Accused serial killer has no memory of one attack and denies others, defense says

Michael Thomas Gargiulo, shown in court on Tuesday, is accused of fatally stabbing Ashley Ellerin in 2001 and Maria Bruno in 2005.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

After Michael Gargiulo was arrested in 2008, Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives placed the accused killer in a jail cell with two undercover deputies.

In conversations that were recorded, Gargiulo told them that he’d looked up serial killers, referencing Ted Bundy and Ed Gein. He hid shims in his waistband that he planned to use to break out of his handcuffs, he told his cellmates. He tried to come up with different explanations for a piece of evidence cops had against him and floated using the excuse that he suffers from blackouts.

At one point, Gargiulo asked the undercover officers, “How would you explain it to the jury?”


A prosecutor recounted those jailhouse conversations during closing arguments this week in Gargiulo’s trial on charges that he thrill killed two women and attempted to kill a third in knife attacks in the Los Angeles area from 2001 to 2008. He has pleaded not guilty.

“That’s Michael Gargiulo trying to fool each and every one of you,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Garrett Dameron told a jury hearing the death penalty case in a downtown courtroom.

Gargiulo showed little emotion as Dameron spoke, watching the screen as the prosecutor flipped through dozens of slides that included crime scene photos. Sometimes he whispered to his attorney or took notes. He shook his head for a moment when one of his attorneys was addressing the judge at the bench.

Gargiulo’s trial, which just entered its fourth month, has drawn national attention because of its sensational details and celebrity connection. One of the victims, Ashley Ellerin, was set to go out on a date with actor Ashton Kutcher the night she was killed.

The prosecutor spent much of his argument listing similarities between Gargiulo’s alleged series of attacks, beginning in the Chicago area in 1993 with the killing of 18-year-old Tricia Pacaccio.

Gargiulo wasn’t charged in Illinois with Pacaccio’s slaying until 2011. He is set to be extradited after the Los Angeles trial concludes.


In each case, the prosecutor said, Gargiulo preyed on attractive young women who were outgoing and lived nearby.

Once he picked a target, he’d lurk around her home, watching and waiting for an opportunity to attack. He always struck at night, always at their homes, prosecutors said.

Ellerin, 22, was stabbed 47 times in 2001, her throat slashed so severely that she was almost decapitated. Maria Bruno’s breasts were sliced off and part of one was placed on her mouth.

An image of Michael Thomas Gargiulo and his four alleged victims is projected as Deputy Dist. Atty. Garrett Dameron delivers the prosecution's closing arguments.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“These were torturous, cold-blooded attacks,” Dameron said.

Gargiulo lived in Hollywood a few short blocks from Ellerin at the time of her death. He lived in the same El Monte apartment complex as Bruno, 32, in a unit diagonal to hers across a pool, when she was killed in 2005. After Bruno’s slaying, investigators found a blue surgical bootee with drops of her blood and Gargiulo’s DNA on the elastic band. Gargiulo wore the same types of bootees over his shoes for his work as an air conditioner repairman.

Ellerin and Bruno each had a man over just before they were killed. Prosecutors alleged Gargiulo timed the attacks “perfectly,” knowing that police would first investigate their last known visitors.


Prosecutors said Gargiulo’s alleged string of attacks ended in Santa Monica in 2008, when Michelle Murphy, 26 at the time, fought off a harrowing ambush and survived. During the struggle, prosecutors said Gargiulo cut his hand and left a trail of blood out her door and through the alley that separated their apartment buildings.

Defense attorney Dale Rubin acknowledged Gargiulo’s role in Murphy’s attack, but argued that his client suffered from a mental disorder that left him in a “fugue state” — unable to recall his actions.

He “has no recollection and no memory of what happened because he was in an amnestic state,” Rubin said, adding that when Gargiulo cut himself and came to, he apologized and ran out of the apartment. Rubin also said Gargiulo has suffered as a result of childhood trauma, but did not provide details.

But his defense team denied that Gargiulo was guilty of the other attacks, citing the lack of DNA evidence linking Gargiulo to Ellerin’s slaying.

Defense attorney Dan Nardoni suggested that in Bruno’s case, the true killer fled and left her blood on a bootee that Gargiulo had accidentally dropped in the area. He said no one saw Gargiulo at either woman’s home on the nights they were killed.

“In fact, the evidence is that others were” with the women, Rubin said. “There is absolutely no evidence as to where Mr. Gargiulo was at the time of the commission of those crimes. Except that he wasn’t in the apartment.”


The man who visited Ellerin before her death denied any role in her slaying, as did the one who had been with Bruno. Both testified during the trial.

Kutcher also testified, saying that when he went to pick up Ellerin for a date the night she was killed, she didn’t answer the door or his calls. He was late and figured Ellerin had already left.

“I knocked on the door. There was no answer. Knocked again. And once again, no answer,” the actor testified. “At this point I pretty well assumed she had left for the night, and that I was late, and she was upset.”

But before he left, he peeked through a window. All the lights were on and he saw what appeared to be red wine stains on the carpet. Kutcher said he had been at a housewarming party at Ellerin’s home about a week before where people had been drinking. He wasn’t alarmed.

Kutcher said he was “freaking out” the next day when he found out she was dead, noting that his fingerprints were on the door.

Meanwhile, prosecutors said Gargiulo had tried to cover his tracks. Investigators found a program installed on his computer that deletes information from a user’s hard drive, Dameron said.


And about a week before his arrest, Gargiulo asked a friend if he would be interested in taking over his business if Gargiulo were to move to Mexico, Dameron said.

Closing arguments are expected to wrap up Thursday before jurors begin deliberations.