"20 years after boardinghouse murders, elderly still being bilked by predators"
Centre Daily Times
By M.S. ENKOJI
– McClatchy Newspapers
Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – With her snowy cap of hair and her soft–spoken demeanor, Dorothea Puente seemed the perfect landlady.
She fooled just about everyone.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Puente ran an unassuming boardinghouse on F Street, cooking up meals and buying televisions for residents who were elderly or mentally disabled.
They trusted her enough to sign their Social Security checks over to her. Except she was pocketing more of their money than she was entitled to.
It wasn't until police showed up on Nov. 11, 1988, that it became clear the macabre lengths to which Puente had gone to cover up her greed. Boarders who became difficult were poisoned, police said, and buried in the yard of Puente's midtown Victorian. Investigators eventually found seven bodies. At least one had been hacked with a saw.
The notorious case launched efforts to reform Social Security and oversight of board–and–care homes.
But 20 years later, the elderly and others who depend on Social Security still are being bilked by predators who abuse the "representative payee" program, advocates say. And state inspections of residential care homes have decreased in California, even as the number of homes has gone up.
"A Dorothea Puente case could happen tomorrow as far as I'm concerned," said Joan Parks, administrator of the Ombudsman Services of Northern California.
Social Security representatives say abuses are rare and that the representative payee program – in which a third party collects and cashes benefit checks for those unable to do so themselves – works well for most people.
About one out of every 20 adults who receives Social Security has signed over their finances to a representative payee.
Barbara Bailar, who led a three–year congressional committee investigation of Social Security that concluded in 2007, said, "It's still relatively easy for someone with bad intentions to abuse the system. Too many things can go wrong."
Puente, now 79, was charged with murdering nine people, including the four women and three men found buried in her yard. Police said her victims also included a man killed in 1986 and a woman in 1982, whose cases were reopened after the F Street discoveries.
She was convicted in 1993 of three of the killings. The jury was hung on the other six and on whether to sentence Puente to death. She was sent to prison for life without parole. Her final appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in February was denied.
Those were not the first elderly people Puente had swindled, and she shouldn't have been allowed to collect government payments on behalf of elderly clients under Social Security Administration regulations.
Long before the time detectives unearthed the bodies, Puente had served three years in state and federal prisons for grand theft involving a Social Security check, and she had an extensive record of check forgery and theft.
"The money was too good, and it was too easy," said John Cabrera, the lead police detective on Puente's mass murder case.
The state licenses residential care facilities – from large, corporate assisted–living facilities to mom–and–pop operations known as board–and–care homes. Local jurisdictions require licenses for rooming houses. Puente had none of them.
A convicted felon would not qualify for a state license to run a home providing care to dependent or elderly people, and Puente knew it. She claimed in her defense that her boarders died natural deaths and she buried them in the yard because she didn't want to draw the attention of regulators.
In late 1988, a Sacramento social worker who couldn't get straight answers about a client she'd placed in Puente's home called police.
Something was going on in Puente's yard, other residents and neighbors told police.
As detectives began to dig, Puente slipped on her red coat, unfurled a pink umbrella against the fall dampness and, with permission of police, stepped away for a cup of coffee. Or so she told them.
She headed to Los Angeles by bus.
She was arrested 60 hours later in a seedy Los Angeles motel after a man who'd struck up a conversation with her in a bar tipped off police.
The spectacular manhunt for Puente and gruesome discoveries in her yard drew international media attention.
Congress enacted reforms designed to curb the kind of financial abuse that was at the heart of the Puente case.
Social Security offices began asking prospective third–party payees about their personal finances and checked for criminal backgrounds. Federal rules were established allowing bonded and licensed community organizations to receive checks on behalf of Social Security recipients.
The Social Security Administration also developed an annual accounting form that representative payees must complete, declaring how they spend recipients' money.
"We are continually doing overviews of the representative payee program, making sure that our beneficiaries are taken care of and that all of the monies are spent for their care," said Dawn Heywood, a Social Security spokeswoman.
Bailar, who chaired the committee that studied the representative payee program, said there still are holes in the government's oversight.
Most third–party payees are honest, the committee found. More than 7 million Social Security recipients have representative payees. The committee estimated that only 7,000 to 14,000 payees, if audited, would be fraudulent.
But the committee determined that methods to detect abuse are unreliable. Social Security's annual accounting form "is so rudimentary it makes no sense," Bailar said.
"We looked at individual cases, and we found family members who were essentially in business together to collect these funds and bragged about how much money they got out of the system," said Bailar, a retired Census Bureau statistician.
The committee suggested a more detailed accounting form that would more likely reveal abuses. It also suggested that the agency experiment with debit cards that would create electronic records of spending.
"If they had a decent system in place, they would know what was going on," Bailar said. "Right now, there is no attempt to verify anything."
The most susceptible to abuse are those without family or ties to others, advocates say. Many of them rely on low–rent board–and–care homes like the one that Puente operated. Such homes are supposed to provide a place to live, meals and supervision, but not medical care.
The son of one of Puente's victims said the landlady administered her own home remedies to some of her boarders. She gave his mother, Ruth Munroe, creme de menthe to calm her nerves.
Because she wasn't licensed, Puente never was inspected by the state and was not on the radar screen of advocacy groups that also monitor care homes.
Parks of the Ombudsman Services said his agency received money to increase staff and perform more inspections after the Puente case. Ombudsman Services advocates for long–term care residents in 13 Northern California counties.
Lean state budgets have whittled away the extra funding they received, and the agency will reduce inspections of licensed residential care homes from every three weeks to once a year. They'll still respond to complaints.
Annual inspections by state licensing regulators of these care homes have decreased to once every five years, said Pat McGinnis, executive director of the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform in San Francisco.
"The problem is, it's worse today than it was 20 years ago," McGinnis said.
There are nearly 8,000 residential care facilities for the elderly and another 5,300 for the mentally disabled in the state, double the number from Puente's era, McGinnis said.
"So what happens?" she said. "You have to wait until someone files a complaint."
In the case of Puente, and the boarders who rented her rooms, the complaints came too late.
"Nobody ever asked her for a board–and–care license," said Cabrera, the detective who unraveled Puente's murderous scheme. "The plan was good until we showed up on her doorstep that day."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Phillip Reese contributed to this report.)