She was the most notorious mother-in-law in Ventura County history. Elizabeth Ann Duncan was her name, but she became known simply as Ma Duncan.
And it was 34 years ago today that the state of California executed the matronly, gray-haired woman for hiring two drifters to kill her pregnant daughter-in-law.
Her 1959 court case focused a national spotlight on Ventura County, as prosecution witnesses painted a grim portrait of a mother so full of hatred for her daughter-in-law and love for her son that she resorted to homicide to keep them apart.
“It was called the trial of the century,” city historian Richard Senate said. “People were lining up to get a seat in the courtroom.”
Duncan and her two hirelings were found guilty of a bizarre kidnap-murder and sentenced to death after a four-week trial.
Several years later--on Aug. 8, 1962--the trio was executed in California’s last triple execution. At age 58, Duncan was the last woman killed by the state.
Since then, her case has been overshadowed by more fantastic trials.
But four black-and-white photographs of the proceedings still hang in the district attorney’s office. A few local residents have tried to weave books out of the sensational case.
And the exploits of Ma Duncan are routinely noted in historical tours of the old county courthouse, now Ventura City Hall.
“For Ventura County,” Senate said, “there is no other trial as well-known and riveting.”
Duncan was a drifter for most of her life. She was said to have married as many as 20 times, and was once arrested in San Francisco for running a brothel.
She lived for a while in Ventura and Oxnard, where she sometimes worked at a Salvation Army store, before moving to Santa Barbara in the fall of 1957 to be with her son.
But her undoing began in the summer of 1958, when 29-year-old attorney Frank Duncan secretly married his mother’s nurse, 30-year-old Olga Kupczyk. Kupczyk had cared for Ma Duncan after she overdosed on sleeping pills in an attempted suicide.
Outraged by their marriage, Ma Duncan paid a man to accompany her to the Ventura courthouse, where the pair posed as Kupczyk and Frank Duncan and had the marriage annulled.
The young couple eventually separated to appease Frank’s angry mother. Nonetheless, Ma Duncan was plotting ways to separate the newlyweds for good.
“She loved her son,” said Senate, who has researched the case extensively. “It was just a hideously perverse love that allowed nothing to come between them.”
In fact, testimony from Ma Duncan’s cellmates at the Ventura County Jail led to speculation about just how perverse that love was, with one inmate claiming that Duncan said her son would climb into her bed on cold nights. Frank Duncan adamantly denied it occurred.
Before the trial, Augustine Baldonado and Luis Moya told investigators they met Ma Duncan in a cafe on Nov. 13, 1958, and had accepted her offer to “get rid of” Kupczyk for $6,000.
In lurid detail, they described how they later kidnapped the pregnant nurse from her Santa Barbara apartment, hit her with a pistol, strangled her and then dumped her body in a shallow, hand-dug grave off Casitas Pass near Ojai.
The bride died of asphyxiation, the coroner said. But it was never clear whether her death resulted from strangulation or suffocation after being buried.
During the trial, Duncan took the stand in her own defense and admitted talking to the two men and paying them $335. But she denied any connection to her daughter-in-law’s death and said the money was blackmail.
Oxnard resident Blanche Coultas was an alternate juror on the case and still remembers the dramatic evidence presented against Duncan and the way she professed her innocence.
“Ma Duncan was a little, short, rounded, pleasant-looking woman. She had a very appealing personality,” Coultas recalled. “But then, when you heard the beastly things, the way she treated people, your opinion would just swing the opposite way. The whole thing was like looking in the window of a novel.”
On the morning of March 16, 1959, Duncan walked briskly into a packed courtroom, nodding to her son as she sat down at the counsel table.
The jury of eight women and four men had deliberated only four hours and 51 minutes. Superior Court Judge Charles F. Blackstock asked if they had reached a verdict. They had.
“Don’t worry too much, Frank,” Duncan reportedly told her son afterward. But back in jail, she broke into tears, telling her attorney: “I didn’t think the jury would do this to me. I didn’t do it.”
Duncan’s case continued to wind its way through the court system for three years on appeals, as her lawyer argued unsuccessfully that pretrial publicity had tainted the jury with preconceived notions of guilt.
On Aug. 8, 1962, with her state appeals exhausted, Duncan met her scheduled execution date with what a Times reporter described as “impassive dignity.”
There would be no clemency from Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. Her attorney son’s plea to the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco would be denied minutes before her execution.
So without her trademark glasses or false teeth, Duncan was lead to the San Quentin gas chamber in a pink, peppermint-striped smock and killed. Her last words were of her son.
“I’m innocent,” she told a warden. “Where’s Frank?”
Three hours later, Baldonado, 28, and Moya, 23, were executed side-by-side in the same cyanide gas chamber.
Frank, who had defended his mother to the end, eventually remarried and divorced, moved to Los Angeles and dropped from view.
From the first news accounts of the nurse’s disappearance to graphic reports of Duncan’s execution, the case gripped the public’s imagination.
Reporters from as far as New York came for the trial, and spectators lined up as early as 4:30 a.m. to get a seat in the courtroom.
When the jury returned the verdict, the local paper broke the news with an evening “extra” edition, its first since V-J Day in 1945.
Although the case has since drifted from the memory of most county residents, and is unknown to others, it continues to fascinate those who have researched Ma Duncan’s past.
Glenda Jackson, a Ventura city employee, has been working on a book on the Duncan trial for several years and hopes to publish her project soon.
“I have always wanted to put something out on it because it had a big effect on local history,” she said. “Plus, it was such a heinous crime.”
“Ultimately,” Jackson said, “she killed her own daughter-in-law and grandchild. Something like that in the ‘50s was beyond comprehension.”