“The Bone Garden,” a book by former Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney William P. Wood, details perhaps the most macabre murders in Sacramento’s history.
Turner Publishing Company recently released the book again two decades after the first publication of the work, which offers an insider’s look at the murders committed by Dorothea Montalvo Puente, who ran a boardinghouse in midtown.
Puente began her mayhem in 1980. It was then-deputy district attorney Wood who sent her to prison for three years for drugging her elderly tenants and stealing checks from them.
She was back in business by 1985, offering rooms to elderly and disabled residents, some of whom she met while cruising bars. Puente, white-haired and smooth-talking, killed her frail and elderly tenants before burying them in the yard of her F Street boardinghouse.
Puente was convicted of murdering three of her tenants, and sentenced to life in prison. A jury deadlocked on six other counts. She died in prison in 2011.
In his book, Wood traces Puente’s early life through her court conviction in Monterey, where the trial was moved because of the intense interest in Sacramento. Wood, a lawyer for the state, lives in Sacramento and continues to write, but prefers to pen fiction over nonfiction. His most recent novel is “Sudden Impact.” Two of his previous books, “Rampage” and “Broken Trust,” were made into movies.
Wood answered a few questions about Puente, her conviction and his writing:
You write that in the late 1970s, Puente was a doyenne of Sacramento’s Latino culture, organizing events and giving money. She bought a table at a fundraiser for Mervyn Dymally. She also posed for pictures with then-Attorney General George Deukmejian and Bishop Francis Quinn. How do you explain her early embrace of the establishment and her later life as a serial killer?
Besides being an evil individual she was always a fairly smart one. Her delusions about a movie career, glamour and so on were fed by her greed. She needed money to live up to these delusions. At first she got it by simply drugging victims. Then she needed a steady supply, like Social Security checks, so she turned to murder. Her North Star was always herself.
You write that she moved like a shark through older, weaker people in Sacramento. She hung out in midtown bars, trolling for victims. Could killings such as these happen again on the scale perpetrated by Puente?
We’d all like to think it couldn’t happen again. But as long as there are marginal people, overworked social agencies, and the general hustle and bustle of our lives, the ingredients are there. It likely only takes a toxic and ferocious personality like Puente for it to happen again.
You testified at her murder trial while researching this book. What was that like?
Bizarre. I was taking notes as witnesses testified, then I was called to the stand. I put down my notebook, got grilled by Puente’s defense lawyers, and after that was done, went back to my seat, picked up my notebook and tried to jot down what it was like to watch a case and then be part of it. It was a little disorienting.
Is there a real hero in the Puente case?
Several. Mildred Ballenger, a dedicated social worker who spotted Puente early on, and John O’Mara who doggedly prosecuted her.
You have not returned to nonfiction book writing. Why not?
In novels, you don’t know how things are going to turn out, the characters have their own dramatic lives, and it’s much more fun than nonfiction. In “The Bone Garden,” every statement had to have a source or two at least. And I knew the ending. In my novels, it’s always a surprise.
You are an accomplished writer. Other lawyers have also turned to literature with success, particularly Scott Turow and John Grisham. What makes some members of the legal profession good writers and others not?
I think a trial lawyer is probably going to be a better writer than a non-trial lawyer . But writing is so mysterious, beyond the diligence of just turning out a quota of words a day. My latest novel, “Sudden Impact,” is a product of all of those trials and all of the experiences I had here in Sacramento with judges and cops and criminals.
When do you write? Morning, afternoon? How many times do you re-read your copy?
Morning. Get it out of the way. Afternoon if necessary and then when the novel is going, a sprint for days to finish. I think I touch every page about 20 or 30 times before the novel is done.
How has the reception been for “Sudden Impact”?
Very gratifying. It’s the story of lives changed in a split second when a respected judge accidentally runs down a hero cop one night and then has to cover it up, and the cops who try to find him. The story appealed to me because it could happen to any of us any time.