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Editor’s note: Since this story went to press, two new witnesses came forward to further implicate Michael Gargiulo in the murder of Tricia Pacaccio, and on July 6th, Chicago learned that Cook County authorities would charge him with killing the Glenview teen. Read the latest update in the following 312 blog posts: “Michael Gargiulo to Be Charged with Killing Tricia Pacaccio” and “Pacaccio Parents Blast Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.” PLUS: More details, including an exclusive interview with Temer Leary, one of the witnesses, here.
The mother and father mount the stairs in silence. They trudge to the second floor of their modest two-story house in Glenview and stand before the bedroom just to the left. They have visited this room many times over the years, but each time they pause for a moment at the door, like mourners collecting themselves before entering a funeral parlor. The father’s eyes are fretful, searching. The mother turns the knob with a trembling hand.
The room is heartbreaking. All pastel pinks and powder blues. Porcelain clowns line a set of shelves. The words “Happy Sweet 16” shimmer on a piece of poster board, the letters made of glitter glue.
“Everything is just the same,” the mother says. She pauses, spots a framed photo of her daughter. The girl’s dark hair, parted on the left, falls gently over her shoulders. Her smile is girlish, sweet, tinged with yearning. “She’s got a beautiful face, this girl,” the mother murmurs. “A beautiful, beautiful face.”
The father lets out a sudden sharp sob. He turns and waves at the air, as if beating back an attacker. He staggers toward the door. “I gotta go,” he says.
Eighteen. That’s how old she was when it happened—and the number of years that have passed since that night, August 14, 1993, when, between 1 and 2 a.m., someone approached the petite girl with the beautiful face, twisted her left arm so hard it snapped, then plunged a knife into her half a dozen times on the stoop of the side door to her home. By the time the killer was finished, Tricia Pacaccio had been stabbed in the heart, the lung, the abdomen, the arm, the collarbone, and the back. Rick Pacaccio, her father, found her slashed, blood-spattered body the next morning. He was coming out to walk the dog. “Actually, what I first saw were her two little tennis shoes sticking up,” he says, his voice catching. He fell to his knees that day and screamed. His cries echoed through the cul-de-sac. Diane Pacaccio, the mother, blacked out. Both parents were taken to a hospital in shock.
On a stormy Sunday this past March, they sit at their kitchen table and tell you the story with haunted eyes, their anguish punctuated by the occasional nerve-rattling stab of thunder. You listen to the tragic, incredible, baffling tale—of her death and their desperate search for justice—realizing you’re sitting just a few feet from where it happened. And you begin to understand why their pain is still so fresh, why for them the moment is frozen in time, like the room upstairs that they refuse to alter, the shrine to their suffering.
Eighteen years. And they’ve wanted but one thing: Catch the guy. Charge him. Let a jury, the world, decide whether he’s guilty. Their best hope: foreign DNA found on their daughter’s fingernails. For years they waited: through the first frustrating leads that faded, the trail that went cold. They waited through the string of detectives who came and went, who were reassigned or transferred or who resigned.
Then, in 2006, a Hollywood homicide detective called. He was in Chicago investigating the similarities between Tricia’s death and the 2001 stabbing murder of a Los Angeles woman named Ashley Ellerin, who was linked romantically with, among other celebrities, Ashton Kutcher. During the conversation, the detective, Tom Small, dropped a bombshell: Were the Pacaccios aware that in 2003 the DNA of a suspect in Ellerin’s murder—a man named Michael Gargiulo—had been matched to DNA found on Tricia’s fingernails?
The parents were not. They had no idea. No one had told them. They were furious—and elated. Before he moved to L.A. in the late 1990s, Gargiulo (pronounced gar-ZHOO-loh) had known the Pacaccio family. A friend of Tricia’s younger brother, Doug, he had even been in the house a few times. Although Gargiulo and Tricia attended Glenbrook South High School at the same time, the two were never friends and could barely be called acquaintances. One other thing made sense: Gargiulo had a reputation around the neighborhood as a short-fused bully with a violent, volatile temper.
Having met with Small, the Pacaccios demanded answers. After the DNA match, why hadn’t Cook County charged Gargiulo? There wasn’t enough evidence, insisted prosecutors from the office of the Cook County state’s attorney. Because Gargiulo had occasionally been in the Pacaccio house, it’s possible that the DNA could have wound up on Tricia’s fingernails through casual contact, they said. “I was so insulted,” says Diane. “I don’t know how they want to twist and turn it, but they know his DNA shouldn’t have been on her.”
Gargiulo was eventually arrested—in 2008 in Los Angeles. Now 35, he awaits trial in L.A. County jail for the 2001 murder of Ellerin, the December 2005 stabbing death of an El Monte woman named Maria Bruno, and the vicious 2008 attack on a Santa Monica woman named Michelle Murphy. L.A. detectives call him a serial killer and suspect he was involved in as many as ten slayings—including homicides that may have occurred after the 2003 decision by Cook County prosecutors not to charge him. The office of the Los Angeles County district attorney says that it will seek the death penalty. Gargiulo has adamantly denied any involvement in the L.A. killings and the death of Tricia Pacaccio. His lawyer, Charles Lindner, did not return calls for this story.
The Pacaccios have found some solace in the fact that Gargiulo is behind bars. “When the California detectives called and told us Mike had been arrested, I can’t even tell you what a load was lifted,” says Diane. “We just want the same justice for our daughter.”