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Landlady on trial for nine murders

DOROTHEA PUENTE does not look dangerous. She has curly white hair and owlish glasses, and sits in court taking spidery notes on a pad. One keeps expecting her to offer the jury toffees from a crumpled paper bag.

But, according to prosecutors, this twinkly pensioner is the worst female serial killer in the United States in recent times, the murderer of nine people, seven of whom were buried in the garden of her Victorian boarding-house in Sacramento, California.

They believe that far from being the archetypal granny that she appears, she was a Miss Marple gone mad who preyed upon the 'shadow people' - the mentally ill, homeless and elderly - whom she lured to her hostel as lodgers, drugged, and murdered in order to steal their welfare cheques.

At the opening day of her trial, the prosecution began the long task of piecing together the killings with an account that could have come from the 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace, were it not macabre and humourless. Ms Puente, 64, peered over the rim of her glasses at a police videotape showing her alleged victims being exhumed from her garden, with its tiny shed, rose bushes, and shrine to St Francis of Assisi.

Her face showed no emotion as one mud-caked decomposing body after another was brought to light. One was wrapped in a pink, fitted sheet and trussed up with string. Another was the headless corpse of an 80-year-old woman - one of five women she allegedly killed - buried just inside the wrought iron gates at the front of her wooden pastel-blue house.

The case of Ms Puente, who could face the death penalty, attracted so much publicity in Sacramento that it was moved to the superior court in Monterey, a Californian seaside resort, where the courts more commonly handle divorces and farming disputes. Curious souvenir-hunters had besieged the boarding-house, scooping up clots of dirt from a grave and stealing decorations from the gate.

Potential jurors in the area were thought to be too familiar with accounts that have emerged since her arrest - how she allegedly tried to use bleach, sacks of lime, cans of lemon-scented aerosol and even fish emulsion fertiliser to overcome the sickly stench rising from her flower beds. (The odour was so appalling that a neighbour called the health inspectors, but they did nothing.)

How a blood-soaked carpet was allegedly recovered from her house, an otherwise neat home where she kept glass bowls of sweets, a painting of the Last Supper, and a small library of romantic and mystery novels alongside an unusual tome, entitled The Smell of Evil. How Ms Puente, a bird-like woman of 5ft 2in, arranged for ex-convicts from a rehabilitation home to dig trenches in her garden, 'to lay pipes'.

Or how she went to Los Angeles while coroner's officials were digging up the bodies, escorted to freedom by an unsuspecting police officer, and was arrested after trying to pick up an elderly man. Prosecutors say she met him in a bar, and quizzed him closely about his welfare payments before offering him a place to live.

Ms Puente, who charged lodgers dollars 350 ( pounds 244) a month for board and two meals a day, was arrested in November 1988 after a social worker began investigating the whereabouts of Alvaro Montoya, a retarded schizophrenic. His remains were later recovered.

The prosecution has 300 potential witnesses but faces a significant problem. Investigators found traces of Dalmane, a sleeping pill, in all the bodies, but have established a cause of death in only one case - which was logged as a suicide. Ms Puente has admitted cashing welfare cheques and not reporting deaths, but denies nine counts of first-degree murder.

(Photograph omitted)