She was known as Ma Duncan. Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Duncan became the last woman to be executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin, California.
I was at San Quentin many years ago. I can still smell it. Everything is eerie there. The silence and the noise, the odors overpowering the disinfectant, the space and the boxed-in feeling.
Captain James “Jim” E. Barret retired from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department that led the investigation into the missing ER nurse Olga “Ollie” Nettie Kupczyk Duncan.
From Police Writers, a website dedicated to books written by police officers: “Jim is one of the founding board members of the California Mounted Officers Association (CMOA); a statewide organization dedicated to the betterment of the mounted officer. He is an expert in the world of police horses.
During his 30 year career in law enforcement he was a trainer, supervisor, and the manager of one of the most successful mounted units in Southern California. During his tenure with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department Mounted Enforcement Unit he has seen the unit grow from three original riders, increasing to 25 riders who work several hundred details each year.”
The book opens with a quote from the Wizard of Oz and it is well-chosen. The more you read, the more the curtain is lifted, the clearer it becomes what the wizard really looks like, and what she is capable off.
The opening scene introduces us to Lewis “Luis” Estrada Moya and Augustine “Gus” Baldonado. They are broke and in need of money. They get a tip. A certain person wants someone to disappear and is willing to pay well for the job.
On Nov 13, 1958 it becomes clear that this person means business. “I want you to kill the bitch! I want you to throw acid in her face and burn her eyes out of her head! I want that woman cold in her grave!”
I am quoting the book (page 12) but there is no way for me to know that Duncan said exactly this, in these words, and in this order. The book’s story is well-told but some dialogue was added to facilitate the flow of events. Personally, I prefer the “bare-bones data” as the author calls it in the preface, when we are discussing true crime. But that is my opinion.
UPDATE: the author just confirmed to me that the comment about acid throwing comes from the court’s transcripts of Lewis “Luis” Estrada Moya’s testimony. Thank you, Captain Barrett!
For $6000, Luis and Gus would make disappear the victim who turns out to be Ma Duncan’s daughter-in-law, Olga “Ollie” Nettie Kupczyk Duncan.
Ollie, the ER nurse who cared for Ma Duncan when she was in the ER after a suicide attempt.
Ollie, the woman who dated Duncan’s son Frank.
Ollie, the woman who was carrying Duncan’s grandchild, a little fact Duncan kept from Luis and Gus who later stated that they never would have killed a pregnant woman.
Not only did Ma Duncan hate Ollie for dating Frank. She hated Ollie for her heritage, her drive to make her almost 30 years-old partner independent of his mother, and for replacing her as the female focus in Frank’s life. Thinking that becoming a grandmother would softened her opinion of his bride-to-be and would warm up his mother’s heart, was a big mistake on Frank’s side. The pregnancy solidified Ollie in Frank’s life and therefore in Ma Duncan’s and she could not let that happen. Frank was everything to her. Caregiver, supporter, son, and as we suspect from page 59, lover. Encouraging Frank to make Ollie get an abortion drove Frank temporarily more towards Ollie. But Ma Duncan’s claws were in him, underneath his skin, across his heart, to the point where he would be prepared to defend her in court for Ollie’s murder.
Frank Patrick Duncan married Olga Nettie Kupczyk on June 20, 1958 in a civil ceremony in front of Judge Westwick at the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Then came the arguments about where Frank should live, where he should have dinner, and where he should sleep at night. Ollie showed amazing restrained in accepting the past, tolerating some transition towards married life, but with a baby on the way, she needed to know that Frank was strong enough to stand up to his mother and be a husband and father.
Elizabeth Duncan was not just rude to Ollie. She threatened her over the phone and showed up at their apartment unannounced. She even hired someone to pretend to be Frank. On Aug 7, 1958 together, pretending to be Ollie and Frank, they got the marriage annulled. In the end, it is no wonder that this situation started to have an affect on Ollie. Not just mentally, but also physically.
The author continues to explain how the ultimate plan was hatched. On Nov 17, 1958 Olga was kidnapped. Luis and Gus got Olga to come out of her house thinking that Frank was drunk inside their car. Her horrible fight for her life and that of her child is heartbreaking. Ollie was found in a shallow hole. She was seven months pregnant. “Later, dirt would be found in her lungs indicating Olga had suffocated after being buried alive.”
But there is still a lot more in the book. We haven’t touched on Luis and Gus’ efforts to get paid, the investigation that went from endangered missing to homicide, the involvement of the FBI, Elizabeth’s criminal record, finding the car and the crime scene, and the phenomenal detective Ray Higgins at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.
The author describes the Christmas 1958 court proceedings with District Attorney of Ventura County Roy A. Gustafson. Gustafson is the man who developed the three-phase trial system which is now California’s court procedural law. It splits hearings in three stages: guilt, penalty, and sanity. Evidence can now be brought before the court without prejudice to another phase.
The trial started on Feb 16, 1959. Frank Duncan, son and attorney, had represented his mother after her arrest and during the preliminaries but stepped aside for defense attorney S. Ward Sullivan. Elizabeth proclaimed herself innocent. Gustafson asked for the death penalty for Elizabeth Ann Duncan, Lewis Estrada Moya, and Augustine Baldonado. When Barrett describes the penalty phase the whole curtain is pulled off Ma Duncan. It is an astonishing read.
As usual when I cover a true crime book, I look for an index, bibliography, reference lists, footnotes, sources, books listed for further reading, etc. It is just a pet-peeve of mine. Here, sources are referred to in the preface but nothing is listed in the book. I really think that a true crime book should have these. It strengthens the story as you show the reader your sources which encourages further reading. In this case, a lot of documentation does exist and can easily be found online by searching under Elizabeth‘s name.
If you have never heard of this case, this is a book to explore. Barrett is a good writer and he seamlessly guides the reader through the history of the Duncan Family and the hunt to save Olga’s life. The story is well layered and follows the timeline of the case giving the reader the feeling to be riding along in the police car chasing daylight to find Olga.
The chapters are well proportioned, the font is eye-friendly, there’s a table of content, and 12 pages with photography in the back. Warning, one photograph is from Olga’s remains as seen from the back.
When you read this book, keep in mind that a lot has changed since 1958. As the author points out in the preface, there was no Miranda Warning at the time. Miranda v. Arizona is from 1966. There are other legal issues that have changed such as what you can and cannot say during interviews. It didn’t bother me. I found it fascinating to see how things were done back then. It also made me grateful for all we do now to protect people’s privacy, safeguard people’s rights, and how much more options we now have to find missing persons. Highly recommended reading!
Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My other book reviews are here.