People v. Elizabeth Duncan

People v. Elizabeth Duncan (Murder)

A mother-in-law’s murder for hire scheme results in death penalty for all three participants

On December 21, 1958, Elizabeth “Ma” Duncan hired Lewis Estrada Moya and Augustine Baldonado to murder her daughter-in-law, Olga Duncan. Moya and Baldonado kidnapped and buried her alive in a shallow grave along Highway 150 in Ventura County. All three individual were subsequently apprehended, convicted of murder, and executed for this heinous crime. This was a spectacular trial which drew national attention and became known as “The Ma Duncan Case.” Elizabeth Duncan was the first female from Ventura County to be executed in the gas chamber.

Four decades before the O.J. Simpson trial, Ventura County had its own version of the Trial of the Century: The Duncan murder case.

Newsweek Magazine – in language that might have been used to review a Shakespearean play – said this about Elizabeth “Ma” Duncan hiring two men to murder her pregnant daughter-in-law:

The story out of Ventura, California was cast by the police in the true mold of classical tragedy – in modern dress. A story of the bitterest passion, of murder most foul, of the innocent slain. It was a triangle – but not the modern kind: Here was a mother, a son, and a brand-new bride.

What made the case unique? The hired killers testified against Mrs. Duncan without commitment the District Attorney would not seek the death penalty in exchange for their testimony.

In fact, all three received the death penalty and were executed. Of course, today’s appellate courts would likely reverse a case in which a defense attorney failed to seek sentencing concessions in exchange for testimony.

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In one of life’s ironies, Elizabeth Duncan, 54, introduced her attorney son, Frank, to the victim, Olga Kupezyk. Olga, a nurse who had just moved to Santa Barbara from Canada, befriended Mrs. Duncan while she was in Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital. Frank Duncan courted and married Olga.

Frank, 30, living with his mother, did not tell her of the marriage which took place in June of 1958. Perhaps one reason for his concealing the marriage was that his mother, labeled “Ma Duncan” by the national and international press, had been in the hospital for treatment for an overdose of sleeping tablets. This suicide attempt had been prompted by Mrs. Duncan’s fear that she was losing Frank. A more sinister reason for not letting his mother know about the marriage became obvious. When Ma Duncan learned of the marriage a month later, she acted like a madwoman according to Olga in a letter to her father:

She came to the apartment and threatened to kill me and Frank … she cut up Frank’s birth certificate and all of his baby pictures … she has not allowed Frank to live here. It was tragic at first, but now I don’t even want him. Life is short and I want to enjoy the rest of it.

Olga had only five months left and they were not enjoyable ones. During those months Ma Duncan not only harassed the new bride, she also shopped for someone to kill her.

During those months, Ma Duncan did more than offer money to several individuals to kill Olga, she also enticed one of Frank’s clients to pose as Frank. With this man in tow, she passed herself off as Olga to get the marriage annulled. After learning about the annulment, Frank sided with his mother.

Other reasons for Olga’s saying she didn’t even want Frank were hinted at in Time magazine. Time described Frank as “an owl-eyed 30-year-old lawyer who held hands with his mother in public, talked with a lisp, was known around the courthouse as “Wicked Wascal Wabbit.” The District Attorney’s investigation revealed chatter suggesting not only was Frank known as a “mommy’s boy,” several close friends suspected an incestuous relationship between him and his mother.

After shopping several weeks for a killer, Ma Duncan met with two Ventura County men who agreed to kill Olga for $6,000 (which Mrs. Duncan never paid because she had less than five hundred dollars in the bank). One night in late 1958, Augustine Baldonado and Luis Moya lured Olga from her Santa Barbara apartment by telling her that Frank was passed out drunk in their car. While she bent into the car to help Frank out, they struck her in the head with a gun and pushed her into the car.

While one of them drove toward Ventura County, the other beat her with a gun so severely the gun became inoperative. After beating her with the gun for several minutes during which she refused to die, they buried Olga who, by this time, was seven months pregnant.

Baldonado and Moya testified that she fought for her life and that had they known she was pregnant they would not have agreed to kill her. Their description of her attempt to hold onto life was wrenching-made more so by the testimony of a pathologist during the trial that he could not rule out Olga’s being alive when she was buried in a shallow Ventura County grave.

Because the back seat was blood soaked, Moya and Baldonado ripped all of the upholstery off the springs and doors before returning the rented car.

At this point the case takes on an even more bizarre turn. Because she did not have the money to pay Moya and Baldonado and feared that they might kill her, Ma Duncan went to the Santa Barbara Police Department. After Moya and Baldonado were picked up for questioning about extortion, Ma Duncan, at the police station, said that she thought it was just a misunderstanding and that she didn’t wish to press charges.

Police investigation into Olga’s disappearance turned up information about the blood-soaked car which had been rented the night Olga was abducted. Moya and Baldonado were arrested for murder. After confessing to a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective, they led authorities to Olga’s grave.

“We’ll show these hicks how to put on a trial,” renown defense attorney S. Ward Sullivan was overheard to tell his entourage when they dined at the Pierpont Inn on the eve of the trial.

Sullivan, dapper and successful, had reason to be optimistic. He told the media that he had defended 77 people charged with murder. “Not one of them has gone to the gas chamber.” It was a boast he would not be able to repeat without deviating from the truth.

Roy Gustafson, the brilliant District Attorney who later ascended to the appellate court, surprised Sullivan with his encyclopedic knowledge of law and his talent as a trial attorney. Gustafson’s mastery became more evident to Sullivan during the District Attorney’s scathing cross-examination of the defendant. Ma Duncan became so angry at the D.A, that, at one point, she rose from the witness chair in a threatening gesture.

Before the trial was over, Sullivan told several people that he had underestimated Gustafson. “I’m up against a formidable lawyer,” he said.

In 1959, capital cases were tripartite: guilt phase, insanity, penalty. During the guilt phase, the District Attorney called a number of witnesses who testified that Ma Duncan had asked them to kill Olga.

Defense attempts to paint Olga as a less than honorable woman failed. Testimony of those who knew her painted a picture the defense could not counter-that of an attractive, demure, Mother-Teresa-like person who had gone into nursing to help others and whose life, before she met Frank Duncan, had been almost saintly.

Ma Duncan served as counterpoint to Olga’s altruism. To dramatize this contrast, the District Attorney presented evidence of Ma Duncan’s self-centeredness and lack of truthfulness. One example might serve to show her eccentricity, her audacity, her failure to tell the truth. When she had 18 dollars in her checking account, she wrote a fifty thousand dollar check as down payment on a half million dollar apartment house in San Francisco. Mrs. Duncan had what many women only dream of-a flexible birth date, ranging from 1900 to 1913. She took 13 years off her age when she married one of her son’s law school classmates.

In one respect the Duncan case ended when Ma Duncan and the men she hired were executed. In another sense, the case-at least in altered and ended lives-will never end.

Years after Ma Duncan’s execution, one of the trial jurors began to attend the same church as the author, a retired District Attorney Investigator. Of Ma Duncan, she said: “Mrs. Duncan was evil incarnate. There isn’t a day I haven’t thought of her and the two lives she took-one of them her own grandchild.”