Ashley Ellerin was like many beautiful young women in Hollywood — vivacious, fun-loving fixtures of the party circuit with no shortage of friends. With a bungalow within walking distance of the fabled Hollywood Walk of Fame, Ellerin lived in an enclave frequented by actors, directors, producers, and others seeking to grab a foothold in the limelight.
The 22-year-old left her upper-middle-class family in northern California and arrived in Hollywood in 1999. The striking blonde turned heads and soon started modeling. She also enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising because she was creative and thought she could be a designer.
But with the Hollywood lifestyle came a seamier side. Friends said Ellerin used cocaine and crystal methamphetamine while partying nights away. She would also take trips to Las Vegas, where she worked as a stripper and pole dancer, according to court records.
"She hung out with a lot of Hollywood celebrity type people," said her roommate, Jennifer Disisto. "She was very kind of friendly and, you know, kind of a free-spirit type."
One of her biggest coups was snagging up-and-coming actor Ashton Kutcher as a boyfriend. The pair had been seen out and about in Hollywood together before he asked her to attend a post-Grammy Awards party on Feb. 21, 2001. The plan was for Kutcher to watch the ceremony at a friend's house and meet Ellerin afterward around 10:30 p.m. The couple spoke on the phone at 7:30 p.m. and again at 8:24 p.m. Everything seemed set.
But Ellerin never showed up. Getting no answer on her cell phone, Kutcher drove to her home thinking that she might be waiting for him to pick her up. He knocked on her front door at 10:45 p.m. but still got no answer. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked.
Kutcher peered through a window and couldn't really see anything wrong. The only thing that stood out to him was a dark red spill that looked like red wine on a landing leading to her bedroom.
Thinking that she was upset and had brushed him off for some reason, Kutcher concluded that she was probably out with someone else, so he left, according to court records.
A Horrific Scene
Ellerin's roommate didn't sleep at home the night of the Grammys because she had left her keys at a friend's house. Half an hour before Kutcher showed up, she had knocked on the door, hoping to get in. Ellerin's car was in the driveway and the lights were on. When there was no answer, Jennifer Disisto left and came back at 8:30 the next morning after she had retrieved her keys.
Upon entering the house, Disisto didn't notice anything unusual at first. Then she saw Ellerin on a carpeted landing leading to the bedrooms.
"She kind of played a lot of jokes," Disisto later testified in court. "I kind of walked toward her. As I got closer, I knew. She was relatively blue in the face and some blood around here. There was blood around her mouth."
Wearing a turquoise terry cloth robe, Ellerin lay face up on the landing, sprawled in a large pool of blood. Someone had tried to cut off Ellerin's head, creating a wound so deep that it had only been stopped by her spinal cord. Her attacker evidently tried to finish the job from behind; a v-shaped wound was gouged across the back of her neck as well. High-velocity blood spatter flung from the murder weapon marked the walls, ceiling, and even a nearby bathroom.
In a frenzied attack, someone had stabbed the model 47 times as she had vainly tried to fend off the assailant with her hands and arms, even grabbing the blade of the knife at one point. Ellerin was stabbed in the chest, abdomen and in the back, with some of the wounds so deep that they pierced her lung. Twelve of her wounds — some up to six inches deep — would have been fatal by themselves, according to a medical examiner.
The back of her head had been stabbed as well.
"One of [the stabbings] actually penetrated the skull and took out a chunk of skull like a puzzle piece," Los Angeles police Detective Tom Small would later testify.
Ellerin's legs were slightly apart and one of them bent — an odd way to fall, leading Small to speculate that her body had been moved. Some of her chest wounds appeared to have a downward thrust, suggesting she had been on the ground when stabbed.
A bloody Adidas tennis shoe print on the hardwood living room floor led away from the gruesome scene. In less than two years, Ellerin's Hollywood dream had violently ended.
