It was nearing midnight when a large man emerged from his rented blue Dodge and approached a brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Covina. He wore a handmade Santa Claus suit with boot-covers, belt, beard, glasses and gloves. Hardly suspicious. It was Christmas Eve.
But underneath were black street clothes, five 9-millimeter handguns and $17,000 in cash plastic-wrapped to his body. He was pulling a compressor wrapped in Christmas paper and primed with high-octane fuel. In one shoe was a printout for a ticket on a Northwest Airlines flight to Moline, Ill.
The man knocked. Inside, a family Christmas party was ending, and Sylvia Pardo’s relatives had gathered near the door to say good night.
The door swung open and an 8-year-old girl ran to Santa. He shot her in the face. Then he stepped into the house and opened fire. Sylvia’s sister frantically dialed 911.
“His name,” she told the dispatcher, “is Bruce Pardo.”
Nine people died in that rampage on Knollcrest Drive, including Pardo’s former wife, Sylvia, and her parents. Pardo, 45, took his own life a few hours later.
Six months later, a fuller portrait of the killer and the crime has emerged from interviews with family, friends and investigators. The FBI and Covina police are creating a criminal profile of Pardo, seeking insight into what triggered one of Los Angeles County’s worst mass murders.
Although privately troubled by the deterioration of his marriage, Pardo glowed with charm and generosity in public. Even those closest to him had no inkling that last June, long before his divorce was final, he had begun secretly assembling an arsenal and plotting an elaborate getaway.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, Pardo, the son of an engineer, showed a knack for mathematics. After graduating from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, he went to Cal State Northridge to study computer science.
He loved being the center of attention. At his Cal State graduation, he carried a life-size inflatable doll.
Friends and co-workers recalled him as exceptionally bright, and he landed a job as a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. But he wasn’t the most industrious worker, they remembered. He seemed to relish chances to defeat the system. Once, a colleague recalled, he hacked into the JPL computer system to learn his co-workers’ salaries. He seemed to come and go as he pleased, disappearing after a fresh snowfall only to return with a goggles tan line.
In 1988, when he was 24, Pardo became engaged to a JPL co-worker. They invited 250 guests to the nuptials at the San Fernando Mission. Pardo didn’t have much money, and he was living with his mother at the time. So the bride-to-be dipped into her savings for a country club reception and honeymoon reservations in Tahiti.
On the day of the wedding, June 17, 1989, his fiancee as well as his brother Brad and his mother, Nancy Windsor, waited for nearly an hour for Pardo to show up. He never did. The next week, his fiancee learned he had withdrawn the $3,000 left in their credit union account.
“Whatever he felt like, he did,” recalled Delia, the former fiancee. She asked that her last name not be published because she has since married and moved to another state. “There was no sense of responsibility.”
A few weeks later, she saw Pardo again. “He was tanned, and he was looking good, like wow!” Delia said. “Turns out, he went to Palm Springs, and blew all the money.”
On weekends, Pardo would often invite friends onto his boat on Lake Havasu.
“He was like a big kid, goofy and lovable,” said Tina Westman, 39, who dated him in the early 1990s. Sometimes too goofy. Pardo coaxed Westman to join him on a rafting trip with friends, and when she fell overboard and nearly drowned, Pardo laughed. “He didn’t get the severity of what happened,” she said. “He was very, very intelligent, but common-sense-lacking.”
By 2001, at age 37, Pardo seemed to have finally settled down. He was living in Woodland Hills with his girlfriend, Elena Lucano, and their 13-month-old son, Bruce Matthew.
A week after New Year’s, Matthew fell into the backyard swimming pool while Pardo was watching television in the house. When Lucano returned home, she found Pardo screaming and holding Matthew in his arms, according to her attorney. Pardo maintained a vigil by the boy’s hospital bed for a week. But when the doctors determined that Matthew would never fully recover, Lucano and Pardo split up.
Matthew, now 9, is severely brain-damaged and a paraplegic. Neither Lucano nor Matthew ever saw Pardo again.
