‘The House Is Innocent’

Director Nick Coles

In the 1980s, Sacramento was gripped by the saga of Dorothea Puente, an old lady serial killer. This is a short doc about the cute couple who took over her notorious yet historically protected home and made it theirs.


How did you learn about this story?

I’ve written a narrative film based on Dorothea Puente and in conducting research I wanted to see the house where her crimes occurred. I had read an article about Tom and Barbara buying the property, so I contacted the journalist who wrote the piece and he kindly introduced me to them. When I met Tom and Barbara they were instantly warm, charming, and funny. They even invited me in for a glass of wine and it was only 2 p.m.! It was then I knew I had to make a film about them.

Did you realize you’d struck gold when you met the couple owns it now?

Tom and Barbara both have a great sense of humor and really compliment each other so well. They are an inspiring couple and it’s their love story that really captured me. I mean, who buys a notorious murder home and takes delight in its macabre history!?! I don’t want to ruin the film — but when they revealed how they met I knew I was onto a good thing!!

Have you heard from other homeowners about similarly affected properties?

It seems every town or city has a home like 1426 F Street and it’s strange how these houses carry the stigma of a crime long after the perpetrator has gone to prison or passed away. Many of these houses still stand: I met someone whose mother lives in the house where Robert Durst lived when his first wife went missing and since, HBO’s The Jinx aired, she’s been disturbed by people wanting to gawk. It’s really affected her standard of living, so it’s no wonder a lot of these places are torn down.

Whatever happened to the old lady?

Dorothea Puente died in prison in 2011. She was 82. It was her obituary that piqued my interest in her and her wicked, true life “Arsenic and Old Lace” story.

She was person who lived a life of extremes. On the one hand she was attending political fundraisers, donating money to Hispanic causes, and even danced with the governor at the time (and our current one) Jerry Brown. On the other hand she was murdering the tenants of the boarding house she ran, burying their bodies in her backyard, and cashing their social security to fund her extravagant lifestyle. Until the very end she maintained her innocence, but that didn’t stop her from publishing a cookbook while in prison titled “Cooking with a Serial Killer.”

How is the couple doing today?

Tom and Barbara are doing great. They love the attention “The House is Innocent” has received and have travelled across the county visiting film festivals. (They’ll be present at the screening in Santa Barbara.) Tom especially loves the attention. Recently they opened up the house for another tour and over 600 people attended. All proceeds raised from the house tour were donated to a local charity that supports homeless people. Tom and Barbara love that the story of Dorothea Puente has come full circle: that her house and infamy is now being used to raise funds for the very types of people she once preyed on.

Any ghost stories now?

Sadly no ghost stories from Tom and Barbara — and their bedroom is the so called “death room!” Many visitors to the house have spoken of smelling a woman’s perfume (Dorothea had a penchant for the fine French stuff) and one young member of Tom’s family once exited the bathroom and asked why an old lady was in there talking to him!

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