"This was...violent overkill," said Small, who responded to the scene as the lead detective. "[The killer was] a modern-day Jack the Ripper. Vicious and very personal. He wanted to inflict as many wounds as he could. I knew in my mind that the person who did this was a serial killer; that he had done this before and had gotten away with it."
Small quickly determined that the crime hadn't been a sexual assault nor motivated by robbery. Ellerin had been wearing jewelry and a $300 bundle of cash was found in the home. Under her robe, the model had been wearing a bra, boxer-style underwear and a camisole.
Small immediately began interviewing anyone he could find who knew her—no small task. The beautiful young woman had loved parties and was friendly and popular; people had been drawn to her.
"She experimented and ran in circles that the average person wouldn't want to run into," Small said. "She did some things as an adult you wouldn't be proud of. But she was a sweet gal that everybody loved."
His partner, Detective Thomas Chevolek, spoke to Kutcher, who had not called 911 because it had not been apparent that a crime had been committed.
"He said there were no window coverings so he can clearly see into the residence," Chevolek would later testify. "He said the place was in a bit of disarray because she had been painting [the walls] ... so that didn't raise any alerts to him. He saw what he assumed to be red wine on the carpet area that led to her bedroom."
Ellerin's father had been visiting and was helping with her home renovation project. She had dropped him off at the airport at 5:50 p.m. on the day she died. Later that evening, Ellerin had been visited by Mark Durbin, manager of her rental house, who repaired a light fixture. The two had ended up having sex, Durbin later testified.
As he was getting ready to leave around 8:15 p.m., Durbin said, Ellerin asked him not to go because she didn't feel like attending the Grammy party. But Durbin was also involved with someone else, and that woman was due at his house. He locked the front door, looked back through the window, and blew Ellerin a kiss.
Durbin lived in the complex and could see the front of Ellerin's home from his own. An hour later he happened to look out his window and saw a motion sensor light up the walkway in front of Ellerin's home. In the light, Durbin saw a light-haired man about 6 feet tall and 175 pounds walking back and forth, according to court records.
The Heater Guy
Through the accounts of the dozens of people that Small interviewed, one constant kept popping up: the heater guy. It seemed like most of Ellerin's friends had something to say about a mysterious heater repair man who had kept inserting himself into the model's life.
It had started a year before her death. She had been standing in front of her house with friend Christopher Duran, who was fixing a flat tire on his car. A man walked up to help.
"He was a heating and air conditioning man and he gave us a card," Duran would later testify.
Soon, the stranger was showing up at Ellerin's house for unannounced visits or phoning her. He said he lived about a block away and walked his dog at a park across the street from her home. One incident in particular stood out.
"He showed up at the door out of breath, sweating, and told us about—there were cops at his house asking him about his ex-girlfriend in Chicago that was killed, and he was avoiding—he was avoiding the police," Duran said. After Ellerin's death, Duran said he saw the man in front of her house just staring at it.
Justin Peterson, who had lived with Ellerin briefly, testified later that he once had given the man a ride home from an art gallery opening they'd both attended. While in the car, the man had grabbed Peterson's arm and squeezed very hard.
He dropped the stranger off at a green Ford pickup around 10 p.m. Peterson returned to the home he shared with Ellerin around 3 a.m. and saw the truck parked in front, the motor running and lights off, a person sitting inside.
The next day, the man arrived to fix Ellerin's heater and Peterson demanded to know what he was doing outside their house.
"He started stuttering and he eventually tells me he couldn't go home," Peterson said. "He said that the FBI was there waiting to collect DNA samples from him. He continues to tell me his best friend's girlfriend was murdered."
The man put his foot up on a table and his raised pant leg, revealing a hunting knife with a jagged edge strapped to his shin.
A month before Ellerin died, she had thrown a party, and the mysterious stranger had been invited. He sat on a couch, didn't socialize, and stared at Ellerin the whole time.
"She thought he was a nice person and that's why she didn't fear him," Peterson said.
In Detective Small's line of work, too many coincidences are usually suspicious. And this strange heater guy who had no name had been neither a friend nor a lover of Ellerin, yet he had frequently sought her company. Always the gregarious one, Ellerin had complied.
