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In the case of Dorothea Puente, who murdered at least 7 people that were tenants at her house so she could continue collecting their social security benefits, why was the discovery of a dead body buried in her backyard not enough to arrest or detain her?

Alerted by the social worker, a detective went to her house to search for a missing person. After getting permission, the detective started digging in the backyard and found human remains. He calls in other police and they begin digging as well.

In this NYPost Article, it says Dorothea Puente was allowed to go meet her nephew for coffee down the street because they had no evidence to hold her. They had already found 1 dead body in her backyard.

Due to there being no evidence to link her to the body, she was allowed to leave – but managed to flee all the way to Los Angeles, where she was found five days later when a man in a bar recognized her from TV.

She was on parole at the time the detectives found the dead body.

Why was a dead body insufficient evidence to arrest or hold her and what evidence would have allowed them to arrest her after finding the body?

EDIT

The question is why is a dead body not sufficient evidence and what would have to change to make it sufficient? For example, would a bloody shovel be enough (no bloody shovel was found)? Would finding a missing person's ID be sufficient?

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  • Perhaps nothing more than the detective's bias that a "sweet little old lady" couldn't have done it.
    – Ron Trunk
    Mar 14 at 13:17
  • @RonTrunk - That's an answer too. There was plenty of evidence to arrest her but the cop was fooled. Mar 14 at 14:14
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    You should state in the question what proof they had at that time that she was the killer.
    – user6726
    Mar 14 at 16:04
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    They you were clearly misspeaking when you said that 'the was plenty of evidence'. A dead body is not sufficient proof of guilt.
    – user6726
    Mar 14 at 16:12
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    You cannot arrest a person because you can imagine there being other evidence. Imaginary evidence does not constitute probable cause. Such an arrest would have been invalidated by the courts (the prosecutor would not even proceed, and the officer know this).
    – user6726
    Mar 14 at 16:19

3 Answers 3

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A dead body alone does not tell who did it

A cop can only arrest someone if it is clear that they either committed a criminal act the cop witnessed or for which there is clear and compelling evidence or if they have a warrant.

Finding a dead body on someone's land does on itself not give enough clear and convincing evidence to tell who did it. It might have been the old lady, it might have been the previous owner, someone random on the street or even a tenant who placed the corpse there.

It needs further evidence for the warrant, for example, "We found the body and the coroner says, the corpse is a year old and the owner was the only person that had access to the backyard in the last year."

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  • Would being on parole open any avenues to arrest? Mar 14 at 14:46
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    @sevensevens Being on parole is not evidence of murder.
    – Rick
    Mar 14 at 15:12
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    In the U.S. the criteria for arrest is "probable cause" to believe the person committed a criminal offense, not "clear," and it is not necessary that the cop witnessed the act.
    – feetwet
    Mar 14 at 18:43
  • @sevensevens her being on parole affects the consequences she faces when she is convicted of a crime. It does not change the standards by which evidence against her is judged. Your question actually contains the answer, but you seem to be overlooking it. I'll post an answer to point it out.
    – phoog
    Mar 14 at 21:16
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    @sevensevens Being on parole would allow an arrest for "technical violations" of parole conditions, but you have to know that the parolee as opposed to some other suspect violated some condition. Parole also waives most 4th Amendment rights to insist on probable cause for a search or seizure but that was moot once the body was found.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 14 at 21:39
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A dead body is not even evidence of a crime

People die all the time without any criminality involved. The remains in the back yard could be hundreds or thousands of years old and be of a person who died of a heart attack.

Even where it appears to a police office that the death was a result of foul play, the corpse does not indicate who did it. The current resident of the house may be involved or the burial may pre-date her residence.

Even if it happened while she lived there she may be totally uninvolved. Even if she is involved, what do you charge her with? If she assisted someone else to bury the body, that’s not murder.

Once police make an arrest, they start a process with very strict timelines and constraints of them and the prosecutor. If they make an arrest without probable cause, they have violated her civil rights even if she is subsequently convicted.

No doubt, as the investigation progressed, police would have enough evidence to effect an arrest for something but by just finding the body they weren’t there yet.

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    Burying a body in the back yard is a crime.
    – phoog
    Mar 14 at 21:37
  • FWIW, burying someone without reporting the death is probably also a crime (but the cop didn't know who buried the body), as is collecting social security benefits for a dead person, although the latter offense would be federal and require involvement of the U.S. Attorney for the relevant judicial district.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 14 at 21:37
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    @ohwilleke agreed, but just finding a hurried body is not evidence (on its own) of either of those crimes.
    – Dale M
    Mar 14 at 21:38
  • Also, civil rights aside, if she's arrested without probable cause, any evidence flowing from that arrest is likely to be inadmissible in court.
    – phoog
    Mar 14 at 21:45
  • @phoog: "Burying a body in the back yard is a crime." But is it a felony? Under California law, peace officers may make a warrantless arrest for a felony upon probable cause. But for misdemeanors, unless the crime was committed in the officer's presence, they need a warrant. California Penal Code sec. 836. Mar 15 at 5:59
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Why was a dead body insufficient evidence to arrest or hold her[?]

Because having a body buried in your back yard is not, by itself, evidence that you have committed a crime. Without evidence showing who killed the person and buried the body there, it could have been anyone.

and what evidence would have allowed them to arrest her after finding the body?

They did eventually arrest her, so whatever additional evidence they found allowed them to do it. Hypothetically, it could be anything from a videotape showing the killing or burial to a witness to forensic evidence such as DNA linking her to one of the crimes.

For example, would a bloody shovel be enough (no bloody shovel was found)?

A bloody shovel would not be enough unless the blood and/or other evidence associated with the shovel could establish a link between the shovel and one of the crimes and the suspect.

The article you quote answers the question, though not in great detail: she was allowed to leave because there was "no evidence to link her to the body." (Emphasis added)

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