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Landlady Captured in Boardinghouse Murder Cases, Protests Innocence

November 18, 1988

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ A landlady suspected of killing seven elderly tenants at her boardinghouse to collect their Social Security money said Thursday she had cashed some checks but was no killer.

Dorothea Montalvo Puente, who vanished Saturday after police unearthed the first body buried in her yard, was arraigned Thursday but did not enter a plea.

Clad in an orange jail jumpsuit, Puente listened quietly as the charge of one murder count was read and nodded her head to indicate she wanted a public defender to represent her.

Assistant District Attorney Dan Kinter said additional murder charges and special circumstances would be filed. Special circumstances mean the penalty upon conviction could be death or life in prison without possibility of parole.

The case was continued until Dec. 15 and she was ordered held in jail without bail.

Puente, 59, was arrested at a downtown Los Angeles motel late Wednesday after a pensioner she had approached in a bar became suspicious.

Assistant public defenders Kevin Clymo and Peter Vlautin, surrounded by dozens of reporters outside the courtroom, questioned the propriety of an interview Puente gave KCRA-TV while the jet leased by the station was taking her and police back to Sacramento early Thursday.

″I have not killed anyone. I told you that. I have not killed anyone. The checks I cashed, yes,″ Puente told KCRA-TV reporter Mike Boyd.

Boyd said he didn’t ask specific questions about the murders, but only talked with Puente about general subjects. She also told Boyd, ″I used to be a very good person at one time.″

″It’s unheard of that a law enforcement agency would team up with a news organization to transport a person to jail,″ Vlautin said.

Puente was put on the jet with detectives and the television crew with ″no opportunity to talk to anybody who had her interests in mind,″ Clymo said. ″...At this time, I do not believe she was given an opportunity to talk to a lawyer (before the flight).″

″Our client denies killing anybody. The true facts will come out in the courtroom,″ said Vlautin. ″The Sacramento Police Department has enlisted the aid of the media to create a circus atmosphere.″

Police Chief John Kearns said he did not learn about the jet arrangements until Thursday morning.

The matronly ex-convict walked away from her boarding house Saturday morning, after the first body was unearthed by officers.

At that time, police said they didn’t have enough evidence to detain her. But after the other bodies were discovered, a murder warrant was issued for Puente and a search launched in California, Nevada and Mexico.

Police Chief John Kearns said she apparently went to West Sacramento on Saturday, then took a cab to Stockton, where she boarded a bus for Los Angeles ″and has probably been there since that time.″

Puente was arrested after CBS television told Los Angeles police that a viewer called to report meeting her in a downtown bar. She had given the man the name and room number of the motel where she was staying, and police arrested her there a few minutes later.

″The suspect had struck up a conversation with a male subject in a bar. They had been talking about Social Security,″ Kearns said. The two went to her nearby motel room and ″during the time he was talking to her, he realized it was the murder suspect he had seen on television.″

″She was real cool, real calm. It looked like she almost expected it,″ Sgt. Paul Von Lutzow said.

The man, Charles Willgues, 67, said he became suspicious after Puente, who called herself Donna Johanson, quizzed him about his Social Security benefits.

″She seemed so nice and sincere. She really was very believable,″ Willgues said. ″She told me she needed her shoe fixed, and if I knew where I could get that done. That’s how our conversation got started.″

Willgues, who receives Social Security and other disability benefits because of two strokes and other ailments, said Puente asked him where he got his money and then suggested that they share an apartment.

″She made a whole lot of talk about those checks,″ Willgues said.

″I kept looking at the woman. Something just didn’t seem right. I felt like I had seen her before,″ Willgues added, explaining why he called the television network.

Los Angeles police searched the motel room but found only three dresses, said Detective Jim Turner.

The arrest warrant charges Puente only with the murder of Alvaro Montoya, 52, a tenant missing from her boardinghouse, but police Sgt. Bob Burns earlier called Puente a suspect in the killing of all seven people buried in her yard. None of the seven have been positively identified.

The disappearance of Montoya, a mentally disabled transient, led a counselor with Volunteers of America to contact police, leading to the diggings.

Police believe Puente killed tenants of her eight-bedroom boardinghouse for their Social Security benefits. They have a list of two dozen people who are missing and who might have lived there at one time or another.

Puente has a criminal record dating to a 1948 conviction for forging checks. She served 2 1/2 years in state prison in the 1980s for drugging and robbing three men she met in a Sacramento bar, and she is still on parole for a separate federal forgery conviction.

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