Takeback Tuesday: social workers and other heroes

[NOTE: corrections below, after my information was corrected. Thank heavens for copyeditors and experts…]

Mystery Writers of America, NorCal, had a fascinating program on Saturday with the owners of the house in which serial killer Dorothea Puente lived and did her awful work. 

We were joined by the homicide detective, the assistant DA, and the assistant coroner to talk about the case.

MWA member Robin Burcell; John Cabrera, the Sacramento Police Department detective who broke the case; William Wood, deputy DA and author of The Bone Garden; Laura Santos, deputy coroner on the investigation

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.


  1. Chris on April 4, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Well done, that lady.

  2. Dusty J Miller on April 4, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Thank you for featuring Judy Moise, a social worker who, like many others, kept asking questions and didn’t allow herself to get discouraged or silenced. There are so many front line workers like her who, against increasingly difficult conditions, keep on believing in the rights of our most disenfranchised and fragile. Before I retired, I worked with and consulted to many such service-giving heroes. They are so rarely appreciated.
    I’m excited to read your new collections of stories from people wrongly convicted and incarcerated.Maybe you or someone will do a collection about the people like Judy who keep their eyes on justice and who persist!

  3. Merrily Taylor on April 4, 2017 at 11:55 am

    Somehow I had totally missed this horrible story – thank God for Judy Moise, or who knows how long this woman would have gone on killing?
    When I was in library school years ago, I did a research paper on the status of various professions and how status is conferred. Not surprisingly, social work and librarianship (both professions dominated by women) were the two lowest-ranked and lowest paid professions. And this story is just one indication of what dedicated social workers contribute to the world!
    Teachers, too!

  4. Sandy Thurlow on April 4, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Nevertheless, she persisted!

  5. Bradley Harper on April 5, 2017 at 4:44 am

    Retired Army Physician, I had the opportunity to command. I had never had much interaction with social workers until I had to adjudicate some cases. Seeing the problems they face on a daily basis was humbling. That I had previously been mostly unaware of what they did was an indication of how well they did their job.
    Imagine a job where most people who come to see you are doing so against their will, because they were required to do so. I was taught a technique by one on how to communicate when there is low trust and high emotion. It served me well in subsequent commands. That is the world they work in on a daily basis. Tough job that, when done well, makes you invisible.
    My two cents,

  6. Ricky on July 23, 2021 at 2:38 pm

    Thank you Judy Moise for adding to the relevancy of the Social Work Profession!!!!

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