During numerous interviews, Small was told that the heater guy had once bragged about suing the owner of a truck who had struck him while he had been crossing a street near his home. The vehicle had belonged to a contractor who had been constructing the Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, now home to the Academy Awards ceremony.
Now he had a name, and with that came a driver license picture. Armed with the new information, Small revisited his witnesses with a grouping of six photos including Gargiulo's and asked them to pick out Gargiulo if possible. They did.
Small continued working the case. Then things took an unexpected turn in the fall of 2002. While at work one day, Small was visited by a few detectives who had flown out from the Cook County Sheriff's Office in Illinois. They had a photo of Gargiulo and his name.
"When they said the name, I asked my partner to come over quick," Small said. "They said, 'You know that guy?' I said, 'I think he's a potential suspect in my case.' They were taken aback."
The Cook County detectives were investigating a 1993 murder and had tracked Gargiulo to Los Angeles in hopes of obtaining a DNA sample. He could not be located. In the following weeks, Small obtained a search warrant for a new Los Angeles address where Gargiulo was last known to have lived, a van he was driving, and a court-ordered DNA sample.
The van was located and detectives found three different knives, a box cutter, binoculars, and the vehicle's license plates inside. Gargiulo's apartment was sparsely furnished with no furniture other than a kitchen table and a chair. Bedding was on the floor and men's clothing hung in the closet. A backpack containing a plastic Halloween mask and a handgun was also found, according to court files.
Gargiulo eventually arrived home and he was transported to a hospital to give blood, hair, and urine samples for a DNA test that would be forwarded to Cook County.
"What if my DNA was on a keychain that was left at a crime scene?" Gargiulo suddenly blurted out while en route to the hospital, court records said. "They can't find my DNA from 10 years ago at a crime scene can they? Why did it take them so long to find the DNA?"
LAPD Detective Michael Pelletier, who was in charge of taking Gargiulo to the hospital, later testified to saying: "What are you talking about?"
"Never mind," Gargiulo replied.
Tricia Pacaccio had been a beautiful, studious, popular, 18-year-old girl days away from moving away to Purdue University to major in genetic engineering. Growing up in the upscale Chicago suburb of Glenview, Pacaccio had had a storybook life filled with cheerleading, friends, music, and the debate team. Not one to drink or party, Pacaccio would rather be at home reading or studying.
She had also lived one block away from Gargiulo.
On Aug. 13, 1993 Pacaccio was walking down the street on her way to meet her boyfriend, who was going to take her to a doctor's appoint. Gargiulo, who was then 17, drove by in his father's van with another friend inside and stopped to offer Pacaccio a ride. She accepted and was dropped off at her designated meeting place.
The next day, Pacaccio got up as usual and went to her job at a department store cosmetics counter. She then came home and took a shower before heading out with two girlfriends to a road rally.
"I used to always tease her about using all the hot water," said her father, Rick Pacaccio. "When she got done washing her hair, there was no hot water. I said, 'Take it easy on the hot water,' and that's the last time I saw her alive."
After the rally, the girls ate at a TGI Friday's restaurant, then Pacaccio went home. It was 12:30 a.m. On the front porch with her key in hand, Pacaccio never made it inside. Someone came up behind, twisting Pacaccio's left arm behind her back to the point that it fractured, according to court files.
Then she was stabbed a dozen times, including three fatal wounds: to her heart, her left lung, and abdomen. She was also stabbed in the arm, the collar bone, and in the back, a medical examiner later testified. The attack happened so quickly that Pacaccio didn't have a chance to fight back.
As Pacaccio fell to the ground, though, dropping her door key next to her head, she was able to do one thing that would help detectives 17 years in the future and 1,740 miles away — she got someone's DNA under her fingernails.
