Public Defenders Upset By ‘Circus Atmosphere’ Surrounding Case
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Attorneys for a landlady suspected of killing seven tenants for their Social Security checks accused the media and police of turning the case into a ″circus.″
Public defenders Peter Vlautin and Kevin Clymo criticized the Sacramento Police Department for transporting Dorothea Montalvo Puente from Los Angeles to Sacramento in a jet chartered by a television station and allowing a reporter to interview her.
″It’s unheard of that a law enforcement agency would team up with a news organization to transport a person to jail,″ Vlautin said.
Bill George, assignment editor for the station, KCRA-TV in Sacramento, said Thursday night that the reporter, Mike Boyd, was ″only doing a good job.″
″(He) was just being an aggressive journalist,″ said George. ″No deal was made with police. They needed a way to get back (to Sacramento) and we offered one.″
George added that there were no commercial flights at the time.
Puente, 59, who vanished early Saturday after police unearthed the first of seven bodies buried in her yard, was arrested in Los Angeles late Wednesday. She appeared briefly Thursday in Municipal Court here, but did not enter a plea to a single murder count.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Kinter told the judge that additional counts and special circumstances would be filed. Special circumstances means the penalty upon conviction could be death or life in prison without parole.
Puente was ordered held without bail. Vlautin and Clymo were appointed to represent her, and the case was continued to Dec. 15.
Police have not identified any of the bodies, but have a list of 25 people, mostly impoverished elderly people on Social Security, who have lived at Puente’s eight-bedroom rooming house and whose whereabouts are unknown.
During the television interview, Puente denied any involvement in the deaths.
″I have not killed anyone,″ Puente said on the plane. ″I told you that. I have not killed anyone. The checks I cashed, yes.″
The reporter said he didn’t ask her about the murders and she volunteered her denial. She also told him, ″I used to be a very good person at one time.″
Puente has a criminal record dating to a 1948 conviction for forging checks. She served 2 1/2 years in prison in the 1980s for drugging and robbing three men she met in a bar, and remains on parole for a separate federal forgery conviction.
Her attorneys said they were infuriated that Puente was interviewed without a lawyer being present.
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,″ said Clymo.
″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 at a news conference he did not learn about the jet arrangements until Thursday morning. The plane arrived in Sacramento just before 5 a.m.
″The matter is being looked into at the present time,″ he said.
Kearns said police did not have enough evidence to arrest Puente after the first body was found, but he admitted investigators erred in not following her. She apparently boarded a bus for Los Angeles, Kearns said.
She checked into a downtown motel there, using the name of Donna Johanson, police said. At a nearby bar she met Charles Willgues, a 67-year-old pensioner.
Willgues said he became suspicious after Puente quizzed him about his Social Security benefits. Willgues, who receives Social Security and other disability benefits, said Puente asked him where he got his money and then suggested that they share an apartment.
″She seemed nice and sincere. I found her very believable,″ he said.
But her face seemed familiar, and he remembered seeing her on a morning newscast on CBS. He called the network’s bureau, and eventually went there and identified a photo of Puente. Police were notified, and Puente was arrested at her motel.
Kearns said police would attempt to identify the bodies and would look at Puente’s bank accounts. At least one of the missing tenants had designated Puente as payee of his pension checks.
Several organizations had sent people to live at Puente’s home over the years, which she rented from the owners. Police went to the house a week ago when one social worker complained that she had not seen one of the men since August.
That man, Alvaro Montoya, a 52-year-old mentally disabled person, is the one Puente is accused of killing.