his evidence was indirect, and has called the Puente case ''the mother of all circumstantial evidence cases.''

Defense attorney Kevin Clymo said in closing arguments that Puente didn't kill anyone. But he conceded she stole from her tenants.

''Dorothea Montalvo Puente stole money. She had larceny in her heart,'' Clymo said. Looking at Puente to dramatize his argument, Clymo said, ''Dorothea Montalvo Puente, you're a thief.''

''That doesn't make her a killer,'' he told jurors.

Puente did not take the witness stand.

Her trial began in February after a judge granted a change of venue because of extensive news coverage in Sacramento. If convicted, she faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

The FBI said if she is convicted of all nine killings she would be the most prolific known woman serial killer in U.S. history. Aileen Wuornos was convicted of killing six men in 1989 and 1990, and allegedly admitted to a seventh killing, but the body was never found.