A Tinseltown Murder: The Case of the Hollywood Ripper

To the outside world, Michael Gargiulo looked like a regular air conditioner repairman. However, he was far from a regular guy. For 15 years, Gargiulo plotted the perfect opportunity to attack women around their homes, and once he made his way to Southern California, he became known as the Hollywood Ripper.

Michael Gargiulo / Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis / Ashton Kutcher, Ashley Ellerin / Ashton Kutcher.
Source: Getty Images

The case against the Hollywood Ripper has all the elements of a Tinseltown thriller with a star prosecution witness who happens to be a movie star and a killer with a chilling nickname. How he got away with his crimes for over a decade is a mystery, but his victims finally got the justice they deserved years later.

The Neighborhood Bully

Born in 1976, Michael Gargiulo grew up in Glenview, Illinois, a suburb outside Chicago. He was one of seven children, and he claimed he suffered abuse at the hands of his father and siblings even though this was never verified. Growing up, Gargiulo got a reputation as the neighborhood bully with a frightening temper. People who knew him said he would go from ordinary to crazy in a second.

A portrait of Michael Gargiulo in court.
Photo by Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

When Gargiulo would snap as a teenager, neighborhood kids described him as inhuman. He scared everyone because of his short temper, and no one wanted to mess with him. Although he was an intimidating figure, he still had friends around town. It wouldn’t be long before Gargiulo’s temper got the best of him, and he couldn’t control his terrifying desires.

His First Victim

The Pacaccio family lived near Gargiulo’s childhood home. Doug Pacaccio was a friend of Gargiulo’s, and they both attended Glenbrook South High School with Doug’s older sister, Tricia. She graduated from high school in 1993 and was supposed to attend Purdue University in Indiana that fall. On the night of Friday, August 13, 1993, she met up with friends for dinner and a scavenger hunt before they all left for school in a few weeks.

Tricia Pacaccio poses for a portrait.
Source: Pinterest

After dropping her friends off, Tricia drove home around 1 a.m., which was the last time anyone saw her alive. The following morning, Tricia’s father, Rick, found her dead on the front steps. She had been stabbed 12 times, and her arm was broken. Tricia was just 18 years old. DNA was found under her fingernails, but investigators couldn’t identify a suspect through the samples due to limited forensic technology at the time.

The Trail Goes Cold

During the investigation of Tricia’s murder, detectives questioned Gargiulo because he drove Tricia to a friend’s house in his car two days before her murder. However, Gargiulo implicated another teenager in the interview, and police couldn’t file charges. After searching for her killer, the investigation was turned over to the cold case squad. Her family was devastated because they wanted justice for their daughter.

A portrait of Michael Gargiulo.
Source: Pinterest

Unfortunately, if the technology had been more advanced in the ‘90s, they would have caught her murderer right away. In 2003, the cold case unit matched Gargiulo’s DNA to the skin found under Tricia’s nails, but they didn’t charge him. Her parents were furious when they learned about this because their daughter’s killer was still at large, and they wanted justice.

The Perfect Suspect

After being accused of murder, Gargiulo stayed in Illinois for a few more years. During this time, he couldn’t control his rage. After ending a romantic relationship with a classmate, Gargiulo attacked and sexually assaulted her in 1995. When she later testified at his trial, she said she couldn’t move because she was so afraid of what he might do to her.

A mugshot of Michael Gargiulo.
Source: Wikipedia

Gargiulo was also involved in a battery incident at his high school and got caught breaking into cars. He pleaded guilty to burglary and was put on 18-months of probation and ordered to pay a $200 fine. This was probably the last time he would admit to the crimes he committed because he still believes he is innocent to this day.

Leaving the Past Behind

Gargiulo grew tired of the public and police scrutiny, so in the late 1990s, he followed his brother to Los Angeles, where he trained in martial arts and boxing. He got a job as a bouncer at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and befriended two fellow bouncers, Temer Leary and Anthony DiLorenzo.

The Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Paul Rovere/Getty Images

Leary and DiLorenzo claimed that Gargiulo admitted to the Pacaccio murder when they were driving around L.A. in 2000. He asked them, “You guys ever kill anybody?”

On the Steps for Dead

When the two men didn’t answer, Gargiulo said, “I have. I buried a b***h … I left her on the steps for dead.” Leary and DiLorenzo didn’t believe him because he was known for exaggerating the truth.

Temer Leary and Anthony DiLorenzo’s televised interview.
Source: CBS News

The men never told anyone about the conversation until after Garguilo was arrested years later. A few months after the talk, Garguilo was fired from the Rainbow for punching a customer. He decided to switch career paths and started working as an air-conditioning and heating repairman.

Befriending His Beautiful Neighbor

That fall, Garguilo befriended Ashley Ellerin, who lived a few blocks away from him in Hollywood. He saw her and her friends outside her house and offered to help them fix a flat tire. He gave Ellerin his card in case she needed her AC fixed. Garguilo was infatuated with Ellerin and began visiting her at strange hours.

A picture of Ashley Ellerin with a friend
Source: Facebook

Garguilo was once seen sitting in a car outside her home in the middle of the night. Ellerin didn’t think anything of him, but she avoided him after noticing he hung around too much. She had been known to date young actors like Vin Diesel and Ashton Kutcher, making Garguilo feel inferior.

Running Late

On the night of February 21, 2001, Ellerin was supposed to go to a Grammy after-party with Kutcher, who was on That ‘70s Show at the time. Kutcher called around 8:24 p.m. and spoke to Ellerin for the last time. He was late to pick her up and called again around 10 p.m. to say he was running late, but she didn’t answer.

Ashton Kutcher is attending an event / A portrait of Ashley Ellerin.
Photo by Barry King, WireImage, Getty Images / Source: Tumblr

When Kutcher arrived at Ellerin’s home around 10:45 p.m., Ellerin didn’t answer the door. He assumed she bailed because he was so late to pick her up. Before Kutcher left her house, he peeked in the window and saw what he thought was red wine spilled on the carpet. What he actually saw was blood.

The Morning After

The following day, Ellerin’s roommate returned home and found Ashley on a landing outside her bedroom in a pool of blood. She had been stabbed 47 times, and some of the wounds were nearly six inches deep. Whoever did this to her had an incredible rage inside them and was angry with Ellerin.

Barricade tape surrounds Ashley Ellerin’s house.
Source: CBS News

Detectives began speaking with Ellerin’s family and friends. After learning more about her life, they started looking for a friend Ellerin referred to as “Mike the furnace man.” After some investigating, the Los Angeles Police Department found out that her “friend” was Michael Gargiulo, and they had his photo.

A Cold Case From the Past Has New Evidence

Around the same time as Ellerin’s murder, detectives from the Cook County Sheriff’s cold case division were re-examining the Tricia Pacaccio murder. They retested the DNA found under her fingernails and gathered samples from people who had been in contact with Tricia around the time of her death, including Gargiulo.

The Cook County Sheriff’s vehicle.
Source: Facebook

Cook County detectives then flew to L.A. in 2002 and contacted the LAPD officers investigating Ellerin’s murder. When they arrived at the LAPD station, the detectives on Ellerin’s case held up a photo and asked, “Is this who you are looking for?” The Cook County officers asked how they knew him, and they were told Gargiulo was a potential suspect in another case.

Tracking Gargiulo Down

The police eventually found Gargiulo, and he fought with detectives before having a DNA sample in the hospital. It was a positive match for the DNA under Tricia’s nails. However, the Cook County State attorney’s office refused to indict Gargiulo because DNA could be exchanged through casual contact.

Police officers outside LAPD headquarters.
Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the LAPD had no physical evidence tying Gargiulo to the Ellerin’s murder, so no charges were filed against him. He was walking the streets free even though he was a dangerous person. Tricia’s family was furious that he wasn’t in jail, and no one knew if he would ever be brought to justice.

