News

The house on F Street

Tour goers flank a mannequin of Dorothea Puente at the house on F Street. (Photo: Steve Martarano)

Has it really been 27 years since Nov. 11, 1988?

The tip from the police watch commander working that slow Veterans Day Friday came at about 2 p.m., when, as the daytime crime reporter for The Sacramento Union, I casually asked about a body that was found that morning under a bridge just off Highway 160.

“If you’re interested in bodies,” the watch commander said cryptically, “go out to 14th and F streets.”

I pulled up to the curb just a heartbeat ahead of a Channel 40 van. Unbeknownst to me, Sacramento’s most sensational serial murder case had started to unfold. I walked up to the excavated mound of dirt on the side of the yard and the homicide lieutenant there met me, and quickly said police had just found what they had been digging for all day: human remains. The officer pointed to a slab of concrete covering the side yard and said they would start digging it up the next day looking for more bodies.

Earlier this month, the couple played host to an estimated 600 people who toured the premises, inside and out, with the proceeds benefiting Sacramento’s Francis House Center for the homeless.

Almost three decades have passed since seven bodies were eventually pulled from the front and side yards of the F Street boardinghouse run by Dorothea Puente, who was eventually charged with nine murders and convicted for three after drugging boarders for their Social Security checks.  Puente died in jail in 2011. Meanwhile, the once nondescript Victorian at 1426 F St. remains Sacramento’s most iconic private residence.

The house has been bought and sold several times since Puente was sent off to jail, with each new owner trying unsuccessfully to stay under the radar. That all changed when married couple Barbara Holmes and Tom Williams bought the home five years ago and renovated it. They’ve willingly embraced its bloody heritage, even adding a heavy dose of humor to the story.

Earlier this month, the couple played host to an estimated 600 people who toured the premises, inside and out, with the proceeds benefiting Sacramento’s Francis House Center for the homeless.

The tour was tied into the Sacramento debut of a lighthearted – despite its horrifying subject – short documentary by talented Los Angeles filmmaker Nicholas Coles. “The House is Innocent” features the engaging Holmes and Williams, as well as police detective John Cabrera, whose career was altered in multiple ways due to the Puente case.

Police officers escorted a nicely dressed older woman in a red overcoat into the house we would learn later was Puente.

The 13-minute documentary (https://vimeo.com/135758911 ) wowed a roaring Sacramento audience at Memorial Auditorium as part of the Sacramento Music and Film Festival on Sept. 12, and was judged to be the top documentary at the festival, not just in the shorts category.  It still has another 25 festivals to play, and has already qualified for Academy Award consideration.

After chronicling the grisly story for the Union well into 1989, details of that first November afternoon became even more vivid after visiting the house again.

A crowd gathers near 14th and F.

A crowd gathers near 14th and F.

I can still remember a dozen or so cats skittering around the yard as the number of reporters showing up kept growing. At the Victorian next door, the manager – who would become a media star in the following days – calmly sat on his steps watching the digging and talking about the “terrible odor” he noticed since summer. Late in the afternoon before I went back to write my story, police officers escorted a nicely dressed older woman in a red overcoat into the house we would learn later was Puente. I also remember interviewing another resident who hurriedly left with possessions in hand, saying he was moving out, because he had seen Puente “doing a lot of digging” in the yard.

Beginning the next day, as Puente was allowed to leave the house and would go missing until late in the week, six more bodies would be pulled from the yard the following three days, as onlookers crowded F Street and it became a national story in that pre-CNN/24-hour cable news era.

Upstairs, where the tenants never ventured, are two creepy bedrooms – one where Puente slept and the other called the “death room.”

It’s staggering how much the news landscape in Sacramento has changed since 1988, when two competitive daily newspapers were driving coverage along with a host of aggressive news-based radio and television stations.

