You could call her the mother-in-law from hell. Doting mom Elizabeth Ann Duncan was so enamored of her son and jealous of his new wife that she hired two thugs to kill the woman.
It sounds like a lurid story you’d read in newspapers today, but Duncan--known simply as “Ma” Duncan--was tried for murder and convicted nearly 40 years ago in a Ventura courtroom.
If you want to see where it all happened and find out more about this sensational trial, you can join Glenda Jackson on Saturday for one of her regular historical tours at Ventura City Hall. Others are scheduled July 19 and Aug. 30. The cost is $6.
For years, Jackson, who works in the city’s information office, had given visitors tours of City Hall in the building that was the county courthouse at the time of Duncan’s trial. During a stop in the ornate City Council chambers, she would tell them about some of the trials that had taken place there, including Duncan’s.
“People were just enthralled,” Jackson said. “It grew from there. I did more research.” She’s begun work on a book about Duncan, and earlier this year she gave her first city-sponsored tour specifically about the trial.
“People came from all parts of the world for the trial,” she said.
What they saw was a short, gray-haired woman with piercing blue eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses. She preened for the cameras constantly. She was rumored to have married anywhere from seven to 20 times. But it was her obsession with every aspect of her son’s life that was so intriguing.
During Jackson’s tour, she displays a collection of old photos from the trial, including some of Duncan. She also has a rare picture of Olga Kupczyk, the 30-year-old nurse whom Duncan’s son, Frank, married in 1958.
The two had met in the hospital where his mother was recuperating from a suicide attempt. She had taken a drug overdose after Frank, with whom she lived, ordered her to move out. A 29-year-old Santa Barbara lawyer, he had become fed up after his mother’s latest marital scandal.
Frank’s marriage to Olga enraged his mother. “She was so possessive. No one was good enough for him,” Jackson said. She harassed and threatened Olga, and secretly tried to have his marriage annulled.
She tried to hire several people to kill Olga. “So many people knew what she was doing, but no one went to the authorities,” Jackson said. Finally she found Augustine Baldonado and Luis Moya, and agreed to pay them $6,000 for the job.
“She pawned her wedding ring for the $175 down payment,” Jackson said.
They borrowed a car and a gun, planning to kidnap and kill Olga, who was pregnant, and make it look like she had run away. But the kidnap went awry when Olga fought back. The men panicked, shoved her in the car and took off.
They beat and strangled her, dumping her body near Lake Casitas in a shallow grave they dug with their hands.
There was speculation she had been buried alive because it was never determined if she died from strangulation or suffocation.
Both men confessed and implicated Duncan. She was convicted of plotting the crime though she claimed innocence.
Baldonado and Moya were executed, as was Duncan, who was the last woman executed in California. Her son was outside San Quentin prison when she went to the gas chamber Aug. 8, 1962. He had worked on her appeal and tried until the last minute to stop the execution.
“Frank was not the picture of the grief-stricken husband,” Jackson said.
“He was more concerned about getting his mother off than about his wife being murdered. He was matter-of-fact and treated it all lightly.”
The trial was the biggest thing that had happened in Ventura, Jackson said. The lurid nature of the case drew huge media attention and fueled speculation about Duncan’s relationship with her son, who later remarried, divorced and left the area. “He was a momma’s boy.”
“Ma Duncan: Trial of the Century,” one of Ventura’s historical tours, is scheduled Sat., 1-3 p.m., at Ventura City Hall, California and Poli streets. Reservations recommended. For information, call 658-4726.