March 30, 2009 | 6:00 am
Photograph by John Malmin / Los Angeles Times
Defendants Augustine Baldonado, left, and Luis Moya stand during the arraignment of Elizabeth Ann Duncan, with attorney S. Ward Sullivan, in Ventura County.
By Catriona Lavery
Elizabeth Ann Duncan hired two men to kill her pregnant daughter-in-law, jealous that the young mother-to-be threatened her incestuous relationship with her son Frank, 30. Duncan is one of four women executed in California's gas chamber.
Olga Kupczyk Duncan disappeared in November 1958. She was seven months' pregnant, 30 years old and newspapermen didn't hesitate to call her attractive.
Elizabeth Duncan first drew suspicion when police discovered she had illegally obtained an annulment for her son and his wife. Elizabeth Duncan and Ralph Winterstein, 25, hired by Duncan, secured the separation by posing as the young couple in court.
Nearly a month after the woman's disappearance, investigators found her body in the Casitas Pass of Carpinteria, Calif., after Augustine Baldonado, 25, confessed that he and Luis Moya, 22, had been offered $6,000 by the victim's mother-in-law. The two men beat the young woman with a pistol, strangled her and buried her body in a shallow grave. Coroners investigations found that she was still alive when buried.
Elizabeth Duncan's bizarre past and penchant for dramatics made the trial a sensation.
She had been married at least 11 times.
When cross-examined, she admitted to 10 marriages and said, "there might have been an 11th.... I'm afraid to count the others: they didn't mean that much to me." At one point, prosecutors alleged she married 16 times. Duncan conned young men into marrying by telling them she needed a husband in order to inherit a great fortune, promising them a cut.
At first, Duncan maintained she had two children -- Frank and a daughter, Patricia, who died at 15. However, Duncan later admitted she had four other children -- three daughters and a son. When Prosecutor Roy Gustafson asked if she loved Frank more than the others, she said yes.
An unnatural love
Despite being married, he still slept at his mother's home. In his testimony, Frank Duncan proudly admitted he had lived with his mother almost his whole life. Their incestuous relationship and his mother's subsequent jealousy became the basis of motive in the case.
Newspapers at the time approached the relationship cautiously. The Times only mentions the mother's "overwhelming love" for her son. The Mirror News refers to an "unnatural love" between the two, but stopped short of calling it incest.
Elizabeth Duncan also admitted to planning to kidnap her son. "Frankie had just lost his mind over Olga," she testified. "So I called my sister in Los Angeles and told her to rent an apartment for me. I was going to tie him up and take him down there to try to talk some sense into him. I didn't want to lose Frankie. I couldn't stand life alone and I knew it."
The jury took just four hours and 51 minutes to find her guilty.
Frank Duncan and his mother, Elizabeth Ann.
Her execution was delayed twice. Both times Duncan's lawyers argued "sensational publicity" and other circumstances prevented their client from receiving a fair trial. In 1962, the court refused to hear another appeal.
Frank Duncan, also a lawyer, fought for his mother until the end. At the time of her execution, he was in San Francisco, pleading her case before the U.S. Court of Appeals. The court refused to take action, and she was executed on August 8, 1962.
Elizabeth Ann Duncan was the last of four women executed by gas chamber in California. The others were "the Dutchess" Ethel Juanita Spinelli (1941), Louise Peete (1947) and Barbara Graham (1955). Almost 200 men have died in the same way.
Peete offered one reason for the unrepresentative number. Just before her execution, Peete was convinced she would not die. She said, "The governor is a gentlemen -- and no gentleman could sentence a lady to her death."
Look through the recent columns of Paul Coates and Matt Weinstock for more articles about Elizabeth Ann Duncan.