Frank and Ma Duncan, Photograph courtesy derangedlacrimes.com
Mrs. Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan was a doting, hands-on mother. Maybe a little too hands-on, if the rumors that swirled around her were true.
Ma’s son, 29-year-old Frank, was the object of her affection—or, more accurately, the object of her obsession. Frank lived at home with Ma and they were a cozy twosome, which was exactly how she planned to keep it.
In 1957, Frank, who was an attorney, decided that it was time to strike out on his own. After all, he was a successful young man and he needed to untie his mother’s apron strings. Ma’s reaction to Frank’s declaration of independence was to pitch an unholy fit and then overdose on sleeping pills. If filial love and obligation weren’t sufficient to keep Frank at home, maybe a heavy dose of good old-fashioned guilt would do the trick. Ma had calculated correctly, and Frank returned to her side, at least for the period of her convalescence.
During her recovery, Ma was attended to by an attractive 29-year-old nurse named Olga Kupczyk, and Frank was smitten. He stuck close to Ma, but closer yet to Olga. When Frank began dating Olga, Ma took it badly. Nearly every day Olga received a phone call from Ma telling her to leave Frank alone. When the admonitions didn’t work, Ma began making death threats. Ma even creepy-crawled Olga’s apartment. She used a ruse to gain entrance, saying she wanted to see if any of Frank’s clothes were there. It’s not clear if she found what she was looking for, but on her way out of the building she told the manager: “She is not going to have him. I will kill her if it is the last thing I do.”
Elizabeth went apoplectic when she found out that Frank and Olga had secretly married on June 20, 1958. She declared that she would never allow the couple to live together, but Olga became pregnant. Ma told Barbara Reed, whom she’d known for several years, that Olga had become pregnant by another man. She claimed Olga was trying to “frame” Frank and offered Reed $1,500 to help her kill her daughter-in-law. Reed contacted Frank and told him about her conversation with his mother. Frank moved back into Ma’s home.
In mid-August 1958, Elizabeth came up with another crackpot plan to end Frank’s marriage. She talked an ex-con, Ralph Winterstein, into portraying Frank in a fraudulent scheme to get her son’s marriage annuled. Ma and Ralph, portraying Olga and Frank, presented themselves at an uncontested hearing during which Ralph testified that Ma had not lived with him since their marriage, and that she had no intention of doing so. Ralph, posing as Frank, was granted an annulment.
The annulment was only the first step in Ma’s plan to get rid of Olga. Next she had a friend approach Ralph and ask if the man would be willing to “take care of Olga.” He declined. He would have reported the incident to the cops, but was too afraid of being nailed for the fraudulent annulment.
It took weeks, but Ma finally was put in touch with two guys who were greedy and dumb enough to kill Olga for her—21-year-old Luis Moya and 26-year-old Gus Baldonado. The two hit men were told that Olga was a blackmailer, but they couldn’t have cared less. They didn’t need any motivation other than money to brutally murder a pregnant woman. Ma agreed to pay them $3,000 once the job was done, and then another $3,000 within three to six months.
The plan was for Moya and Baldanado to kidnap Olga, drive her to Tijuana, and kill her there. Ma fronted the killers $175 for expenses.
On the evening of November 17, 1958, Moya and Baldanado rented a car from a friend for $25. They drove to Olga’s apartment and Moya rang the bell while Baldanado waited in the car. When Olga came to the door, Moya told her that Frank was drunk—that he’d passed out and needed help.
Olga accompanied Moya out to the car where she expected to find her husband Frank in a drunken stupor. She thought she saw him stretched out on the backseat of the beat-up Chevy so she reached in to wake him, and then everything went black.
Moya bashed Olga over the head hard enough to knock her out, and Baldanado dragged her into the backseat of the car.
Ma’s plan to be rid of her rival was working perfectly.
On the way out of town Luis and Gus realized that the 1948 Chevrolet they’d rented from a friend for $25 wasn’t up to a trip to Tijuana as they had originally planned. They headed south on Highway 101 and drove a little over ten miles to Carpinteria, then went another few miles to Casitas Pass Road. Gus recalled using the road to get to a winery near Ojai. By the time they stopped, they were almost seven miles into Ventura County—it was quiet, dark and deserted.
Luis and Gus dragged pregnant Olga out of the car and down a small embankment. They couldn’t shoot her because they’d broken the gun over her head during one of the beatings they’d given her. Instead they took turns strangling her until Baldanado, who had been an Army medic, decided that she was dead.
The men were so pathetically inept that they had neglected to bring shovels, so they dug a shallow gave in the soft silt near a drainage ditch with their bare hands; then they buried Olga and her unborn daughter. Olga was still wearing the wedding ring that Frank had given her.
Baldanado was as lousy a medic as he was a hit man because Olga hadn’t been dead when they covered her body with dirt. The beatings hadn’t killed Olga, and neither had the attempted strangulation. She suffocated to death. Olga had been unconscious but alive when Luis and Gus buried her.
Olga was discovered missing by a friend and colleague of hers, Adeline Curry, chief surgical nurse at St. Francis Hospital. She went to Olga’s apartment after the young nurse had failed to show up for an important operation. Curry was alarmed when she found the door to the apartment ajar. All the lights were on and the bed covers had been turned back, but the bed had not been slept in. Olga was gone.
Olga’s landlady, who refused to be identified by name for fear of retribution, said she had met Mrs. Elizabeth Duncan on one occasion when she’d come by looking for Olga. The landlady said that Elizabeth was raving and declared that she would kill Olga if it was the last thing she ever did. Then Elizabeth told that landlady that her son and Olga weren’t married at all, that they were living in sin. When the landlady challenged her, Elizabeth snapped: “All you have to do is check with Ventura. The marriage has been annulled.” The landlady told police and reporters that Olga was deathly afraid of her mother-in-law, and she frequently moved to stay one step ahead of her.
The D.A.’s investigation revealed that the annulment was a fraud perpetrated by Elizabeth Ann Duncan. Ma was promptly arrested on charges of bribing a witness to influence testimony, falsifying a legal paper, forgery with intent to defraud, and aiding and abetting a “Ralph Roe” in making false statements under oath.
While Ma Duncan was facing charges related to the fraud, Augustine Baldanado and Luis Moya were arrested. Police refused to say whether the men were part of the inquiry into Olga’s disappearance.
Ma appeared in court represented by her dutiful son, Frank — in fact the two walked in together hand-in-hand. Frank was either a complete idiot, delusional, or, more likely, in denial regarding his mother’s involvement in Olga’s disappearance. He told reporters that he believed his wife to be alive. Frank had no insight into why Elizabeth had taken the drastic measure of faking an annulment, and he refused to make any comment.
Elizabeth Duncan, Luis Moya, and Gus Baldanado were busted on December 19, 1958, for conspiracy to murder Olga Duncan. Bail was set at $100,000 each (the amount is equivalent to over $7 million 2013 USD).
Two days later, on December 21, the cops went public with an appeal to help them find Olga Duncan’s body. The public didn’t have to do a thing because Gus Baldanado confessed that same day and implicated Luis Moya and Elizabeth Duncan. He also led them to Olga’s body in Casitas Pass. Luis Moya would also confess to his part in the slaying. Ma, however, was adamant that she was not guilty.
Read about the trial of Elizabeth “Ma” Duncan here.
Joan Renner is a writer, lecturer, and social historian with an expert knowledge of Los Angeles-based murders, corruption, and scandals. A version of this story originally appeared on her Web site, Deranged L.A. Crimes.