Pacaccio's body went undiscovered until the next morning when her father opened the front door. Unable to bear the tragedy, Pacaccio's family moved out of the home for four years. Medical examiners recovered the DNA from under Tricia's fingernails but couldn't make a match until they received Gargiulo's blood sample from Los Angeles in 2003.
Who is Michael Gargiulo?
Gargiulo was born in 1976 and grew up with six siblings, including several sisters, and he lived 100 yards away from the Pacaccio family. He wasn't the most popular kid in the neighborhood. Bloggers on A&E's "Cold Case Files" discussion board recalled him unfavorably, according to atruecrimediary.com story:
"My family and I lived 3 houses down from Mike and his family. He always was the odd one out from his family, who were all very nice people. He was just always angry, and taking it out on others, usually by bullying them."
And this: "My older brother remembers Michael...and remembers him as being quite angry and violent."
Diane Pacaccio, Tricia's mother, remembers Gargiulo playing with one of her two sons as they grew up. However, unlike other neighborhood kids, Gargiulo would never come inside the Pacaccio home for lunch.
"He was odd," Diane said. Although Gargiulo knew her son, Diane said, Tricia never had any type of contact with him.
One day Diane went over to the Gargiulo home to pick up her younger son who had been playing with one of Gargiulo's brothers. She was shocked by a conversation that she had with his parents.
"The parents said, 'We are afraid of [Michael]. We would like to kick him out of the house but we're afraid he will come back and kill us,'" Diane recalled. "His father said, 'He probably needs medicine but he won't take it.'"
The day Tricia's body was found, Gargiulo called up his girlfriend, saying he was upset, nervous, and scared, and wanted her to go with him to run an errand. She later testified that Gargiulo got out of a car with a small green canvas bag that he said contained knives. Gargiulo disposed of the bag in a building, she said.
After Tricia's murder, Gargiulo's parents packed up and moved, leaving Gargiulo alone in the house, Diane Pacaccio said, adding that his mother later died of cancer.
Gargiulo later moved to Los Angeles where began working out at a gym with sights on a pro boxing career. He also trained in martial arts and worked as a bouncer at a Sunset Strip nightclub. Standing 6'2" and with a dragon tattoo on his back, the muscular Gargiulo was physically formidable.
Good looking, Gargiulo went through a string of girlfriends, including Velma Carrillo, whom he met in an online chat room. He told her he was a boxer training for the Olympics and had left Chicago because his best friend's sister had been murdered. He claimed the police were trying to pin the crime on him, according to court files.
Gargiulo went on to say that his DNA would be at the crime scene because the victim was "almost family to him," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Joseph Purcell later testified regarding a Gargiulo conversation with Carrillo. "Michael Gargiulo would tell her how DNA and the science of DNA would be used to capture suspects."
Gargiulo thought of himself as an expert of sorts because he was an avid watcher of forensics and crime-related television shows.
Other women had more violent encounters. Maria Gurrola dated Gargiulo and found him to be forceful, demanding, and threatening. He once struck her, and she suffered a detached retina, Purcell testified.
"Michael Gargiulo had threatened to kill her if she ever left him and had also told her that because of his study and degree in forensics, he would be able to kill her and get away with it," Purcell testified. Another girlfriend called police when he shocked her with a Taser gun, according to court files.
He lived with various women off and on and fathered several children. His job as a bouncer was left behind for something more stable: work as an air conditioning and heating repairman who used blue medical booties at work.
El Monte is a small, working-class suburb of Los Angeles where someone like Maria Bruno could blend into the landscape while going about her daily life. It's a lower-income area where residents eke out a living in the shadow of their wealthy Los Angeles neighbors 15 miles west; a place that has been seen an influx of prostitution, drugs and gang crime over the past several decades. But there are pockets where people like Bruno, 32 and single, lived in safety and relative comfort. That is, until the night of Dec. 1, 2005.
On that night, a Jack the Ripper-style killer struck inside Bruno's apartment in a frenzied attack that left the vivacious aspiring model looking like she'd been drained of half her blood. Like the final Ripper victim, Mary Kelly, 107 years before, the killer had the benefit of an enclosed place where he could spend time systematically mutilating her body.
