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19-Year-Old House-Sitter Shot To Death By Family's Former Friend In Botched Robbery
Investigators had a suspect in mind when Ursula Duran was murdered, and were shocked when the real killer's identity was unmasked.
Ursula Duran and Karen Smallwood were at opposite ends of their lives. While the future looked bright for 19-year-old Duran, Smallwood’s best days were behind her. But in an instant their fortunes would change as one died by the other’s hand.
Ursula Duran was born in 1985 and grew up in Nambe, New Mexico, north of Sante Fe. In high school, Duran began dating Thomas Lujan.
"Thomas was five or six years older than Ursula. She would sneak out, he would pick her up, and they’d go hang out or party,” friend Lauren Aguilar told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
When she was 16, Duran got pregnant. Lujan promised to stay by her side and help raise their child together. Their son, Isaiah, was born in 2001.
“Ursula was a devoted mother. She looked upon her child as the center of her universe. She would do anything, whatever it took, to make life successful for him and for herself as the mom,” friend Cissie Ludlow told “Snapped.”
Ludlow met Duran when she participated in an education program for teen moms. Rather than drop out of high school, Duran graduated with honors in 2003. She then enrolled at the University of New Mexico. When not at school, she worked at her father’s electrical business.
But her promising future was cut short when Ursula’s dead body was found at the home of her aunt and uncle on Oct. 13, 2004, local ABC-affiliate KOAT-TV reported at the time.
“They killed her! Ursula is laying on the floor dead!" her mother, Elaine Duran, is heard crying during her call to police, which was obtained by “Snapped.”
Duran had been housesitting at the residence. Both Lujan and her mother tried to contact her that afternoon but to no avail. Lujan and Elaine Duran had then picked up Isaiah from daycare before discovering Duran's body.
“When they got to the back of the house, the window was broken. Thomas climbed in. That’s when he found Ursula,” former Santa Fe Police Chief William Johnson told producers.
Duran was shot five times. The final two rounds were fired point blank as the killer stood over her while she lay on the ground. Two shell casings were found at the scene, and clutched in Duran’s hand were hairs which investigators believed belonged to her killer.
Duran's mother told detectives that despite her ongoing relationship with Lujan, she had recently moved back home. She said there was another young man who was pursuing her but that she wasn’t interested in him.
Detectives interviewed Lujan, the last person to see Duran alive. He said he went back to work after they had lunch together that day. He was supposed to meet Duran and Isaiah that afternoon but they never showed up.
“When I found out she wasn’t there, I was like, ‘What the hell?’ so I really started to worry,” Lujan is seen telling investigators during his videotaped interview, which was obtained by “Snapped.”
Detectives pressed Lujan about his recent difficulties with Duran. He said they had issues in the past but were trying to “start [their] life over again.”
When detectives accused him of being involved in her murder, he responded, “Why would I kill her? She’s the mother of my son. She’s my only reason for living.”
Friend Lauren Aguilar told detectives that Duran recently had a fling with a young man named Ramos Maldanado. They dated briefly before Duran reconciled with Thomas.
Maldanado spoke with detectives and said he had been in touch with Duran two months prior. He denied having anything to do with her murder and asked for a lawyer when detectives tried to turn up the pressure. But detectives were convinced one of the two men in Duran's life was behind her murder.
Then, Elizabeth and Robert Findling, Duran's aunt and uncle, contacted police 11 days after her murder. They said several items were missing from their home, which was not initially detected. Among the missing things were Duran's ATM card and her checkbook. Investigators subpoenaed Duran’s bank records.
“Someone had used Ursula’s card the day after the murder at a Wells Fargo ATM in Santa Fe,” Johnson told producers. “It was used in Texas, Arkansas, and at various ATMs withdrawing money until Ursula’s $2000 was eventually drained and her account was empty upon the last withdrawal, somewhere in Louisiana."
When detectives received security camera footage from one of the cash machines, they were shocked to see the person using it was neither of their two suspects, but an older white woman. The woman didn’t match anyone associated with Duran or her immediate family.
Detectives showed the video to Elizabeth and Robert Findling, Duran's aunt and uncle. “That looks like Karen Smallwood,” Elizabeth told Johnson. “She used to house sit for us.”
The Findlings had met Smallwood in the 1990s when she worked with Elizabeth. While down on her luck, Smallwood had stayed with the Findlings, but quickly wore out her welcome. Smallwood had recently contacted the Findlings, asking if they needed a house-sitter. The couple explained their niece was housesitting for them instead.
Smallwood said she had been living at a campground on the edge of town. They asked if she felt safe there. “Karen told her, ‘No, I bought a gun for protection,'” Johnson said.
Employees at the campsite identified Smallwood and her vehicle from the surveillance footage. They said she had stayed there frequently over the years but had recently been kicked out for disruptive behavior.
A storage unit was located that contained Smallwood’s belongings. Inside, detectives found bags filled with spent shell casings, including some which were the same caliber that killed Duran.
Investigators located her sister, who said Smallwood was staying with a relative near Orlando, Florida. An arrest warrant was issued for unauthorized ATM withdrawal and she was taken into custody by Florida law enforcement officers.
Inside Smallwood’s car, police found $800 in cash and a .9 mm handgun under the front seat, according to local newspaper the Santa Fe New Mexican.
“We had a ballistics match to the projectiles and casings at the scene and there was blood inside that pistol that the DNA matched back to Ursula Duran,” Johnson told producers.
After obtaining Smallwood’s DNA, it was determined that the hair follicles found clutched in Duran’s palm belonged to her as well.
Smallwood was extradited back to New Mexico and on Nov. 10, 2004, she was charged with murder, aggravated burglary and tampering with evidence in the death of Ursula Duran, according to KOAT-TV.
Rather than risk a jury trial, Smallwood pleaded no contest to first-degree murder in January 2008, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. She was sentenced to life in prison and must serve 30 years before becoming eligible for parole in 2034.