Truth stranger than fiction in sensational murder case
The headline read “Missing Nurse Sought by Police, Friends.” The story appeared in the News-Press on Nov. 19, 1958:
“Olga Duncan, 30, of 114 Garden Street, Apt. 11, was the object of a police search today. She has been missing from her home since 11:00 p.m. Monday, friends told police.
“Mrs. Duncan is the wife of Santa Barbara attorney Frank Duncan and was home alone Monday night after she said goodbye to two friends who visited her at her apartment. She has not been seen since. She is employed as a surgical nurse at Cottage Hospital. However, she did not go to work yesterday and did not notify the hospital of her whereabouts. Friends said she is expecting a baby in two months. Anyone with information is asked to call the Santa Barbara Police Department.”
Deborah Holt Larkin was 10 years old and living in Ventura when this short article caught her eye. It was in a copy of the News-Press that her father, Bob Holt, a reporter for the Ventura County Star-Free Press (now the Ventura County Star), had brought home.
“At the time, I was a passionate ‘Dragnet’ and Nancy Drew fan,” said Ms. Larkin, now 74 and the author of her first book, “A Lovely Girl: The Tragedy of Olga Duncan and the Trial of One of California’s Most Notorious Killers” (Pegasus Crime Publisher, $29.95).
“My life-long interest in true crime stories began in 1958 when Olga Duncan vanished from her apartment in the middle of the night,” Ms. Larkin told the News-Press by phone from her home in San Diego. “When her brutally beaten body was discovered a month later in a shallow grave on a lonely road near Ventura, my focus shifted to the real-life mystery.
”I had a constant source of information from my father’s newspaper articles about the grisly murder. I became obsessed with the true crime story of Olga Duncan, the young pregnant woman who was married to Frank Duncan, a Santa Barbara attorney and the only child of Elizabeth Duncan, who despised her daughter-in-law and hired two men to kill her. Her brutally beaten body was found in a shallow grave, apparently buried alive.
“Olga was a lovely quiet girl from Canada without an enemy in the world, which is why I titled the book ‘A Lovely Girl.’ Olga was frequently described as a lovely girl. Her landlady called her a lovely sweet girl.” said Ms. Larkin, who was in Santa Barbara recently for a book signing at Chaucer’s Books.
“One of Elizabeth Duncan’s nieces was in the audience, and she told me that no one had anything good to say about her,” said Ms. Larkin, adding that in her research she found the mother-in-law described “as a well-dressed, matronly woman who spent most of her time doting on her 30-year-old son, Frank, a successful Santa Barbara criminal attorney whom she called Mama’s little boy.
“She vehemently opposed his marriage to Olga and secretly tried to get it annulled. When strategies of harassment to get rid of her son’s new wife failed, she turned to stronger measures. She decided to hire someone to kill Olga.
“One of the biggest surprises to me in writing the book was that Elizabeth shopped all 0ver town for someone to kill Olga, and none of the people went to the police. She even told Frank, but he didn’t believe her. Something could have been done to prevent this,” said Ms. Larkin, who relied on numerous sources to recreate the investigation and trial scenes.
Her research included more than 5,000 pages of court transcripts; news articles from four newspapers; her father’s files and personal recollections; interviews with the daughter of the Santa Barbara detective who broke the case; letters Olga wrote home to her parents; and an exclusive review of the unpublished memoir about the investigation and trial written by the young district attorney, Roy Gustafson, who prosecuted the accused murderers, Luis Moya and Gus Baldonado, and Elizabeth Duncan, who became the last woman to be executed under a death sentence in California.
“My biggest challenge was to authenticate everything, which is why it took nine years to write,” said Ms. Larkin who holds a bachelor’s degree in American History and Literature from the University of California at Davis, and she studied creative writing at the University of California at San Diego. She has a master’s degree in the education of exceptional children from San Francisco State University.
One of her first jobs in education was teaching special education at a small rural elementary school located in the historic gold mining town of Julian, which is in San Diego County.
“At the time, teaching jobs were scarce, and I thought that I could make the 63-mile commute from my Ocean Beach apartment for a year until I found something closer to home,” said Ms. Larkin. “But when the year was up, my husband Tom and I moved nearer to the school, and the ‘temporary’ job turned into a 32-year career.
“I loved the mountain-top school, the students, the other teachers and the community. I became principal for the final 15 years of my career, and Julian Elementary was recognized as a California Distinguished School. It was my dream job!”
She revealed that she had always wanted to be a writer.
“But I didn’t seriously get started until I enrolled in a creative writing program at the University of California San Diego soon after my youngest son left for college. I made the 80-mile round trip once a week to classes with a plan to write cozy mysteries. I eventually joined a read-and-critique group at San Diego Writers Ink, and somehow, my cozy mystery turned into true crime.
“As my book progressed, I attended many writing conferences and heard stories about ‘older’ first-time authors being unable to get agents or publishing contracts with traditional publishers. I soldiered on.
“Just write the best book you possibly can, I told myself. Twenty years after my first writing class, I signed with a wonderful agent who believed in my book. I am definitely a woman of ‘a certain age,’ and my first book, “A Lovely Girl’ was released by Pegasus Crime on Oct. 4.”
Ms. Larkin told the News-Press she decided to write about the sensational Duncan case because “the story stuck with me all these years, and it was so compelling.
“At first I planned to fictionalize it, but then I realized that the truth was stranger than fiction, and there was so much material to work with.”