Popular true crime TV shows regularly air an array of tales gone wrong involving amateur hitmen. Someone, usually a disgruntled spouse, greedy family member, jealous lover, or angry business partner, recruits a non-professional, usually a man, to do their dirty work. Meanwhile, the person who planned the murder is miles away from the crime scene busily establishing an alibi with witnesses, and, preferably, a time-dated receipt.
What do we know about these amateur hired killers—the non-professionals who don’t know their victims and kill at someone else’s direction? These layman killers are usually part-time petty criminals who shuttle between legitimate and illegitimate pursuits. They are invariably novices at murder, very different from the professional men and women connected to organized crime who make a career of killing complete strangers.
A typical red thread runs through these true-life, murder by proxy plots. The mastermind-employer hires a trigger-man to kill the despised victim in a straightforward business arrangement. But every amateur hitman scheme invariably has at least one unnecessary witness to the details of the conspiracy that proves to be the undoing of the plan.
My soon to be released true crime memoir, A LOVELY GIRL: The Tragedy of Olga Duncan and the Trial of One of California’s Most Notorious Killers is a classic example of the amateur hitman model gone terribly wrong. The victim was Olga Duncan, a seven months pregnant surgical nurse. The motive, scandalous for reasons far beyond the hitman angle, captured the imagination of the country. Elizabeth Duncan, the mastermind of this bumbling 1958 murder conspiracy to kill her own daughter-in-law and unborn grandchild, was the last woman to ever be executed in California.
The weak link in these amateur schemes is almost always in the supporting cast. These fringe people are friends of the employer or the trigger-man, or friends of friends, who know too much about the “perfect” crime long before the murder occurs. Not surprisingly, the plots unravel because these acquaintances subsequently become the leak that sinks the ship. Later, during true crime shows, we see police interrogation videos of these middle men minimizing their own involvement in the case while the brains of the operation awaits trial in jail.
Incredibly, some of these murder plots are all but advertised in the newspaper before they occur. For example, in the Elizabeth Duncan case, there were at least ten extraneous people who knew too much, or Mrs. Duncan might have gotten away with murder. But she practically told on herself by dragging a friend, eighty-four old Emma Short, along with her while she shopped all over Santa Barbara to find a killer.
Once this type of crime is solved, the media spotlight fixates on the person who commissioned the murder, along with the sensationalized motive that drove them to seek such drastic measures. But we don’t see much about the actual hands-on killers. Reporters from all over the country descended on my small hometown to cover the sensational trial of Elizabeth Duncan, but the two men with the bloody hands received almost no attention in the press.
Mrs. Duncan hired Luis Moya and Augustine “Gus” Baldonado to murder her daughter-in-law. Twenty-year-old Moya, a part-time fry cook and small-time hoodlum on parole, recruited his twenty-five-year-old petty thief buddy, Gus Baldonado, to murder a young woman that they’d never even met. Moya was looking to make a quick buck. Baldonado later said that he “just sort of got caught up in it.” He testified in court that he tried to talk his friend out of going through with the plan to do Mrs. Duncan’s bidding for nothing more than a hundred and seventy-five dollar down payment.
Neither man had experience committing murder. Nevertheless, Mrs. Duncan gave them Olga’s address with instructions to kidnap her from her apartment, pack a bag to make it look like she’d left on a trip and then take her to Mexico to “get rid” of her. The men borrowed a car and gun from friends, bought ammunition at a local combination pharmacy/gun store, and headed for Olga’s apartment with a rudimentary plan that went wrong from the beginning. Gus broke the gun beating Olga over the head. The old car they’d borrowed had a sputtering engine, making it impossible to drive all the way to Mexico. Moya forgot to pack Olga’s bag, and he left the apartment door wide open.
But enterprising Luis Moya improvised as they drove the screaming victim out of town onto a rural highway. The two men stopped on the side of the road where they beat and strangled Olga and buried her body without witnesses. With no ties to the victim, they stood an excellent chance that the crime would never be solved. Except for the loose lips of a supporting cast member, Emma Short, Mrs. Duncan’s constant companion.
Moya and Baldonado shared their insight into their actions with writer Peter Wyden during an interview at San Quentin Prison in 1962. Moya told Waylen, “I thought I was such a hotshot. How could I let myself be persuaded? I was pulling lots of burglaries and handling money at the restaurant. I could have walked off with it. I can’t understand myself. It’s one of the problems I haven’t figured out yet.”
Moya also said, “I was impressed by Mrs. Duncan. I thought I could trust her and that there was a good chance of getting away with it. We were living in completely different circles. There was no connection whatsoever.” Moya also blamed his situation on losing his lifelong battle between the ‘good Luis’ and the ‘bad Luis.’ “The bad Luis is very, very bad,” he said.
Baldonado, who greeted the reporter with a big smile and a limp handshake in the San Quintin death row visitors’ room, blamed Olga’s murder on fate. “I just got caught up in it. Its something that came up, I guess, that was meant to be. I guess nothing could have prevented it.” When Waylen brought up Baldonado’s impending death, the still-smiling Gus told him, “If they’re going to get me, they’re going to get me, regardless. Why be moping about it?”
If you watch TV programs like Dateline or 48 Hours, it seems that hiring an amateur killer to eliminate your former loved one would be a huge mistake. From what we see on those shows, you’d think that everyone gets caught.
Or do they…? Hired killings could be more common that we think. There are approximately two hundred thousand unsolved murders and missing persons cases in the United States. Of course, we have no way of knowing how many of these crimes were committed by amateur hitmen. But, if the person who does the killing is not the person who has the motive, there is no connection between the killer and the victim. And if the conspirators manage to keep their mouths shut, limit the supporting cast, and hide the body where it never can be found, they might actually get away with murder.