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Behind the glitz: The crimes of 'The Hollywood Ripper'

Michael Gargiulo wearing an orange jumpsuit during a court hearing
Image: Michael Gargiulo is seen during a hearing by his defence introducing a motion for a new trial at Los Angeles Superior Court in February 2020 | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Throughout history, Los Angeles has been the home to some of the world’s most notorious serial killers. One of those killers is Michael Gargiulo, who was given the moniker ‘The Hollywood Ripper’. The case garnered worldwide attention because one of the victims, Ashley Ellerin, had been planning to go on a date with actor Ashton Kutcher, who went on to testify at trial.

Gargiulo was born on 15th February 1976 and raised in Glenview, Illinois. According to reports, he endured abuse during his childhood. However, these claims have not been corroborated.

There were early warning signs regarding Gargiulo’s violent nature. A friend from his neighbourhood described the killer as being able to go from ‘normal to crazy, in like a second’.

Gargiulo’s short temper led him to gain a reputation for being a bully around his neighbourhood. At the age of 17, he committed his first murder.

In the same neighbourhood lived the Pacaccio family. Gargiulo was friends with the family’s son, Doug, and attended the same high school as Doug’s older sister, Tricia.

Tricia had graduated from high school in 1993 and was excited to start at Purdue University in Indiana that autumn. During the night of 13th August that year, Tricia and her friends organised a scavenger hunt. As the evening ended, Tricia dropped her friends off before driving home around 1am.

The following morning, Tricia’s father, Rick, found her dead at the front of their house. She had sustained 12 knife wounds and a broken arm. Despite DNA being retrieved from under her fingernails, forensic technology was not advanced enough to be able to identify a suspect.

Suspicion surrounded Gargiulo from the beginning of the investigation. He had even been questioned by the police as he had driven Tricia to a friend's house in the days leading up to her murder. However, charges were never pressed against him, and the case went cold.

In 1998, Gargiulo relocated to Los Angeles, California. Reports claim that this was to avoid the scrutiny over Tricia’s murder. Whilst in the city, Gargiulo landed a job as a bouncer at the famous Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard.

After a physical confrontation with a guest, Gargiulo was fired in 2000 and began working as an air conditioning and heating repairman. Later that year, he befriended 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin who lived close by in Hollywood.

Ashley had been a student at the Los Angeles Fashion Institute of Design of Merchandising. After helping fix her tyre, Gargiulo became fixated with Ashley and frequently appeared unannounced at her apartment. The student became fearful she had a stalker.

In February 2001, Ashley began dating Ashton Kutcher, who was an up-and-coming actor at the time. On the evening of 21st February, she was due to go on a date with Ashton to a post-Grammy party. However, when the actor arrived at Ashley’s home, he knocked on the door and received no answer. Before leaving, Ashton looked through the windows and noticed a red stain on the floor. He wasn’t alarmed and believed it to be a wine stain.

The red stain was later revealed to be blood. A friend discovered Ashley’s body the following morning. She had been stabbed around 47 times.

The LAPD began looking for a man known as ‘Mike the furnace man’ and eventually discovered his identity to be Michael Gargiulo. Around the same time, officers in Chicago were re-examining evidence from the Tricia Pacaccio murder. They retested DNA from the crime scene and gathered samples from those who last saw Tricia, including Gargiulo.

Cook County officers along with the help from LAPD tracked down Gargiulo and obtained a DNA sample. It was a positive match to evidence from Tricia’s crime scene. Despite this discovery, officers refused to charge Gargiulo as the DNA could have been obtained through casual contact.

There was no evidence linking him to Ashley’s murder, and no charges were filed.

By 2005, Gargiulo was living with a woman in an apartment in El Monte. Across from their residence lived Maria Bruno, a mother of four children. On 1st December 2005, Gargiulo snuck into her home and murdered her. She sustained horrific knife wounds and was discovered the next day outside her apartment. The only piece of evidence was a surgical shoe slipper which had a drop of Gargiulo’s blood on.

The killer later moved in with another woman in Santa Monica. Across from their apartment lived 27-year-old Michelle Murphy. On 28th April 2008, Michelle woke up to Gargiulo stabbing her in the chest. Miraculously, she managed to fight him off.

During the attack, Gargiulo cut himself. Detectives ran the DNA through a national database which matched Gargiulo. In June 2008, Gargiulo was arrested. A search of his car uncovered a bag of tools and the blue slippers.

Gargiulo was charged with the murders of Ashley Ellerin and Maria Bruno in September 2008. Three years later, he was charged with the murder of Tricia Pacaccio. In 2019, Gargiulo’s trial began, and he was found guilty on all charges before being sentenced to death.