In 2004, Pardo met Sylvia Orza. They were introduced by her brother-in-law, one of Pardo’s co-workers at JPL.
Orza, 40, had three children from two previous marriages. Pardo’s friends thought she was just what he needed: a down-to-earth woman with a large family.
They were married Jan. 29, 2006, and Pardo bought a three-bedroom, $565,000 home in Montrose, taking on a $452,000 mortgage. They also bought an Akita, which they named Saki, and seemed to live happily with Sylvia’s 4-year-old daughter. Pardo was a regular usher for Sunday Mass at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, a few blocks away.
At first, Pardo was drawn to his wife’s warm and welcoming family. But after the first year of their marriage, she told friends, he had become cold, miserly and distant. They often argued about money.
At the same time, Pardo’s mother had grown quite fond of Sylvia and her children. In late 2007, police say, she confided to her daughter-in-law that Pardo had a severely disabled son whom he claimed as a tax deduction but didn’t support.
The couple separated March 7, 2008. Sylvia asked Pardo if she could stay in the home while her daughter finished the last few months of kindergarten, but Pardo moved her belongings onto the driveway while she was at a niece’s birthday party. She filed for divorce and moved in with her sister in Glendale.
In April, Pardo hired Stanley Silver, a San Fernando attorney, and said he was hoping for a reconciliation. Silver called Sylvia’s attorney, Scott Nord, but was told her mind was made up.
Although Pardo’s brother thought he seemed depressed, others thought he had accepted the breakup. Silver said Pardo “was never upset. He was always congenial.”
Pardo had left JPL and was working as an engineer for ITT Radar Systems, a Van Nuys defense contractor, earning $122,000 a year. Sylvia was making about $31,000 as an administrative assistant for an El Monte flower company. On June 18, 2008, a Burbank judge ordered Pardo to pay $1,785 a month in spousal support. Pardo’s first check bounced and he stopped payment on the second, Sylvia’s attorney told the court.
By then, Pardo had launched his plan.
On June 13, he had driven to Burbank and walked into Gun World, a small shop under a blue awning, and paid $999.95 cash for a Sig Sauer 9-millimeter handgun.
On July 31, Pardo was fired for billing fraudulent hours. He applied for unemployment compensation, but workers fired for cause are not eligible and his application was denied.
On Aug. 8, Pardo was back at Gun World to buy another Sig Sauer 9-millimeter handgun. California law limits sales of concealable firearms to one per customer every 30 days. A month later, on Sept. 8, Pardo bought a third from the same store. He returned for a fourth on Oct. 11 and a fifth on Nov. 13.
While lawyers for Pardo and Sylvia exchanged briefs in the fall, Pardo spent most of his time at home in Montrose. He ate lunch a few times a week at the Montrose Bakery & Cafe, ordering a turkey or pastrami sandwich and, for dessert, a raspberry danish. He usually occupied a booth near the window, keeping an eye on Saki on the sidewalk.
On Sept. 8, he called a neighbor, Jeri Deiotte, owner of Jeri’s Costumes. He ordered a Santa Claus outfit, saying it was for a children’s party. He dropped off a $200 deposit and promised to return in November.
During August and September, Pardo applied for jobs in the high-tech industry, but few companies were hiring. Because of Pardo’s financial difficulties, the judge hearing their divorce case agreed to suspend his support payments.
About that time, Steve Erwin, an old high school friend, telephoned. Erwin, his wife and six children lived in Iowa, and he and Pardo hadn’t been in touch for several years. Erwin invited Pardo to Iowa in October to help celebrate Erwin’s 45th birthday.
When Pardo arrived, he told Erwin about the divorce and said he had “been sitting at home and thinking about everything.”
Pardo seemed embarrassed that his personal life, including his firing and finances, was on public display in divorce court, Erwin recalled. Pardo told him that he and his mother were barely speaking and that she sat with Sylvia’s family at divorce hearings.
Pardo seemed to enjoy Erwin’s children. He helped them with their algebra homework and gave them change from his pockets. When he left town, he left seven $1 bills under Erwin’s 9-year-old son’s pillow.
