[NOTE: corrections below, after my information was corrected. Thank heavens for copyeditors and experts…]
We were joined by the homicide detective, the assistant DA, and the assistant coroner to talk about the case.
Puente was a sociopath with a troubled past, a con woman who went to prison for check fraud. She came out to up her game to include murder. She ran a boarding house. One of her residents was a developmentally disabled homeless man who had been referred by his social worker,
Judy Moise Mildred Ballenger. Some months later, Ballenger’s client failed to report in.
Now, the thing about Dorothea Puente was how plausible, how utterly believable she was.
This permed lady with the large Eighties glasses and fondness for girly dresses was a respected figure around Sacramento. Doctors did not hesitate to sign her prescriptions. She was allowed to continue on with her boarding house even though she’d been convicted of check fraud for fleecing elderly men of their social security checks. She ran a weekly Burrito Thursday for the neighborhood, she was a regular donor to various city causes, approved of by Archbishop Quinn—there’s a photograph of her dancing with then-governor Jerry Brown. Even the investigating detective allowed her to go off for coffee as he and his colleagues were digging up the yard.
Everyone believed her—except Mildred Ballenger. She, along with Judy Moise and Beth Valentine from the Volunteers for America, kept dropping by the house and asking questions about Bert Montoya, their missing person. Ballenger would drive past the house, hoping to spot her client. Instead, she noticed the number of yard projects that involved digging holes. When everyone in the house agreed that her client had gone off to family—family his social worker knew he did not have—she went to the police. Who didn’t believe her at first, thinking she was imagining things. All this for a disabled homeless man? But in the end, the detective she talked to agreed to go.
She told him to take a shovel.
They found seven bodies.
All because one overworked social worker and a pair of volunteers didn’t fall for an absolutely believable con woman.
These Tuesday blogs of mine are about the power of the individual. The refusal to take no. The unwillingness to believe plausible con artists.
Mildred Ballenger, Judy Moise, and Beth Valentine are today’s heroes.