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The Couple Who Moved into the ‘Murder Home’

Oct 31, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Nick Coles

After the notorious female serial killer Dorothea Puente died in prison at the age of 82, the filmmaker Nick Coles stumbled upon her obituary. “I was hooked when I saw that she had published a cookbook from prison titled Cooking With a Serial Killer,” Coles recently told The Atlantic. “Who does that?”

Looking into her story further, Coles was horrified and intrigued in equal measure. Puente endured a tragic youth—she was orphaned as a young child, abused, and suffered from mental illness—which eventually gave way to a life of crime. Over time, her crimes escalated to murder. While running a boarding house in Sacramento, she killed seven of her tenants, buried them in her backyard, and cashed their Social Security checks. All the while, Puente masqueraded as a pillar of her community. She attended political fund-raisers, donated money to causes, and looked after the sick and homeless. Were it not for a dogged social worker who noticed a client missing, Puente might never have been caught; most of her victims were previously living on the streets.

“It was incredibly shocking,” remembers the former homicide detective John Cabrera in Coles’s short documentary, The House Is Innocent. “Seven people were buried in her yard. One of the victims [was found with] no head, hands, feet. It was incredible that this individual—this little old lady—could be responsible for all these deaths.”

Most of the time, the former residences of serial killers are destroyed after the perpetrator is convicted. Puente’s boarding home, however, is a designated historic site that cannot be demolished. Who would buy an infamous murderer’s house?

Tom and Barbara Holmes, it turns out. “I thought we could put a fresh coat of paint on and make people forget,” Barbara says in Coles’s film, a whimsical portrait of the couple and their fixer-upper, which the media named the “murder house.”

“This is a film about a location where horrific things took place,” Coles said. “It is a real house of horrors, and I didn’t want to diminish the pain and suffering Dorothea caused. But while this is dark and serious subject matter, Tom and Barbara have managed to deal with it in a sensitive way through humor.”

Barbara and Tom ultimately leaned into the macabre history of 1426 F Street. It is now an eccentric tourist attraction, adorned with dozens of signs and visual gags that Tom installed. (“I like the attention,” he admits in the film.)

Since Coles finished filming the documentary, Tom has added one more sign to the house. It reads: “The House Is Innocent.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.