A Killer’s Instincts

California Stage’s brand-new play explores the cunning—and conning—mind of Sacramento serial murderer Dorothea Puente
Puentemug
Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History
Serial killer Dorothea Puente’s 1988 mug shot

OOne of New York playwright Mark Loewenstern’s favorite lines from his new drama about Sacramento’s infamous murderer Dorothea Puente reveals the psychology of a good swindler, which would be another one of the felonious hats she wore: “There are two kinds of bullshit artists. There’s the kind who fools anybody that they can fool. And then there’s the kind that does all that and fools themselves too.”

In most true-crime narratives about serial killers, the plot revolves around the brutality of the homicides and all of the bone-chilling premeditation. But in the California Stage production of Dorothea Puente Tells All! An Evening with the Magnanimous, Distinguished and Noble Lady of Sacramento, opening Jan. 24, the spotlight is on the cons executed by the late murderess (who was clearly the latter kind of BS artist). Under the guise of a trusted caretaker and pillar of the community, she cashed the social security checks of the elderly and mentally disabled lodgers—her eventual victims—at her downtown Sacramento boardinghouse. Puente, as played by Drama Desk Award-nominated actress Janis Stevens, frequently breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience her side, albeit delusional, of the fascinating saga that gripped the nation three decades ago. Full of speculative insight into Puente’s daring, drugging dupes (she liked her boarders sedated, er, easygoing) and shocking displays of criminal narcissism (among many other tales of delusion, her attention-deprived mind conjured up a stint as a Radio City Rockette and a chummy relationship with Clint Eastwood), the character delivers monologues with the elan of a brazen but unreliable narrator for whom reality is only a slight inconvenience.

“She strives to come off as innocent in the play, but then again, she would,” says Loewenstern, who researched and wrote the drama over the last two years, visiting the capital city in weeklong stints to dig through archives at the Center for Sacramento History and bend an elbow at Puente’s favorite haunts, like the Zebra Club in midtown and Henry’s Lounge downtown, to get a feel for the barfly alter ego of this seemingly upstanding citizen. He also interviewed locals with unique knowledge about the case, including social worker Judy Moise, who pivotally raised the first red flag about the grim goings-on at 1426 F Street. But when asked if he would have conferred with Puente, a diagnosed schizophrenic, on the project were she still alive—she died in 2011 at the age of 82 while in custody at the Central California Women’s Correctional Facility—Loewenstern says, “The problem with Dorothea was that she couldn’t be trusted to answer questions factually.”

Puente’s former boardinghouse at 1426 F Street, where she allegedly murdered nine of her tenants (Photo by Jeremy Sykes)

Puente’s grandmotherly presence, complete with an angelic white coif and disarmingly oversized spectacles, belied a destructive, but also deeply wounded, soul. An abusive and neglected childhood had established a dire need for recognition and acceptance later in life, and Puente craved the praise that the community and such high-profile politicos as Jerry Brown and George Deukmejian lavished upon her for her philanthropic work with Sacramento’s Latino population and her benevolence in caring for the disabled. But despite Puente’s unwavering assertion of innocence (she did, however, cop to the check-cashing racket), the Death House Landlady (as she was dubbed) was found guilty of three out of nine murder charges in 1993 and sentenced to life without parole.

Read Sactown's 2009 story "The Life and Deaths of Dorothea Puente," featuring interviews with the serial killer from jail

Other characters in Dorothea Puente Tells All! include Moise (Loewenstern gives the social worker’s character the alias Pat Morris) and Charles Willgues, who met Puente at a bar in Los Angeles while she was on the lam—the fugitive fled Sacramento as the police were digging up bodies in the backyard of her boardinghouse. Instead of being ensnared into her deadly scheme, the retired carpenter recognized her from the news and tipped off the police to her motel hideout. Loewenstern also included a composite character of the Latina girls that Puente took under her wing, a nurturing act that involved everything from an all-access pass to her clothes and jewelry to paying for college—the kind of parental devotion that the murderess lacked from her alcoholic mother. As such, the role of Ximena provides opportunities for the audience to witness glimmers of grace and generosity from the “benefactor,” a refreshing counterpoint to Puente’s unflagging distortions and remorselessness.

“If you’re looking for a kernel of authenticity in Dorothea, in real life and in the play, that’s where I’d look,” says Loewenstern, who also admits that developing Puente’s character was the easiest part of the whole process, having drawn from his own regrettable run-ins with severe narcissists. “I have all of their mindf–ks figured out, excuse my language,” he says.

California Stage artistic director Ray Tatar, who commissioned the play, well remembers the day in November 1988 when the police unearthed the mummified bodies of Puente’s victims. At the time, he was working at the California Arts Council just a few blocks away. As he was driving home, he rubbernecked what would arguably become Sacramento’s most famous crime scene, which planted the seed for this forthcoming production. Despite the popularity of true crime, Tatar’s interest in Puente’s story is rooted not so much in its ripped-from-the-headlines allure or tell-all intrigue, or even in its local connection, but rather in its significance to the human experience.

“I like plays that go beyond the theater to have an impact on our thinking in everyday life,” he says. “With Dorothea, we wonder how the crimes could have happened. What were her motivations?” By exploring Puente’s deep dark persuasions, Loewenstern believes that the audience will walk away having observed the persona of a public enemy. “Serial killers are out there, among us,” says the playwright. “We want to recognize them because they are predators. And like it or not, we are their prey.” S

Dorothea Puente Tells All! will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. from Jan. 24 to Feb. 23 at the R25 Arts Complex (2509 R Street). Tickets are $25. For more information, visit calstage.org or call 916-451-5822.