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."
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 from a 1948 conviction for forging checks. She served 21/2 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.
"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.
Puente checked into a downtown motel in Los Angeles, 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.