The Internet hadn’t been invented yet and personal computers weren’t close to being in every household. We didn’t have email, or cell phones, and fax and telephone answering machines were still considered cutting edge. With no Twitter or Facebook beckoning, being first on the scene that day didn’t get me much of an advantage, since the Union was a daily newspaper and my story wouldn’t be read until the next morning no matter how fast I got out there.

I kept just about everything I wrote from my years at the Union, including a thick folder of assorted information, entire newspapers, and assorted clips from the Puente case.  A few years ago I finally figured out what to do with all those clips. I created an archives web site (www.stevemartarano.com) and gave the boardinghouse murders its own dedicated page, where all of my original articles are posted.  After seeing the web site, Coles contacted me earlier this year, asking if I could send him high quality images of the Union’s tabloid covers to use in the documentary. That’s how I ended up in the film’s credits, and on the tour.

Doing their best to absolve the house of evil, the owners have placed signs throughout, such as “It’s Not That House Anymore!”

When it’s scheduled again, the tour is definitely worth a look.  It’s filled with touches that made the Puente case so captivating, such as fact sheets showing the various bars Puente frequented and favorite Puente recipes she made for boarders, taken from the 2004 book by Shane Bugbee, “Cooking With a Serial Killer.”

Homeowner Tom Williams, left, and “House is Innocent” filmmaker Nicholas Coles.

Homeowner Tom Williams, left, and “House is Innocent” filmmaker Nicholas Coles.

Upstairs, where the tenants never ventured, are two creepy bedrooms – one where Puente slept and the other called the “death room.” That’s where the landlady purportedly placed her dead victims on the bed in repose before burying them in the yard. Downstairs are three tiny bedrooms and a living room where Puente reportedly crammed up to 20 tenants at a time. Televisions were in virtually every room, running old video news coverage. On the repose room TV, looping was the original Puente police station interview with Cabrera from the day the first body was found.

Doing their best to absolve the house of evil, the owners have placed signs throughout, such as “It’s Not That House Anymore!” and “It Was that Crazy Bitch That Did it! Don’t Blame Me! (The House).” Lurking in the yard was a mannequin of Puente, which provided many great photo opportunities for tour goers. The mannequin, dressed in Puente’s trademark red overcoat, was the subject of news coverage last year when an earlier version was stolen.

The neighborhood has changed too, of course. A couple of new houses sit directly across the street where, in 1988, sat an empty lot. I remember police searching there when it was obvious there were no more bodies to be found in Puente’s yard and after a frenzied day of rumors and digging, nothing turned up.  The Corner Bar, one of Puente’s frequent hangouts at the corner of 15th and F, is now the popular barbeque joint, Sandra Dee’s.

The Puente story was so captivating, consuming, and interesting to people that I considered it an apex for my somewhat brief (for that era) 10-year newspaper career. I left newspapers and the Union almost exactly a year later when the paper was sold and a good portion of the staff was let go, starting a downward spiral that resulted in Sacramento turning into a one-newspaper town in 1994.

Now, 27 years later, it’s no surprise the Puente saga endures. It’s also a prime example of what every reporter understands about the news business: At any given moment, you might get a tip on a story on a sleepy Veteran’s Day, and it could turn out to be the tale of a lifetime, remembered forever.

Ed’s Note: Steve Martarano, a former newspaper reporter, is a Sacramento writer and government communications specialist.

 


  • Mason Trace

    They should do the same thing with the former Good Guys (now Dollar Tree) site down south. Maybe they can do like Old Sac does during Gold Rush Days and have re-enactments of the moments when the negotiations went all to shit and hostages got shot during the SWAT invasion. Hahaha! Kooky! Zany! We can donate the proceeds to charity to justify doing it!

    Oh wait. Those victims had families and survivors. They weren’t forgotten by society. Never mind.

    On a related note, yeah, I was on my bike at a stop light right at the corner in front of the Puente house a couple of weeks before the discoveries and it STANK. I was wondering if there was a garbage strike or something.

    • gorilla toes

      well, you should have done what was expected, “if you smell something, say something!”

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