Dorothea Puente dies in prison

According to the Los Angeles Times, convicted serial killer Dorothea Puente died Sunday in prison at the age of 82.

Dorothea ran a boarding house for elderly and disabled people. As I recall from what I’ve read in books, they signed their Social Security and other benefit checks over to her, and she used the money to pay for their room and board, and took care of them. Except she was actually drugging them until they didn’t know what was going on, then spending the money on herself. She spent a few years in prison for this, then after her release she opened another boarding house. (Way to go, state of California, that you let her do that.)

Dorothea had learned her lesson from prison: in her second boarding house, rather than drugging the residents into oblivion, she murdered them and buried their bodies in her yard. Most of the residents didn’t have any family or anyone who visited them, so she got away with it for a long time. She was caught after a social worker reported one of the residents as a missing person.

If my memory serves me — maybe I’ll look this up when I get home — Dorothea sprinkled quicklime on the corpses to make them decompose faster. What she didn’t realize is that quicklime only works that way if you mix it with water. Dry quicklime, on the other hand, acts as a preservative, so when the police disinterred the murder victims they were in remarkably good shape. (Again, I’m not 100% sure whether this was Dorothea or another lady serial killer who also killed patients from her boarding home. There were a couple of these. But it’s a fun fact anyway.) [UPDATE: Yeah, I looked it up and it was indeed Dorothea. Courtesy of Harold Schechter’s The Serial Killer Files.]

Dorothea published a cookbook shortly before her death. Apparently she was a wonderful cook when she wasn’t mixing deadly chemicals into the food. Shane Bugbee, the man on the outside who helped her publish the book, says “Thea was a kindly old lady that, it sounds like, she got mixed up with the wrong kind of people.”

Whatever, Shane.

I hope that conditions are better now for vulnerable people in boarding homes, and that social workers or whoever check on their well-being regularly, so they don’t wind up buried in the backyard for months or years and never missed. But I’m not at all convinced that they are. Social services can’t even look after their foster children. Old and disabled people can’t have it much better.