When honey-voiced Dorothea Mon-talvo Puente strolled away from a detective Nov. 11, it was only her latest escape from the clutches of an often bumbling officialdom that missed evidence of wrongdoing.
Puente fled to Los Angeles while police dug up seven bodies in the yard of her Victorian boardinghouse. Five days later, after a search in Nevada, California and Mexico, police arrested her and charged her with one count of murder.Prosecutors believe the victims were elderly tenants killed for their Social Security money, and said they plan to file additional murder charges against Puente, who in a TV interview admitted cashing checks but denied killing anyone.
Puente, 59, was known to state, federal, local and even private social services officials long before police unearthed the bodies.
In fact, she served 21/2 years in prison for drugging and robbing three elderly men she met in a bar, and is still on parole in a separate, 1980 case for forging a government check belonging to an elderly person.
A partial list of the authorities that had contact with Puente reads like a "Who's Who" of government bureaucracies: federal parole officials, police, welfare workers, the Social Security Administration, county mental health officials, health inspectors and social workers.
They all apparently missed evidence of wrongdoing at her boardinghouse.
- Federal parole officials assigned to Puente because of her 1978 conviction for forging a U.S. Treasury check belonging to an elderly person monitored her once a month but never discovered she had violated two key provisions of her parole - handling Treasury checks and associating with the elderly and disabled. She remains on parole through 1990. Charlie Varnon, Justice Department chief probation officer in Sacramento, told the San Francisco Examiner that agents never saw evidence indicating she had been running a boardinghouse, but he acknowledged they never looked further than her upstairs apartment.
- Accusations that Puente poisoned and robbed two elderly women led to an investigation that resulted in her conviction in 1982 on drug, forgery and theft charges in the case involving the men she met in a bar. She was sentenced to five years and was released in 1985. Despite her criminal record, however, county social workers had been referring elderly people to her boardinghouse. The county Health Department said Friday it is investigating whether social service and mental health workers should have been aware that Puente's boarders were at risk.
- Neighbors complained to health officials twice, in May and September, about a stench from the grounds of Puente's boardinghouse. Both times, authorities found nothing in the yard. The corpses had been in the ground as long as 10 months, forensic anthropologists said. Puente blamed the smell on a fish emulsion fertilizer. "She said it was the fertilizer," said neighbor Will McIntyre. Another neighbor recalled that "flies were always all over the place."
- Social Security personnel apparently never determined whether the addressees of government payments cashed their benefit checks, police said. Police said Puente had authority to cash some but not all of the checks linked to the investigation.
After the first body was discovered at her home Nov. 11, Puente was interviewed for several hours by Sacramento detectives. But she was allowed to walk to a nearby motel to meet a friend, and was not seen again until her arrest Wednesday in Los Angeles.
"We had no reason to hold her, there was no probable cause," said police spokesman Sgt. Bob Burns. "You have to have a justification to arrest somebody. It was the decision of the officer interviewing her that she should not be held."
There also was never any thought of placing her under surveillance, Burns said. Police Chief John Kearns called the decision not to follow her "a judgment call" and conceded that police made an error.
Meanwhile, investigators said Friday that plastic sheeting, bed covers and rolls of duct tape - items similar to those wrapped around seven bodies unearthed from the yard of Puente's boarding house - may help link her to the murders, investigators say.
Sacramento Coroner Charles Sim-mons confirmed at a news conference Friday that autopsies on four of the seven bodies showed that "each had some duct tape on it" and were wrapped in "sheeting material."
Some 51 items police confiscated from Puente's Victorian home turned boarding house may provide clues that could tie her to more than one murder. She currently is held without bail on a charge of killing one boarder, Alvin (Bert) Montoya.
In their search of the house, police also seized carpeting from an upstairs bedroom where one tenant is thought to have died and "numerous bottles of prescription pills."
The coroner also disclosed that police have cut from 25 to 16 the number of tenants believed to have lived at Puente's house.
"We are now trying to find out where they are," Simmons said. "Those that can't be found will be prime candidates for the unfortunate list of victims."