Shane Bugbee first became interested in serial killers when John Wayne Gacy was arrested in 1978. Ten years later Bugbee, who's 30, started writing to Gacy and other notorious murderers like Charles Manson and David Berkowitz in an effort to "find out more about their crimes." He even worked with Gacy on Gacy's book, A Question of Doubt. Though he says he has a "fondness" for all his pen pals, he was "getting bored with the serial killer type of thing" until he learned about Dorothea Puente. She's serving a life sentence, convicted in 1993 of poisoning three residents at her Sacramento boarding house, burying them in her backyard, and cashing their social security checks.
Bugbee, who runs the underground Michael Hunt Publications and the monthly tabloid Chicago at Night, was most interested in Puente's recipes. The books he'd read about the 70-year-old grandmother had as much to say about her abilities as a cook (which is how she is supposed to have poisoned her victims) as her crimes. He requested her tamale recipe in his first letter to her last year. The two began corresponding regularly and even scheduled a weekly phone call, but she took her time sending the recipe. "She would make me send her more stamps or a box of food," says Bugbee. "Then she'd send me ten recipes."
Since then, he says, he's sent her about $10 a month plus items like makeup, perfume, John Grisham books, and a subscription to Good Housekeeping. "She's like a kid," he says. "She'll see things in magazines and book ads and circle what she wants."
In return, Puente has sent Bugbee dozens of recipes and poems as well as drawings of shovels, bunnies, and frying pans. Though Bugbee lists her artwork for sale on the Chicago at Night Web site, he says he knows it's not all hers: "You can see where she signed over someone else's name." Then there's the fact that Puente has also done time for fraud and forgery. That doesn't faze Bugbee, who bought and sold over 100 paintings signed by Gacy that were actually made by a death-row assembly line. Bugbee suspects Puente's recipes--which include chipotle ketchup, Mexican chicken-gizzard soup, veggie burgers, and tamales prison-style--aren't all hers either. But he's still collected them in a new book, Cooking With Dorothea Puente. "I decided not to edit them," he says. "I wanted to make it a look into the mind of someone who murders."
The book also includes two excruciatingly bad love poems, which may be about Bugbee. "I think if you're in a prison cell you're going to create any kind of fantasy you can to get it out of your mind," he says. "When she calls me, she talks to me like we're an item or something."
There are also transcripts of phone calls in which Bugbee questions Puente about her crimes, her past, the origin of her recipes, and finally her family--at which point she usually hangs up. The information she does provide is inconsistent or bizarre; she's claimed she has twin daughters who were born on Halloween and died within a day of each other shortly after her conviction. "I think there are a lot of unanswered questions," says Bugbee. "I don't say she's innocent, but I don't think she did it alone. She was convicted of three murders, when there were seven bodies in her backyard. No one ever talked about how a 60-year-old woman moved three bodies and buried them in her backyard. I asked my wife to drag my dead weight ten feet and she couldn't do it, and she's a 25-year-old woman." Puente has appealed her conviction.
Bugbee claims Puente doesn't want compensation for the book. "She really liked caring for people and really liked doing this. I think she wants to show her motherly side again. She's getting old, and I think she wants to put something positive out there before she passes away." Nevertheless, he recently received a letter from a prosecutor stating that any profits from the sale of the book must be put into an account for victim restitution. Bugbee ignored it.
As for the recipes, Bugbee says the Mexican dishes he's tried are "awesome." He has no plans to travel to California to meet their creator, but he says if Puente were set free, "I'd let her live with me and let her cook." --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book cover, sample recipe, uncredited Dorothea Puente photo.