20 years after boardinghouse murders, elderly still being bilked by predators

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.

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