Alarming Behavior

In 2003, one of Gargiulo’s former girlfriends said that he punched her in the face and threatened to kill her. He claimed he could get away with it because of his extensive knowledge of forensics. The pair met when she hired him to fix her air-conditioning, and he showed up with blue surgical shoe covers.

A portrait of Gargiulo.
Source: Pinterest

Gargiulo begged her to go on a date with him, and he began stalking her. She had to file a restraining order against him because she was so scared of what he would do to her. He must not have wanted to get arrested because that would have potentially linked him to past cases, so he stopped bothering her.

Finding His Next Victim

Gargiulo moved to El Monte, a suburb east of L.A., with another woman by late 2005. Across the courtyard of their apartment building lived Maria Bruno, a mother of four. Just ten days after Bruno moved into the building, she was murdered on December 1, 2005.

Maria Bruno and her children sitting in the couch.
Source: CBS

In the early hours of the morning, Gargiulo snuck into Bruno’s home through the kitchen window and killed her. She wasn’t found until the following day, and her murder was the most brutal so far. She had numerous stab wounds, her breasts were removed, and one was placed over her mouth.

Not Much Evidence

When police arrived at the scene of Bruno’s murder, the only clue they found was a blue surgical shoe cover with a drop of Bruno’s blood on it. Police couldn’t find anything to use to create a suspect list, and the case went cold. They couldn’t figure out how someone was committing such brutal murders without leaving any evidence behind.

The knife pack used to kill Maria Bruno.
Source: LAPD

People were terrified that a killer was on the loose. Meanwhile, Gargiulo was moving on to another woman because he couldn’t murder two people in one place without raising suspicions. He began dating and living with a woman in Santa Monica, and it was there that he found his next and final victim.

The One That Got Away

Across the alley from Gargiulo’s second-story apartment lived Michelle Murphy. The petite 27-year-old looked like an easy target, and he had a direct line of sight into her bedroom. On April 28, 2008, Murphy woke up to find a man in a hoodie and baseball hat stabbing her in the chest. Although she was just 5 foot 1 inches, she did everything to fight her attacker.

A portrait of Michelle Murphy.
Source: CBS News

Murphy fought with every ounce of strength she had, and as they struggled over his blade, Murphy’s attacker cut himself. As the attacker fled her apartment, he said, “I’m sorry.” Murphy was lucky to be alive and called the police right away.

A DNA Match Thanks to an Old Case

When detectives investigated Murphy’s attack, they ran the DNA through the national database, matching Gargiulo’s sample from the Tricia Pacaccio case. Finally, they had enough evidence to make an arrest. In June 2008, Gargiulo was arrested for attempted murder and held on $1.1 million bail.

A view to Michelle’s bed.
Source: LAPD

Investigators searched Gargiulo’s car and found a bag of tools and blue shoe covers. A subsequent search of his previous El Monte apartment led to the discovery of the matching bootie from the Bruno crime scene. Gargiulo’s DNA was also a match from the material found on the bootie.

Connecting the Dots

Once a DNA match was found, Gargiulo was charged for the murders of Bruno and Ellerin in September 2008. However, it was another three years before the prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois, felt they had enough evidence to indict him. Finally, in July 2011, Gargiulo was charged for the 1993 murder of Tricia Pacaccio.

Defense attorneys arrive to visit an evidence site.
Photo by David McNew- Pool/Getty Images

Pacaccio’s family got the justice they had been hoping for since the day their daughter was brutally murdered right outside their home. It would be almost a decade until Gargiulo’s trial started and even longer until he was sentenced.

More Unknown Victims

After Gargiulo’s arrest, he was still confident he would get away with his crimes. He apparently told authorities in the L.A. County Jail that just because ten women were killed, and his DNA was present doesn’t mean he murdered anyone. This led investigators to believe there were more victims that they hadn’t connected to him yet.

Pictures of the four victims.
Photo by Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

If he had killed even more women, how come police hadn’t discovered those murders yet? Because there was no hard evidence to prove Gargiulo’s claims, he only went to trial for those they could actually prove. How was he able to walk free for so many years when the police in his hometown could have arrested him at least five years earlier?