Pardo also stopped by a gun shop in Iowa and bought 16 handgun magazines, each of which holds 18 bullets, eight more than allowed in magazines sold in California.
He returned to California and went to pick up his Santa outfit from Deiotte. Most of her customers rented costumes, but Pardo, at 6 feet 4 and 275 pounds, had wanted his made to order. And he specifically asked that it have extra room.
When he picked up the suit, he paid the $100 remaining on his bill and tipped her $20.
His plan was coming together. He had five handguns in a room at home and a DeWalt compressor, a 50-foot hose and a tank of high-octane fuel in a backyard shed.
Days before Thanksgiving, he set up his Christmas lights.
A week before Christmas, in a hearing room on the second floor of the Burbank courthouse, the marriage of Bruce Pardo and Sylvia Orza was officially terminated. The cause: irreconcilable differences.
Pardo agreed to pay his ex-wife $10,000. She kept the diamond engagement ring and got the dog, Saki.
The next day, the Friday before Christmas, Pardo walked into a Montrose travel agency to price a plane ticket to visit Erwin’s family. He returned to the agency on Monday and paid $650 cash for a round-trip ticket to Moline, Ill., the closest airport to Erwin’s home. He would depart at 12:20 a.m. on Christmas Day and return two weeks later. He called Erwin to say he was planning to visit.
In the week before Christmas, he rented a Dodge Caliber from Budget and a silver Toyota Rav-4 from Rent-a-Wreck. He packed the Toyota with maps of the southwestern United States and Mexico, water, food, clothing, a can of gasoline and both a laptop and a desktop computer.
On Christmas Eve, he drove the Toyota to Glendale and parked it near the home of Nord, his ex-wife’s attorney. Investigators theorize that Pardo planned to drive the Dodge to Nord’s house after the Covina killings, attack Nord and make his escape in the Toyota.
At 6 p.m. Pardo called Erwin and his wife, Michelle. Pardo sounded down, but he said he’d see them the next day. They promised to lend him warm clothes. Investigators aren’t sure if he really intended to go to Iowa; it could have been a backup plan or an attempt to throw authorities off his trail.
Sometime that evening, he used cocaine; a trace amount was found in his body.
Later that night, Bong Garcia, Pardo’s next-door neighbor, stepped onto his porch with his nephew to smoke a cigarette. Pardo walked by and greeted them, saying he was off to a Christmas party.
“Just the same as always,” Garcia said. “He didn’t seem like he was mad or anything.”
But Garcia noticed something odd: His neighbor left his black Cadillac Escalade and his white Hummer in the driveway and got into a blue Dodge parked on the street.
About 10 p.m., Pardo’s younger brother Brad pulled up to the Montrose house. They had arranged to go to a friend’s holiday party, but Pardo wasn’t home.
Later, Pardo was a no-show at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, where he had signed up to be an usher for midnight Mass.
The first 911 call from Covina was logged at 11:27 p.m.
When firefighters arrived, the house was engulfed in flames. Pardo had sprayed racing fuel, intending to ignite it with a flare. But flames in two fireplaces triggered an explosion. Killed along with Sylvia were her parents, her two brothers and their wives, her sister and her 17-year-old nephew. The 8-year-old niece, shot in the cheek, survived. Thirteen young people were orphaned.
As the house burned, a neighbor saw a blue car drive away with its headlights off. A pair of fake glasses and Santa’s cap had been dropped in the frontyard.
Pardo drove 40 miles to his brother’s home in Sylmar. He had second- and third-degree burns on his arms, hands and the back of his neck. He also had leg burns; his Santa suit had melted into his skin. A clean getaway was no longer an option.
When Pardo’s brother returned home at 3:10 a.m., he found Pardo’s body sprawled on the living room couch, two handguns by his side. He had shot himself in the mouth. He was still wearing his wedding ring.
Brad Pardo dialed 911.
Times staff writer Scott Kraft contributed to this report.