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The Shadow Keeper: Reflecting on the Dorothea Puente Case 30 Years Later

SACRAMENTO -- To many, she was a gentle woman who cared for the elderly and disabled. But Dorothea Puente, beneath the surface, was a calculating criminal who poisoned her tenants, her business partner and her fiance.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Dorothea's Graveyard

"Never judge a book by its cover," retired Sacramento Police Detective John Cabrera said. "The contents might be what you'd never expected."

Cabrera was the lead investigator on Puente's case.

Puente lived in a charming Victorian home in Downtown Sacramento's Mansion Flats neighborhood.

"Flowers, vegetation, you know, greenery, shrubs," Cabrera said. "It was like, 'Wow, an oasis. In a neighborhood. But actually, it was a hellhole."

Puente ran a boarding house there in the 80's.

"What we stumbled on was actually a graveyard, And it was Dorothea's graveyard 1426 F Street," Cabrera told FOX40.

She lured people into her life and preyed on them. Her deception -- her scheming -- came to an end in November 1988, when Cabrera showed up and pulled the first bones from the earth in her yard.

"I feel bad not knowing what they suffered," Cabrera said.

Cabrera showed FOX40 dozens of photos from the investigation, captured during the long days he and his team spent digging in the yard.

Some of the images are too graphic to share, but they all show a glimpse beyond the crime scene tape -- the reality behind the facade on F Street.

"You can see what the kitchen looked like. I mean, there’s nothing inside the house that tells you, 'Oh my gosh, I've stumbled on this horror house,'" Cabrera said. "This house of horrors had this facade."

Puente took in the sick and the vulnerable -- tenants unable to get by on their own -- and cashed their social security checks.

Prosecutors later called those victims "shadow people" because they had no one. When they disappeared, no one noticed.

Mom is Mom

In 1982, Ruth Munroe died in Puente's house.

"Mom is mom and you can never replace her," Bill Clausen, Munroe's son, told FOX40.

Munroe was Puente's friend and business partner. She was a healthy woman in her late 50's, but quickly became sick after moving into the house on F Street.

For Clausen, the loss is still painful.

"It'll never go away," he said.

Even with Puente caught, convicted and dead, Clausen is still fighting for his mother, to carry on her memory and undo the story Puente spun.

"I want people to understand that she did not commit suicide," Clausen said. "She was murdered and she was murdered by Dorothea."

She is Unknowable

Thirty years later, there are still questions about Puente -- who she really was, if she acted alone, if there were more victims.

"I consider Dorothea an enigma," journalist Martin Kuz said.

Kuz hoped to answer some of those questions in 2008 during a series of interviews with Puente in prison.

"She almost comes across as the kindliest predator," Kuz told FOX40. "She is, at heart, unknowable."

After more than 12 hours of conversations, question after question, he began to ask more pointed questions at the end of his final visit.

"I asked how it felt to be known as a serial killer, to be known as someone who is reviled for what she had committed and she looked at me square in the eye and said, 'I don't give a shit what anyone else thinks,' and that was a moment where the room just suddenly felt still and cold," Kuz said.

Puente maintained her innocence until her death in 2011.

Long after her death, Clausen still feels no justice.

"She was an evil person," he said. "And she put up a front and she just conned a lot of people."

FOX40 has premiered Season 2 of our podcast, EXPOSED, which will focus on the Puente case. Listen on your preferred podcast platform, or stream it below.