A Media Field Day

When Gargiulo’s case started to gain media traction, news outlets began calling him the “Hollywood Ripper” or “Chiller Killer.” It became an even larger media circus once the public found out that Ashton Kutcher has some connection to the case. People questioned how Gargiulo got away with his crimes even though we have better technology than in previous decades.

Ashton Kutcher is sitting on the stand.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

When Tricia Pacaccio’s parents saw the news about Gargiulo, they made sure to publicly state that two attacks happened after the Cook County authorities had enough evidence to arrest him in their daughter’s case. The bouncers he was once friends with even told the police that Gargiulo confessed to her murder.

The Trial Begins With a Movie Star

Gargiulo’s pre-trial hearing was held on June 9, 2017, in Los Angeles, and his trial was supposed to begin in October of that year. However, after many delays, the Hollywood Ripper’s official trial started on May 2, 2019. Ashton Kutcher testified at the trial about his ill-fated date with Ellerin in 2001.

Ashton Kutcher testifies in court.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

During the trial, Gargiulo was called a “serial sexual thrill killer” because of the way he stabbed and brutally murdered his victims. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges because his defense team claimed he didn’t remember anything.

The First Testimony

During the trial, the first witness the prosecutor called, and the most important, was Michelle Murphy. She said she tried to hold the knife to keep it from stabbing her. She recalls asking Gargiulo why he was doing that, and he eventually gave up and ran out apologizing. The trail of blood found outside Murphy’s apartment matched Gargiulo’s DNA.

Pictures of the victims and Michael Gargiulo appear on screens during the trial.
Photo by Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

It was challenging for Murphy to face Gargiulo because he was so close to killing her. She said she barely slept for months in fear that he would be there when she woke up. Murphy also said she never returned to that apartment and even avoided the neighborhood because it reminded her of the trauma she suffered.

No Remorse

Gargiulo was heard arguing with his lawyers at the beginning of his trial because they didn’t want him to take the stand. He also said, “I’m going to death row wrongfully and unjustly” because he didn’t think he was guilty of anything. He had no remorse then, and he has no remorse now.

Michael Gargiulo in court with his defense attorney.
Michael Gargiulo, Daniel Nardoni. Photo by Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

People don’t know why Gargiulo said he was sorry as he ran out of Michelle Murphy’s apartment even though he doesn’t show any emotions towards the crimes he committed. There is obviously something wrong with someone who willingly kills people for no reason.

Using Evidence From the Pacaccio Case

Although Gargiulo is expected to be extradited to his hometown in Illinois for the 1993 murder of Tricia Pacaccio, the prosecutors in L.A. presented extensive evidence from that case to establish he had a pattern. They needed to prove he was a serial killer to get a harsher sentence at the end of the trial.

Tricia Pacaccio’s father cries during an interview.
Rick Pacaccio. Source: CBS News

Pacaccio’s parents have been patiently waiting for justice for almost three decades. Gargiulo couldn’t be extradited to Illinois until his trial in California ended. It must be a slight relief to know he is behind bars and can’t hurt another woman like their daughter. However, they won’t have real peace until he is found guilty of their daughter’s murder.

The Judge Had Many Choice Words for the Hollywood Ripper

During the trial, the presiding judge said, “Everywhere that Mr. Gargiulo went, death and destruction followed him.” He also said the crimes were vicious and frightening. One of the testimonies in the trial was from a neuropsychologist on the side of the defense.

The judge presides during the trial.
Judge Larry Paul Fidler. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The neuropsychologist revealed that Gargiulo was in special education in primary school due to behavioral issues. She said he tended to engage in power struggles with adults. After many interviews with Gargiulo, a psychologist also said he had dissociative identity disorder. However, the diagnosis didn’t sit well with him.

Trying to Divert Attention

Ashton Kutcher took the stand during the Hollywood Ripper trial to recount the events of the night he was supposed to pick up Ashley Ellirin for their date. However, the defense for Gargiulo said that Kutcher’s testimony helped point to a different suspect.

