October 30, 2012

Halloween near, but Puente's old house just a comfy home

It takes a certain kind of person to sleep comfortably each night in a room where a serial killer is believed to have drugged and murdered her victims.

It takes a certain kind of person to sleep comfortably each night in a room where a serial killer is believed to have drugged and murdered her victims.

Meet Barbara Holmes and Tom Williams.

For two years, they have been the proud owners of Sacramento's most notorious home: 1426 F St., the two-story Victorian in downtown's Mansion Flats neighborhood that served as the killing ground for Dorothea Puente.

Holmes and Williams don't seem spooked by that history. In fact, they've embraced it. Among the references to their home's dark past are signs hanging in the yard that warn "Trespassers will be drugged and buried in the yard" and "Keep out from under the grass."

"There's always somebody who will buy something," Holmes said, "and that's us."

In this season of ghosts and goblins, Williams and Holmes are living in a year-round relic of one of the city's most gruesome tales.

Puente ran a boardinghouse out of the home in the 1980s, taking in elderly and disabled tenants. In November 1988, tipped off by a suspicious social worker, Sacramento police questioned Puente in the disappearance of a 51-year-old mentally impaired homeless man she had taken in. That interrogation led officers to the backyard, where they would unearth the remains of seven bodies. Puente was later convicted of three counts of murder.

Williams and Holmes aren't afraid of ghosts, although they do say they've had one or two paranormal encounters since moving in. Those seemed to stop, however, after Puente died early last year in prison, of natural causes at age 82.

"I think they've moved on," Holmes said.

Today, the home looks nothing like the ragged boardinghouse where Puente did her ugly deeds three decades ago. Most of the yard is covered with slate tile and neat planter boxes; in the back of the yard stands a patio with plush furniture.

Inside, Williams and Holmes have hung pop art on the walls, installed granite countertops in the kitchen and refinished the hardwood floors. Mystery novels and James Bond figurines adorn the bookshelves.

Their bedroom – which the lead detective who investigated the Puente killings calls the "death room" – is a cozy room with a framed painting by the artist Fernando Botero hanging above the bed. It's bordered by a modern bathroom with tile floors.

And in the clearest indication of just how far they've gone to embrace their new home, Holmes has no problem with her 87-year-old mother living in the downstairs apartment where Puente boarders stayed before meeting their gruesome endings.

"We could bury her in the yard and nobody would be surprised," Williams joked of his mother in-law.

In all their remodeling, the couple have never found a link to Puente, despite dire warnings from John Cabrera.

"The mysterious thing is, one of the victims, we never found her head, hands or feet," said Cabrera, the retired Sacramento police detective who was lead investigator on the case. "I don't know whatever happened to them."

The only part of the house that gives Williams and Holmes the creeps is the rear stairwell, down which Puente likely dragged her victims. But even in that part of the house, the couple has placed a slice of humor: a sign reading "Slide, Thump, Slide, Thump, Slide, Thump," mimicking the noise of a body being pulled down the stairs.

For all the humorous touches they've made to the house, Williams and Holmes feel differently about the home's most famous owner.

"She truly was an evil criminal in the body of a little old lady," Williams said. "An awful, horrible person."

Holmes is a project manager for Kaiser Permanente who helps organize computer equipment at new hospital facilities. Williams, as he said, is his wife's "unpaid chauffeur" who has dabbled in mystery writing.

The couple moved downtown from the rural El Dorado County hamlet of Georgetown. They previously ran the Hidden Passage bookstore on Main Street in Placerville and, like many urban transplants, were drawn to Mansion Flats for its proximity to theaters and restaurants.

The fact that they could own a slice of ghoulish Sacramento history was a bonus.

They bought the house at auction for $226,000 in 2010, outbidding just one other contestant in a packed room. A quick Internet search before the auction had revealed what had happened in the home. Other potential buyers, they said, appeared turned off by the home's past.

All these years later, Cabrera is relieved the home has found caring owners.

"With what I saw there, I couldn't live there. You could put 50 coats of different paint on the house and it's still the same house," he said. "But I think they got a really nice piece of real estate. They have found a hole in that neighborhood and made it whole again."

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