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‘Boy Next Door Killer’ Michael Gargiulo guilty in knife attacks on Ashton Kutcher’s date, other young women

Michael Garguilo listens with his attorney Daniel Nardoni as guilty verdicts are read in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
Michael Gargiulo listens with his attorney Daniel Nardoni as guilty verdicts are read in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A jury found Michael Gargiulo, dubbed the “boy next door killer” by prosecutors, guilty in three brutal knife attacks on young women who were his neighbors, marking a dramatic development in decades of tragedy that spanned from Los Angeles to Illinois.

Gargiulo, 43, was convicted of murdering Ashley Ellerin, 22, and Maria Bruno, 32, and attempting to kill Michelle Murphy, 26, in attacks in the Los Angeles area between 2001 and 2008. The jury deliberated more than three days before it reached its verdict Thursday morning, soon after the trial entered its fourth month.

Gargiulo was stoic as the clerk read the verdict, at one point whispering to his attorney. Jurors will be asked next week to determine whether Gargiulo was sane at the time of the crimes. If the jury finds that he was, prosecutors will begin the penalty phase of the capital trial.

Prosecutors said Gargiulo’s series of stabbings began in the Chicago area in 1993.Once he picked a target, prosecutors said, he’d lurk around her home, watching and waiting for an opportunity to attack. He always struck at night, always at their homes.

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One night in August of that year, Tricia Pacaccio, 18, was celebrating her high school graduation with friends before they headed off to college. She dropped off a friend about 1 a.m. before heading home. She walked up to her door carrying her house key but never made it inside.

Her father found her on the doorstep later that morning with numerous stab wounds to her chest, shoulder and neck.

Gargiulo, 17 at the time, was a friend of Pacaccio’s younger brother. It wasn’t until a decade later that investigators discovered that the DNA collected from her fingernails was his, according to court documents. He was charged in Pacaccio’s killing in Illinois in 2011.

But by then, prosecutors say, Gargiulo had moved to the Los Angeles area and killed Ellerin.

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Gargiulo first met Ellerin when he offered to help her change a flat tire. Later, he offered to help fix her heater, and from then on he’d show up to her apartment uninvited and unannounced. Some reported seeing him park in front of her home at all hours, staring at her residence for long periods of time. Her roommate thought he was a stalker.

Prosecutors said he entered Ellerin’s home and stabbed her 47 times, slashing her throat so severely that he almost decapitated her.

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Actor Ashton Kutcher testifies in the murder trial of serial killer suspect Michael Gargiulo.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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

“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.

The next day, he found out she was dead.

Gargiulo later moved to the El Monte area, into the same apartment complex as Bruno.

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In 2005, prosecutors said, Gargiulo attacked her as she slept and “quite literally butchered her,” slicing off her breasts and placing part of one on her mouth.

His last attack, in April 2008, was unlike the others: The woman fought him off and survived.

Murphy testified, describing for jurors the harrowing ambush more than a decade ago. It was a Monday in April 2008. After work, Murphy washed her bedsheets, jumped rope in the alley behind her Santa Monica apartment complex and watched TV before crawling into bed. She had been asleep for about an hour, she testified, when she woke up to a man straddling her, stabbing her arm and chest with a serrated knife.

She screamed and asked why he was attacking her. The man didn’t say a word, she said.

In a struggle to save herself, Murphy said, she wrapped her hands around the knife’s blade and kicked the man off the bed. As he ran out the door, Murphy recalled, he spoke for the first time.

“I’m sorry,” the attacker said.

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A prosecutor projected for jurors photos of serial killer suspect Michael Gargiulo and the women he is accused of attacking.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Gargiulo’s defense team argued that their client suffered from a mental disorder that left him in a “fugue state” — unable to recall his actions — during Murphy’s attack.

He “has no recollection and no memory of what happened because he was in an amnestic state,” attorney Dale Rubin said, adding that when Gargiulo came to, he apologized and ran out of the apartment. He denied the other slayings, pointing toward others who had been visiting the women before they died.

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Gargiulo was also convicted of trying to escape from jail. Soon after his arrest in 2008, Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives placed him in a cell with two undercover deputies. In conversations with his cellmates that were recorded, he discussed attacking a jailer and using the shims hidden in his waistband to break out of his handcuffs.

After his Los Angeles trial ends, Gargiulo is expected to be extradited to Illinois.


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