Ashton Kutcher takes the stand.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Attorney Daniel Nardoni tried to convince the jury that two other men were responsible for the stabbing deaths. The defense wanted to make it seem like Ellerin’s murder was caused by the apartment manager because they were in a secret relationship.

Twisting the Real Story

In the same way the defense tried to make it seem like someone else killed Ellerin, they did for Maria Bruno. Nardoni showed the jury a graphic crime-scene photo of Bruno and said, “Whoever did this, it was personal.” He added that they only found Gargiulo’s DNA at the scene because they lived in the same apartment complex.

Michael Gargiulo and Nardoni in court.
Photo by Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

The only time the defense didn’t try to twist the story was in the case of the attempted murder because there was an overwhelming amount of evidence against Gargiulo. They also said Gargiulo was in a blackout state because of his dissociative identity disorder, so he didn’t know what he was doing when he went to Murphy’s apartment.

The Families of the Victims Lived Through a Nightmare

During the trial’s sentencing phase, the jury listened to heart-wrenching testimonies from the victims’ family members. In one account, Ashley Ellerin’s mother recalled how she fell to the floor screaming when her husband told her the news of their daughter’s death.

Ashley Ellerin’s mother and father are standing outside their home.
Cynthia Ellerin, Michael Ellerin. Photo by Jeff Rayner

Tricia Pacaccio’s brother testified against his former best friend, stating, “As much as you try to have fun, be joyful, and be grateful for the good things, it will never, ever, ever be without that underlying despair.” The families will never be the same without their loved ones who didn’t deserve to die.

Hollywood Ripper Found Sane by Jury

After many testimonies in favor of the defense about Gargiulo’s mental state, the jury found that he was sane at the time of the two murders and attempted murder. This decision made Gargiulo eligible for the death penalty. Although California hasn’t executed someone since the mid-2000s, he was still able to be put on death row.

Defense attorneys arrive to visit an evidence site.
Photo by David McNew- Pool/Getty Images

The defense tried to show reasonable doubt, and when that didn’t work, they switched to make it seem like Gargiulo wasn’t mentally aware that he committed crimes. However, he was still found guilty on both counts of murder and attempted murder.

He Was Always Watching

In the opening statements of the trial, the prosecution said, “What you’ll hear is that Michael Gargiulo for almost 15 years was watching. Always watching.” The district attorney added, “His hobby was to plot the perfect opportunity to attack women in and around their homes.”

Michael Gargiulo’s apartment in Santa Monica.
Photo by David McNew- Pool/Getty Images

When he attacked his last three victims, he lived near them and watched until he found the perfect time to strike. In the case of Murphy, he had a direct view into her bedroom, and he took advantage of that. He stalked many women, and it is possible that he committed other unsolved murders.

He Plotted His Escape From Prison

After Gargiulo’s arrest, undercover detectives spent 40 hours inside a jail cell with him. At the trial, the jury listened to an audio recording from inside the cell where Gargiulo hatched a plan to attack the guard, steal a cop car, and escape.

A police officer stands next to Michael Gargiulo in court.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Police later found a makeshift handcuff key tucked into Gargiulo’s pants, which added an attempted escape charge to his list of crimes. The defense tried to say that this was a way to get Gargiulo to admit to his crimes, but it wasn’t successful. They also said there was a lack of DNA evidence, but that was false.

Guilty on All Counts

After just three months, a Southern California jury found Michael Gargiulo, aka the Hollywood Ripper, guilty in the murders of Maria Bruno and Ashley Ellerin and the attempted murder of Michelle Murphy. In both the murders and attempted murder, the jury mentioned he laid in wait and premeditated his attacks.

Michael Gargiulo listens to his sentence.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. Gargiulo was also charged with attempted escape after plotting to escape from prison. He had to wait another two years to find out his official sentence.

