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Opening statements in penalty phase of ‘Hollywood Ripper’ trial

Michael Gargiulo
Michael Gargiulo, left, with attorney Daniel Nardoni as the verdicts are read in his murder trial in August.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The convicted double-murderer dubbed the “Hollywood Ripper” is a ”sadistic, thrill-seeking psychopath” who deserves the death penalty, a prosecutor told jurors Monday, while a defense attorney countered that the killer would die in prison regardless of what punishment the panel recommends.

Michael Gargiulo “has led a life of crime and violence that has left a swath of death, grief and destruction behind him,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Akemon told the panel as the penalty phase of the trial got underway. ”He has earned and deserves the maximum penalty of death.”

Defense attorney Dale Rubin said the jurors had already made the most important decision when they convicted his client Aug. 15 of first-degree murder for the slayings of 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin and 32-year-old Maria Bruno.

“Mr. Gargiulo is going to die in prison. The question is when? Is it going to be in God’s time or is it going to be in your time?” Rubin said.

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Ellerin was killed in her Hollywood home on Feb. 22, 2001, hours before she was set to go out with actor Ashton Kutcher, and Bruno was slain in her El Monte apartment on Dec. 1, 2005.

Jurors found true special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder while lying in wait, making the 43-year-old defendant eligible for the death penalty, and subsequently found that Gargiulo was sane at the time of the crimes.

The panel also convicted Gargiulo of trying to kill 26-year-old Michelle Murphy, who survived being stabbed eight times in her Santa Monica apartment in April 2008, along with attempting to escape from jail.

Murphy and her husband are expected to testify during the penalty phase about the impact of the crime on their lives.

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The violent nature of the attacks earned Gargiulo the moniker ”Hollywood Ripper.” Akemon has also referred to the defendant as the “Boy Next Door” killer, noting that he lived near all of his victims and telling jurors that he targeted the women in ”frenzied knife attacks” that are “inextricably linked.”

During his opening statement in the penalty phase, Akemon said 11 women had been attacked in some fashion by Gargiulo, including a teenage neighbor he threatened at knifepoint, a female jailer who stood in the way of the defendant’s escape, and two women who would testify to being raped by him.

"`There are no less than 11 different women who have become the targets of Mr. Gargiulo’s violence,” the prosecutor said. ”He’s a sadistic, thrill-seeking psychopath. He kills and maims for his own personal pleasure.”

Rubin told jurors that Gargiulo suffers from mental illness, which should exclude him from being sentenced to death.

“The district attorney called Mr. Gargiulo a serial killer. The district attorney called Mr. Gargiulo a psychopath. The district attorney called Mr. Gargiulo psychotic. These are mental issues,” Rubin told the panel. ”In this country we don’t execute the mentally ill.”

Gargiulo is awaiting trial in Illinois on a murder charge stemming from the Aug. 14, 1993, slaying of 18-year-old Tricia Pacaccio, who was the sister of one of his friends.

Outside the presence of the jury, Gargiulo’s defense team argued that Pacaccio’s family should not be allowed to give victim impact statements because their client had not been convicted of her murder. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler said the jury had already heard evidence about that young woman’s murder and said he would allow it.

The older of Pacaccio’s two younger brothers, who was a friend of Gargiulo’s at the time of his sister’s murder, testified that his family couldn’t live in the house where she was killed for four years afterward.

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“I’ve made the decision, in defiance of what Mr. Gargiulo has done, to live the best life that I can, but I always will know with 100% certainty that it will never be the best life that I could have lived,” Douglas Pacaccio said. ”Everything in life that is a joy has a taint to it, a discoloration of despair.”

Asked about the effect on his parents, he said that for his father, losing a child was “a wrecking ball to your entire life’s work, your entire life’s purpose.” As for his mother, she ”slept days away for years on end,” and spent her waking hours begging the police to find her daughter’s killer.

Thomas Pacaccio, who was 13 when his sister was killed, talked about the family’s high hopes for her as she was about to head off to study engineering at Purdue University.

“She was on her way to doing big, big things,” he said, tearful at the memory.

Diane Pacaccio said her daughter’s bedroom is kept nearly as it was at the time of her killing. Her nieces and nephews use it as a playroom and the oldest granddaughter plays dress up with her clothes and high heels.

When Akemon asked what she would want to tell her daughter now, she replied, ”Tricia, I know that you know I’m fighting for you.”

After Tricia Pacaccio was killed outside her home, Gargiulo moved to Hollywood, where Ellerin’s friends noticed that he showed up uninvited to a party and that he seemed to be “fixated” on her, the prosecutor told jurors.

Kutcher testified during the guilt phase of the trial that he had spoken to Ellerin on the phone the afternoon she died and showed up at her home two hours later to pick her up. When she didn’t answer her door, the actor said he looked through a window and saw what he believed was red wine spilled on the carpet. He said he left because he thought Ellerin had already gone out for the night.

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The young woman’s roommate discovered her dead the next morning. She had been stabbed 47 times in the hallway outside her bathroom in an attack in which she was nearly decapitated.

Gargiulo subsequently moved to El Monte and lived in the same apartment complex where Bruno was ”mutilated” as she slept, Akemon said. The prosecutor said Gargiulo stabbed the woman 17 times, cut off her breasts, tried to remove her breast implants and placed one of her breasts on her mouth.

A blue surgical bootie found outside the apartment contained drops of her blood along with Gargiulo’s DNA around the elastic band, and another blue surgical bootie appearing to be the same model was recovered from the attic of the El Monte apartment he had rented, according to Akemon.

Gargiulo was able to escape detection until he accidentally cut himself with a knife during the 2008 attack on Murphy — near where he lived at the time in Santa Monica — and left a “blood trail” during that attack, Akemon said.

Gargiulo was arrested in June 2008 by Santa Monica police in connection with the attack on Murphy and was subsequently charged with the killings of Ellerin and Bruno. Authorities in Illinois charged him in 2011 with Pacaccio’s slaying.


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