Yesterday's Crimes: The Grave Robbers of Menlo Park

Today, Menlo Park is known as the home of Facebook and tech workers who can't quite afford Atherton, but in 1944 this tree-lined suburb was the site of one of the most bizarre crimes in Bay Area history.

Dolores Sifuentes of Redwood City was just 21 when she died from tuberculosis at the Canyon Sanatorium on Thursday, April 6, 1944. She was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Menlo Park on the following Saturday. Strangely, this was only the beginning of the young woman's ordeal.

[jump] Sifuentes' deathbed wish was for some of her high school English compositions to be buried with her. In her parents' crushing grief, however, they forgot to inter the notebooks in their daughter's coffin. Later that week, Sifuentes' mother was visited by her dead daughter in a dream where Dolores called for the notebooks from beyond the grave.

Jesse Sifuentes and Augustine Ochoa, Dolores' father and uncle, returned to the cemetery with the papers on the night of Thursday, April 13th. As they started to dig a small hole over Dolores' grave for the writings, the two men were shocked to find a pair of pallbearer's gloves under only a few layers of dirt. They dug a little farther and unearthed Dolores' pale, outstretched hand.

After the Menlo Park Police and San Mateo County Sheriffs arrived on the scene, the officers summoned 32-year-old Walter Perry, the 175-pound gravedigger who had buried Dolores only days before.

In what the San Mateo Times described as “an eerie night scene of rain and black clouds,” Perry unearthed Dolores' pale, naked body “on top of the redwood lining box that formed the sepulchre for her coffin.”

The blue-and-white silk dress that she had been buried in “was found mud-strained and bedraggled beside the box,” according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The police questioned Perry, who broke down and confessed to dragging Dolores from her casket and “ripping off her silken shroud.” Perry also admitted to slashing at the body with a pocketknife. The San Mateo Times reported grimly that “authorities were making a search for a part of the body which had been severed.”

“[Perry] was frequently in tears apparently from emotional instability rather than remorse for his act,” the Times added.

Law enforcement officials called the crime abnormal, and the press speculated that Perry was maddened by necrophilia or even lycanthropy, which the San Mateo Times described as “a variation of the 'werewolf' mania.” The Times reminded its readers that Perry violated Dolores' grave on the day of the full moon and that “moon phases have been declared by scientists to be associated with this type of crime.”

Two days later, the San Mateo Times reported that Perry had violated several other graves in Holy Cross Cemetery, stealing rings and other pieces of jewelry from the dead. He also had an accomplice. Cole M. Madison, 18, a discharged sailor from Mountain View had helped Perry carry out his desecration spree.

Both men were brought to trial in October 1944 after a lengthy stay in a state psychiatric hospital. Details of their trial or sentencing could not be found. According to the San Mateo Times, “alienists” declared “the ghouls” had the “mentalities of children.”

Dolores Sifuentes' body was reburied on April 14, 1944. “The same casket was used again, and a fresh burial dress was placed upon the body,” according to the San Mateo Times. “There were no services other than prayers at the graveside.”

“Yesterday's Crimes” revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past.

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