Sentencing is set Friday for the so-called “Hollywood Ripper,” who was convicted of killing and mutilating two Southland women and attacking a third who survived to testify against him.
In October 2019, a jury recommended that Michael Gargiulo be sentenced to death for the Feb. 22, 2001, slaying of 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin in her Hollywood bungalow hours before she was set to go out with actor Ashton Kutcher, along with the Dec. 1, 2005, killing of Maria Bruno, a 32-year-old mother of four young children, in her El Monte apartment.
Jurors convicted Gargiulo, now 45, of first-degree murder for those slayings, along with the attempted murder of Michelle Murphy, who was stabbed eight times in her Santa Monica apartment in April 2008.
The panel also found to be true the special-circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder while lying in wait, and subsequently found that he was sane at the time of the crimes.
He is also awaiting trial in Illinois, where he was charged in 2011 with killing an 18-year-old woman, Tricia Pacaccio, who was repeatedly stabbed on her front doorstep after returning home in Glenview, Illinois, from a night out with friends Aug. 14, 1993.
Jurors in Gargiulo’s Los Angeles trial heard about Pacaccio’s killing, with her mother and two brothers testifying during the trial’s penalty phase.
The panel also heard from family members of Ellerin and Bruno, along with Murphy and her husband. Gargiulo’s 16-year-old son and a forensic psychologist who interviewed his family members — who refused to travel to Los Angeles to testify during the trial — were called during the defense’s portion of the penalty phase, in which jurors were asked to recommend whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Based on the totality of the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from that evidence, it is abundantly clear from numerous trial witnesses that Gargiulo is a psychosexual thrill killer who had the motive, opportunity, means and intent to murder Ms. Ellerin,” prosecutors Dan Akemon and Garrett Dameron wrote in court papers.
“He targeted Ms. Ellerin, obsessed over her, injected himself into her life, lived within earshot and eyeshot of her residence as he did with the other three victims, stalked her and flashed a knife to one of her friends and familiarized herself with her residence and surrounding area so that he could strike at the most opportune moment.”
The deputy district attorneys added that it was “eerily similar to the window of opportunity that he used in the murders of Tricia Pacaccio and Maria Bruno and the attempted murder of Michelle Murphy.”
The violent nature of the attacks earned Gargiulo the moniker “Hollywood Ripper.” Akemon also referred in court to the defendant as the “Boy Next Door” killer, noting that he lived near all of his victims and telling jurors that he targeted the women in “frenzied knife attacks” that are “inextricably linked.”
After Pacaccio was killed outside her Illinois home, Gargiulo moved to Hollywood, where Ellerin’s friends noticed that he showed up uninvited to a party and that he seemed to be fixated on her, according to the prosecution.
Kutcher — who co-starred on the TV sitcoms “That ’70s Show” and “Two and a Half Men” — testified during the guilt phase of the trial that he had spoken to Ellerin on the phone the afternoon she died and showed up at her home two hours later to pick her up. When she didn’t answer her door, the actor said he looked through a window and saw what he believed was red wine spilled on the carpet. He said he left because he thought Ellerin had already gone out for the night.
The young woman’s roommate discovered her dead the next morning. She had been stabbed 47 times in the hallway outside her bathroom in an attack in which she was nearly decapitated.
Gargiulo subsequently moved to El Monte and lived in the same apartment complex where Bruno was “mutilated” as she slept, Akemon said.
The prosecutor said Gargiulo stabbed the 32-year-old woman 17 times, cut off her breasts, tried to remove her breast implants and placed one of her breasts on her mouth.
A blue surgical bootie found outside the apartment contained drops of her blood along with Gargiulo’s DNA around the elastic band, and another blue surgical bootie appearing to be the same model was recovered from the attic of the El Monte apartment he had rented, according to Akemon.
Gargiulo was able to escape detection until he accidentally cut himself with a knife during the 2008 attack on Murphy — near where he lived at the time in Santa Monica — and left a “blood trail” during that attack, Akemon told jurors during the trial.
Gargiulo was initially arrested in connection with the attack on Murphy and was subsequently charged with the killings of Ellerin and Bruno and later with Pacaccio’s killing in Illinois.
Jurors deliberated less than five hours before reaching their verdict in the penalty phase, opting for a recommendation of death over a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Outside court, one of Gargiulo’s attorneys, Daniel Nardoni, said he was “really disappointed” with the jury’s decision.
He told reporters that there is a different type of punishment for the mentally ill — life without the possibility of parole — and said that it was “just a matter of humanity.”
Nardoni had argued that a life prison term would be a “slow and agonizing punishment over time” that would serve as a constant reminder to Gargiulo of what he has done.
“I believe it’s inhumane to execute a mentally ill person,” he told the jury in his final argument.
Gargiulo’s attorney had pleaded with jurors to show mercy to his client and urged them to consider testimony about Gargiulo’s upbringing, including a forensic psychologist’s account of childhood abuse by family members.
Dameron, one of the prosecutors, countered that Gargiulo left a “trail of death, destruction and devastation,” and told jurors about the defendant’s “violent victimization of countless women throughout his life,” starting with Pacaccio, the sister of one of his childhood friends, when he was 17.
“In this case, justice demands that Michael Gargiulo be put to death for the lives he has taken and the destruction and pain he has caused,” Dameron said, adding that the defendant lived a “normal life by day” and was a “completely different individual” at night.
The case — which was tried under prior Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s administration — marks the second death-penalty case that has come up for sentencing under the administration of new District Attorney George Gascón, who opposes the death penalty.
A judge in Norwalk refused earlier this month to allow a prosecutor to read a statement from Gascón shortly before Jade Douglas Harris was sentenced to death. Gascón said in the statement that he “does not believe the death penalty is an appropriate punishment in any case,” and asked the court to consider his stance on the death penalty.