"I've been a homicide detective 17 years, and this was one of the most gruesome crime scenes I've ever seen," said Los Angeles Sheriff's Detective Mark Lillienfeld. "There was a massive amount of blood. It's amazing what type of damage one person could inflict on another."
The killer had entered Bruno's apartment through a kitchen window after she had gone to bed. He took a butcher knife from a sealed package in the kitchen and used it to slash her throat all the way down to her spine and stab the petite woman 17 times in the chest, arm, and abdomen. The killer also cut off both of Bruno's breasts, placing one of them in her gaping mouth.
Bruno had once commented to friends that there had been a "weird guy" at her building who had been seen watching her. About five days before her death, the man had followed her from the parking lot into her home and then exited about 10 seconds later. When asked about it, she told neighbors: "Oh, he's OK."
The killer had stalked Maria, knew her routine and knew she lived alone. "It's someone who planned it, was methodical, systematic, organized and knew what they were doing," Lillienfeld said in 2005. "He obviously spent some time at the scene — a minimum of 15 minutes and perhaps several hours."
The detective found a blue hospital-style paper bootie in front of Bruno's apartment. It contained Bruno's blood and skin cells around the plastic that weren't large enough to get a DNA match.
The witnesses who saw the man stalking Bruno worked with police to produce a composite drawing, which Lillienfeld distributed around Los Angeles. Six months after the attack, Gargiulo was in a Pasadena restaurant with his girlfriend when she saw the bulletin in the women's restroom.
Back at her table, girlfriend Kwak Na Hyun remarked about the composite in passing. Gargiulo responded that he knew the woman and she was very beautiful with big breasts, according to court files.
Santa Monica is a wealthy playground of sun, fun, and beautiful people. In 2008, it was home to Michelle Murphy, a beautiful, 28-year-old blonde who worked in movie post-production and lived in an upstairs apartment a dozen blocks from the beach.
Often going for a jog or exercising in the carport under her apartment, Murphy would sometimes see a van parked in the alley with the name "Gus the Plumber" painted on the side. Once in a while she'd see a tall, dark-haired man near the van and would say hello in passing.
On April 28, 2008, Murphy went to sleep just like any other night, but suddenly awoke, just before midnight, to the searing pain of someone plunging a knife into her chest. A man was straddling her body and continued stabbing her in the shoulder and right arm as she wriggled sideways to get away. At one point, Murphy grabbed hold of the blade, which sliced her fingers to the bone, according to police.
The assailant was having a difficult time holding down Murphy, who was nude and slippery because of her blood. At one point, the attacker ended up slicing his wrist.
"He paused, and this allowed Michelle to get feet under his chest and launched him off bed and onto wall. He hit the bedroom door," said Santa Monica police Sgt. Rich Lewis.
The attacker then mumbled, "Sorry," before escaping out the front door. He had entered through a window, but had left the front door ajar for an easy getaway after the attack. Murphy's quick wits and tenacity had saved her life.
Lewis responded to the scene and found a blood trail leading down Murphy's steps and across the alley and down a walkway toward another apartment complex. The blood-soaked bedding was tested for DNA as were the outside droplets.
A month later Lewis had a match, thanks to the DNA blood sample that Chicago investigators had entered into a national database. It was Michael Gargiulo.
Tying Up Loose Ends
In 2007, Gargiulo had started working for Gus the Plumber. He had gotten married and moved in with his wife, Ana Luz Gonzalez, who lived in a Santa Monica apartment across an alley from Michelle Murphy. In fact, Gargiulo's new home gave him an unobstructed view into Murphy's kitchen and dining room.
The night of Murphy's attack, Gonzalez was home asleep.
Lewis also got another lead after calling Chicago detectives to talk about Gargiulo — he was told that LAPD had similar stabbing. The three detectives decided to meet, along with a deputy district attorney. Murphy's case was pretty cut and dried, so the District Attorney's Office filed an attempted murder charge on June 10, 2008, less than two months after the attack.