The Death Penalty

On July 16, 2021, almost two years after a jury found Gargiulo guilty, he was sentenced to death. He initially faced life in prison without parole or the death sentence, and the jury recommended the death sentence in his trial.

Prosecuting attorney speaks while defense attorneys listen.
Daniel Akemon, Dale Rubin, Daniel Nardoni. Photo by Al Seib-Pool/Getty Images

Despite their attempts to delay the sentencing, the defense lost their case. Gargiulo is now expected to be extradited to Illinois for the Pacaccio murder trial in his hometown. If he is convicted, he could receive 25 years to life on top of his death sentence.

He Will Sit on Death Row for Years

Because Gargiulo was sentenced to death in California, it is unlikely that he will be put to death anytime soon. California has not executed anyone since 2006, when Governor Gavin Newson halted executions for as long as he is in office.

A chair sits in a cage on California’s Prison death row.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California courts have been proceeding on the assumption that executions will one day resume, which is why they are still giving people the death sentence. Gargiulo also has to stand trial for the murder he committed in Illinois as a teenager before he heads to death row.

He Was Ruthless

For three months, an L.A. jury had to listen to the prosecutors argue that Gargiulo was a methodical killer who laid in wait for his victims. He stalked them, broke into their homes at night, and attacked them with a knife when they were the most vulnerable.

A mugshot of Michael Gargiulo.
Source: LAPD

After the murder of three women beginning in 1993, Gargiulo was confident, bold, and even arrogant that he would get away with his crimes because he went unnoticed for so long. He was only dubbed the “Hollywood Ripper” after the 2001 murder of Ashley Ellerin because she lived near Hollywood Boulevard.

An Ex-Girlfriend Had to Testify Against Him

When Grace Kwak saw a picture of a woman murdered in El Monte on a flyer in 2005, it shocked her that a murder occurred in the same apartment complex she had lived in with her ex-boyfriend, Gargiulo. Kwak was pregnant with Gargiulo’s child at the time, and she talked to him about seeing their address on the flyer.

A portrait of Michael Gargiulo.
Source: Pinterest

Kwak said Gargiulo was in and out and sometimes didn’t come home at all when they lived together. She moved in with her parents because of relationship problems before the murder of Maria Bruno, so she didn’t see Gargiulo around the time of the murder.

The Woman on the News

In 2015, Yadira Reyes’s aunt called her to say her picture was on the news because the police were looking for her. It was a photo of her with Gargiulo from a decade earlier when they were dating. The police thought Reyes was one of his victims, and in many ways, she was.

A picture of Yadira Reyes and Michael Gargiulo.
Source: LAPD

Reyes told police how Gargiulo forced her into the back of his work van and sexually assaulted her while they were on a date. She begged him to stop, and he did. He drove her home and threatened to kill her or her family if she ever told anyone. She gave her testimony at Gargiulo’s trial.

Why Did He Do It?

While people may never really know why Gargiulo killed those women because he didn’t testify at his trial, psychologists can make some assumptions. He enjoyed the elaborate preparation, but the stalking wasn’t enough. He had to take the next step and kill them to get the same degree of stimulation.

A door to one of the victim’s homes.
S Photo by David McNew- Pool/Getty Images

The defense claimed he committed these crimes because of his abusive childhood and his dissociative identity disorder. However, it is more likely that he just enjoyed the thrill of killing. He also barely showed emotion at the trial because he didn’t care.

“48 Hours” Helped Crack the Case

The show 48 Hours helped solve the Hollywood Ripper case because, during their deep dive into the life and mind of Gargiulo, they discovered two people from his past. After the original episode about Gargiulo aired, two bouncers Gargiulo worked with came forward to tell police he admitted to the murder of Pacaccio.

A correspondent from ‘48-Hours’ talks about Michael Gargiulo’s case.
Maureen Maher. cbsSource: CBS News

The two men said that Gargiulo told them about a murder he committed outside of Chicago when he was younger. When he told the men, they initially didn’t believe him, but they couldn’t keep that information to themselves after seeing the other crimes he had committed.