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Did Alleged “Hollywood Ripper” Michael Gargiulo Kill Tricia Pacaccio?

THE LONGEST WAIT: A look at the 1993 murder of the Glenview teen. PLUS: Is a just resolution at hand?

Tricia Pacaccio (left), dressed as a bridesmaid for an aunt’s wedding, and Michael Gargiulo (right), in a photo taken by California police in 2008. A neighbor of the Pacaccios, Gargiulo was a longtime suspect in Tricia’s killing.   Photos: (left) Courtesy of the Pacaccio family; (right) courtesy of the Santa Monica Police Department

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Tricia Pacaccio's parents, Rick and Diane
Rick and Diane Pacaccio, Tricia’s grieving parents, stand outside their Glenview home, the scene of the murder 18 years ago. “We just want justice for our daughter,” says Diane. Photo: Katrina Wittkamp

After nearly two decades of waiting, they may get it. In late May, as the July 2011 issue of Chicago went to press, word surfaced that two new witnesses, responding to a CBS 48 Hours Mystery episode about the case, had come forward claiming that, sometime in the late 1990s, Gargiulo told them that he killed Tricia. Chicago learned that the two witnesses are Temer Leary, 37, of Lake Luzerne, New York, and Anthony Dilorenzo, also 37, of Van Nuys, California. In an exclusive interview with Chicago, Leary confirmed that Gargiulo had told him and Dilorenzo that he killed Tricia Pacaccio. Leary also revealed that Cook County detectives had flown him and Dilorenzo to Chicago and that both of them had told their story to an investigative grand jury here. A source close to the investigation says that the two witnesses are “rock solid.” 

And finally, this new evidence prompted Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez to charge Gargiulo with Pacaccio’s murder. On July 6th, 2011, Chicago learned that authorities would announce the charges the next day.

The news is bittersweet for Tricia’s parents. Although their long wait for justice may finally come to an end, this recent news has not extinguished a question that still smolders—and not only for the Pacaccios. Two Los Angeles detectives, as well as two former Cook County detectives who investigated Tricia’s case in the late 1990s, have openly denounced what they call a lack of will by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to take action when it really counted. Why, they all wonder, was Gargiulo not charged in 2003 when prosecutors had a DNA match—and when Maria Bruno was still alive and Michelle Murphy had not yet experienced the horror of a man trying to stab her to death? “I can’t put a happy face on this, because we dropped the ball,” says John Reed, one of the Cook County detectives. “No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

Tom Small, the Hollywood detective, agrees, as he told me over lunch in L.A. last March. “I’m not privy to everything [Cook County prosecutors] have. [But] I gotta say—” He paused, chuckled, rubbed his neck. “If I’d had evidence like that, you’d bet that [the L.A. district attorney’s office] would have had a filing. And these other girls wouldn’t be dead. Plain and simple. They wouldn’t be dead.”

 

When the investigation began, the detectives did seem to have a few good leads. For starters, the normally peaceful cul-de-sac off Huber Lane teemed with potential witnesses that night in 1993, thanks to a pool party at a neighbor’s house across the street. Police collected physical evidence, including Tricia’s key chain, which they found next to her, and her fingernail clippings. They also found a man’s shoe print.

Then, too, there was the nature of the attack itself. Stabbing murders are rarely random, experts say—the attackers usually have some association with their victims. That meant a ready list of potential witnesses and suspects to interview: Tricia’s friends, her fellow students, her current and ex-boyfriends, people who lived in the neighborhood. Surely someone had seen or heard something.

Because the crime occurred in unincorporated Glenview, Cook County sheriff’s police assumed control of the case. But as weeks stretched into months and months into years, each of those promising leads seemed to evaporate. Detectives interviewed guests who had been at the pool party, only to find that none had seen anything—a thick fog had cloaked the neighborhood in an impenetrable blanket of white that night.

Several of Tricia’s friends, meanwhile, refused to talk, says Mark Baldwin, who worked the case from 1997 to 1999 as a detective with the sheriff’s police. “The parents would say, ‘Listen, the cops are here. You don’t have to talk to them.’ [The detectives] were having doors slammed in their faces.”

As for the physical evidence, the key chain and fingernail clippings were examined, but the testing methods of that time—unsophisticated by today’s standards—yielded nothing of use. The shoe print, it turned out, belonged to Rick Pacaccio. He had left it at the crime scene in the first frantic moments after discovering his daughter.

That left motive. Sexual assault was out. Tricia had been discovered fully clothed with no sign of such injuries. Nothing had been taken from her, so robbery didn’t fit. The brutality of the crime suggested personal animus, but investigators could not find anyone who harbored the slightest ill will toward Tricia.

Pretty and popular, raven-haired Tricia Pacaccio was a parent’s dream and a friend’s good fortune. She was a straight-A student, a math whiz, and a debate team champ—the girl who wrote in her Glenbrook South High School yearbook how much she “liked meeting interesting people who had the same desire as me, to save the world.”

“She was a beautiful person, inside and out—full of energy, full of life, always happy and cheerful,” says Karen Isenberg-Jones, a close friend of Tricia’s and one of the last people to see her alive. “In high school you’ve got cliques, you’ve got girls who are snobby, you’ve got girls who are insecure, and they take it out on other people. She just was not one of those people. She was genuinely nice to everybody.”

The night of her death, Tricia and a group of her friends, including Isenberg-Jones, had gone on a road-rally scavenger hunt as a last hurrah before leaving for college—in Tricia’s case, to study engineering at Purdue University. After a late dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s, the group hung out in the parking lot. Later, according to detectives, Tricia dropped off two friends at their cars, then drove home. Police believe she was murdered sometime after 1 a.m.

For the next four years, the Pacaccio family—Rick, Diane, and Tricia’s two brothers—could not bear to live in the house. They lived instead with Diane’s mother. Rick returned occasionally to water the plants and mow the lawn. “I didn’t want anyone to know we weren’t here,” he says.

The Pacaccios did not, however, give up on their daughter’s case. