Monday, April 28, 2008

Staged Murder - Similar to '80s Serial Killings

New York - Tonight marks the opening of the world premiere of "The Judas Tree," an unusual crime musical by Mary Fengar Gail. The inspiration for this play about a fictional Latina landlady was the real-life serial killer Dorothea Puente.

Puente (pictured below) committed her first murder when she killed her business partner Ruth Monroe in Sacramento, California, in 1982. She got away with that crime when the coroner ruled it a suicide but a month later she went to jail for drugging elderly people in order to steal from them. Although the judge who issued her sentences of five years in prison banned her from the company of the elderly, she started a correspondence with 77-year-old Everson Gillmouth while she was still behind bars. When she was released in 1985, Gillmouth picked her up. He planned to marry her. He gave her access to his checking account. He didn’t survive the year. His body was found in January 1986, beside the Sacramento River. His corpse lingered in cold storage until he was identified three years later. With this murder, Puente joined the list of the black widow killers.

With Gillmouth out of the way, Puente set up a business in a big Victorian house, in a neighborhood gone to seed, just two blocks from the governor’s mansion. She went into business renting rooms at cheap rates. Social workers soon counted on her for the placement of difficult homeless clients on their case management lists. Many of these individuals were elderly—in direct violation of Puente’s parole. But no one complained.

And no one was surprised when her lodgers suddenly disappeared. They were elderly or sickly or addicted to drugs. Puente displayed concern for their well-being and checked up on them when they took to their beds. No one realized that they were ill because they’d been poisoned by their kindly landlady.

People did notice the nasty smell. Puente claimed the odor was caused by dead rats under the floorboards, backed up sewer lines, and the fish emulsion she used to fertilize her well-maintained garden. Everyone in the neighborhood accepted her excuses. With each former tenant planted in the flower bed, Puente’s discretionary income increased allowing her to buy expensive perfumes and dresses and get a face lift. At the end, she was raking in $5000 a month in government checks written to the people she murdered.

When a missing persons report sent investigators to her boarding house on November 11, 1988, they discovered a disturbed patch of earth in the backyard. They found seven decomposing bodies in Puente’s beautiful backyard flower garden. She was ultimately charged with murdering nine of her boarders in order to steal their Social Security checks.

The jury hung on six of the charges but found her guilty on three of the homicide counts. She is now serving life without parole in the largest female prison in the country, Central California Women’s Facility near Chowchilla.

Her despicable crimes gave birth to a play that is part courtroom drama and part macabre romance--filled with Latin-influenced music and punctuated by dancing corpses. The New York Times calls it "a mythical play of operatic proportion," characterizing the world premiere as "a tale of magic, murder and seduction." MultiStages Theatre says it's a "multidisciplinary feast for the senses."

"The Judas Tree" runs from April 24 through May 11 at the CSV Cultural Teatro La Tea in Manhattan. Directed by Lorca Peress. For tickets and more information, visit here.


Leah said...

She looks like your everyday sweet old lady!

cherry6905 said...

I remember that story! I read a book on her, couldn't put it down!

Diane Fanning said...

She should look sweet, Leah, she spent a victim's good money to get that facelift.

Kathryn Casey said...

Doesn't this remind y'all of Arsenic and Old Lace?

Leah said...

LOL Dianne!

Donna Weaver said...

I thought the exact same thing, Kathryn! I love Cary Grant movies, and Arsenic and Old Lace is one of my favorites. This got me to thinking, though... In the movie the two old aunts had their brother, "Teddy" go to Panama to dig a new loch for the canal in the basement every time they offed one of their "gentlemen" I wonder how little old Dorothea managed to transport the bodies outside, dig a hole in her garden, and bury her victims all by herself. An awful lot of work for a little old lady. Or could she have had a "brother Teddy" of her own?

PJ in CA said...

These awful crimes happened *almost* in my backyard. I'm undecided on how I feel about these true, terrible events being made into a "feast for the senses." Hmmm. However, my interest in true crime has me curious about how it "plays out." (pun intended)