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California Stage tells all about killer Dorothea Puente

Janis Stevens, right, portrays Sacramento serial killer Dorothea Puente in "Dorothea Puente Tells All."

It’s one of those long-accepted “truths” that you shall know them by their deeds. But like a lot of “truths,” it’s only part right. What if we don’t know all their deeds. Does that change things? And what about the “why” of their deeds?

Dorothea Puente Tells All,” a play commissioned by Ray Tatar and California Stage, was researched and written over three years by playwright Mark Loewenstern. It reveals some of the lesser-known actions of the Sacramento serial killer who perpetrated the infamous Nightmare on F Street in the 1980s. 

Starring the incomparable Janis Stevens and subtitled “An Evening with the Magnanimous, Distinguished and Noble Lady of Sacramento,” the play does not attempt to rehabilitate Puente’s reputation, but it does, in fact, suggest many of the ways the kind looking old lady got away with at least nine murders and the theft of thousands of dollars of benefit payments intended for her ailing and aging victims. It’s an indictment of a social system that too easily ignores or loses track of the old, the infirm and the emotionally challenged.

Stevens has built an enviable reputation portraying strong and influential women, including architect Julia Morgan (in “Becoming Julia Morgan”), Vivien Leigh (in “Vivien”), Katharine Hepburn (in “Kate: The Unexamined Life” ) and Isadora Duncan (in “Love Isadora”). “Dorothea” is not a one-woman show but it feels as if it could be. It is the fascinating character of Dorothea and the all-in performance by Stevens that compel the narrative. Seven other actors (Jose Saldana, Joel Mario Rickert, Erin Renfree, Phil Ryder, Catalina Serrano Bucheli, Leah Daugherty and Gaya Murthy), some in more than one role, portray the social workers, a parole officer, a detective, and victims of the killer. They are fine — some are more fine than others — but they mostly feel like window-dressing when what we really want is to peer inside.

Dorothea Puente was disturbed, to be sure, but she was — and is — fascinating. Tatar is correct that her story is important and that there is much to be learned from it.

Puente was not Latina, or Hispanic, as people of that ethnicity were called then. She was born Dorothea Helen Gray in Redlands, Ca. Both of her parents were alcoholic and she had a traumatic and abusive childhood.Her father died of tuberculosis when Dorothea was 8; her mother was a prostitute who died in a car accident  when Dorothea was 9. She was sent to an orphanage where she was sexually abused. 

In the 1960s, she spent 90 days in Sacramento County Jail for running a brothel, and after her arrest, spent another 90 days in jail for vagrancy. In 1966, she married Roberto Puente in Mexico City and, though the marriage only lasted a couple of years, she kept his last name and became a fixture in the Sacramento Hispanic community. She remarried again in 1975 to a violent alcoholic and the marriage lasted only a few months. It was then that she started hanging out in local bars looking for older men receiving retirement or disability benefits for which she forged their signatures to steal their money. She was convicted of treasury fraud but received only probation.

She worked as a nurse’s aide, caring for disabled and elderly people in private homes and then began managing boarding homes, eventually buying the house at 2100 F Street where the bodies of her victims were eventually discovered. The terms of her probation forbade her from running or owning boarding houses, and it was the violation of this parole that eventually got her caught — that and the concern of two social workers who took a special interest in one mentally challenged man they had placed with Puente. Social services liked to put men into Puente’s care because she took the “difficult” cases. But it was easy to forget about those placements once made because of the continual addition of clients for social services.

The play illustrates this quite well. Old people, sick people, marginal people are easy to place and forget. The clients are getting their money, the caretaker is getting paid (and then some), so it’s all good, right? Unless you have someone like Dorothea Puente in the mix.

Puente was not the “usual” serial killer. Most are not women but perhaps more importantly, most seem to kill for the thrill or enjoyment of it. She did not. She was a narcissistic personality who seemed to kill for what it could do to enhance her status and her image f herself. Much of the money she stole was given to religious charities, which gave her cache within the Hispanic community. She funded scholarships and donated to politicians and political activists.

These are the sorts of things Puente reveals as she “tells all.” They confirm, in satirical fashion, the gist of the play’s subtitle about a magnanimous, distinguished and noble lady. This is how she saw herself. It’s warped — and evil — and that’s an added dimension to the woman generally dismissed as just “The Death House Landlady.”

“Dorothea Puente Tells All” was sold out before the production even opened. That is unprecedented in local theater and is a testament to the allure of its subject. She would be proud. The production cannot be extended at this time (it runs through Feb. 23) but there are plans to bring it back. Occasional no-shows may mean a chance to grab a seat right at show time (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2), but the chances are admittedly slim of that happening.  

For more info, go to calstage.org.

Photo courtesy of California Stage

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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