Now that he knew his suspect's name, Lillienfeld discovered that Gargiulo lived in the same apartment complex as Bruno. Even though Gargiulo was long gone, Lillienfeld searched the apartment. He found nothing in the main part of the home, but noticed an attic and got a ladder to crawl inside.
Up there in a plastic baggie, he discovered a blue medical bootie that matched the one he found two years earlier in front of Bruno's apartment. This time there were enough skin cells on the new bootie to do a DNA test. It came back to Gargiulo, according to court files.
Now with DNA matching Gargiulo to two murders and one attempted murder, Small had enough circumstantial evidence in the similarities of the four cases to file his own case with the District Attorney's Office. Gargiulo was charged with both Bruno and Ellerin's murders on Oct. 20, 2008.
The only things that lacked resolution were the Pacaccio death in Chicago and the nagging hunch by the three detectives that Gargiulo could be responsible for an untold number of other murders.
Gargiulo was arrested for the Murphy attack on June 6, 2008. While sitting in jail, he plotted an escape, according to court files.
Ten days after his arrest, he snapped off the head of a plastic spoon that had been given him for a meal. He whittled the straight piece down to a point with his teeth and tried to unlock his handcuffs. This episode was videotaped.
"He talked about being locked in, left alone sitting in a chair, climbing up into the ceiling, running down to another part of the building, coming down, popping out a window, jumping and running over a fence," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Michael Staley testified later.
Gargiulo also talked about "disabling the jailer with a throat punch" and "stating that would be a fatal punch," Staley said. The escape never happened, but an extra charge of attempted escape was added to his case.
Gargiulo was in jail without any bail and went through a string of defense attorneys that he fired before settling on one that represented him in a two-week preliminary hearing that began on June 21, 2008 and included dozens of witnesses, including numerous people who knew Gargiulo.
Gargiulo was ordered to stand trial, but that was a small comfort to the Pacaccios, who were angered by the fact that Cook County prosecutor Scott Cassidy rejected filing the Pacaccio case despite the DNA evidence. The couple said they were told that Tricia could've obtained Gargiulo's DNA by accepting a ride in his van the day before.
"It's just a made-up reason for not arresting Michael," Diane Pacaccio said. "First of all, he was never a friend of my daughter's and never had anything to do with her. How could she be out with all her friends that night and no one else's DNA is on her?"
Rick Pacaccio said he had spent 17 years campaigning for justice in his daughter's death, even contacting the FBI and his congressman. Everything had fallen on deaf ears.
"If the people of the state of Illinois are stupid enough to believe [Gargiulo] didn't do it, shame on them," he said. "All we want is our daughter to have justice, and they're robbing her of that. Her civil rights are being violated from one individual standing on the way."
Cassidy has since changed jobs and is now head of investigations for the Cook County Sheriff's Office. He refused to return phone calls asking why no case has been filed even though a California judge allowed evidence of Pacaccio's murder to help prove the knifings of three other women. Numerous phone calls to spokespeople for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and the Cook County Sheriff's Office have not been returned.
Calls to Gargiulo's attorney were not returned.
Asked for a motive for the killings, Lillienfeld could give none.
"You're trying to apply logic to an illogical situation and person," the veteran detective said. "The things that interest him and excite him and whet his appetite are not that of a normal person. The things that interest him are macabre, such as murder and cutting people up."
Added Small: "He wants to exert some sort of control over his sick, twisted mind. Something that trips his trigger, and he goes to work."
Great police work solves cases, but Lewis admitted, "We really got lucky. I think the true hero in this is Michelle Murphy."
Summing everything up, Lillienfeld said the whole case is like the plot of some horror movie.
"It's every woman's nightmare waking up to a stranger in a bedroom standing over them with a knife. Hollywood couldn't have typecast this better. It's one thing to wake up with Brad Pitt, but not this guy."