Some of my favorite events at Left Coast Crime 2016 were the Author-Reader Connections, where authors hosted readers for various activities. I participated in two: a lunch co-hosted with fellow Crooked Lane authors Leslie Karst and Chris Goff, and a Sunday morning “Bagels with Ellen Byron.” And that’s where things got really interesting.
I invited my conference roomie, prolific author Linda O. Johnston, to join me and we met our reader guests – Sandy Morse, Tom Williams, and his wife Barbara Holmes- in the Phoenix Hyatt Regency’s lobby outside Einstein’s Bagels.
(Clockwise, that’s Linda, me, Barbara, Tom, and Sandy in the light blue top)
We got our food and beverages, and then sat down for a coffee klatch. I blabbed about my mystery, Plantation Shudders, Linda shared about her forty-two books (that’s right, forty-two!), and Sandy revealed that this was her seventeenth Left Coast conference (that’s right, seventeenth!). Then came Tom and Barbara’s turn. “We live in a house that belonged to a serial killer,” Barbara said matter-of-factly as she sipped her coffee.
I’m being literal when I say that my mouth dropped open, as did Linda’s and Sandy’s. Then Tom added, “We were interviewed by a director who wants to make a movie about the murders, and he ended up making a short documentary about us.” Mind. Blown.
Okay, so here’s the gist of the story. Dorothea Puente was a proverbial sweet little old lady who ran a Sacramento boarding house out of her Victorian cottage. In 1988, police questioned her about the disappearance of a homeless man she had taken in. Turns out she was killing her tenants, burying them in her backyard and stealing their government assistance checks. She was arrested, convicted, and died in jail in 2011.
In 2010, Tom and Barbara bought her house.
After much renovation, they turned the place into a charming abode. But the house’s notoriety wouldn’t go away. So Tom put up a sign…..
“It stemmed from my amazement that almost everyone, from Media to passersby had a strange idea that the house was guilty of the murders along with Dorothea Puente,” he says. “I thought the house needed someone to speak up for it.”
One tongue-in-cheek sign led to another. Parking is tough in Tom and Barbara’s historic neighborhood, so to discourage people from blocking their driveway, they put a sign on the driveway gate that read “Please Do Not Park in Our Driveway, The Ghosts Like to Get Out to Terrorize the Neighborhood.” Tom shares that “there are a couple more signs strewn about, but the most popular and the one that really broke the somber mood was ‘Trespassers Will Be Drugged and Buried in the Yard’ instead of ‘Keep the Hell Out.’ The house is/was a town icon and residents believed it was public property. Putting up the sign worried me a bit since Dorothea drugged and buried her victims. But fortunately, Sacramento residents have a good sense of humor.”
Director Nick Coles was so amused by the Williams/Holmes’ approach to their unusual situation that it inspired him to make the aforementioned short documentary, The House is Innocent. The film is being screened at festivals all over the country, included New York’s renowned Tribeca Film Festival. Tom and Barbara plan to attend as many screenings as possible. “The Q+A’s are a good time to watch Barbara kick me when I say something completely stupid,” jokes Tom. (One can only hope that Barbara doesn’t get any ideas from her home’s predecessor and take things beyond kicking.)
“Fan” conferences and conventions are fun for us authors. For a few days, we kind of feel like rock stars. But I think that Linda would agree with me that as we listened to Tom and Barbara tell the tale of their “Serial Killer House,” we realized that we were the least interesting people at Bagels with Ellen Byron.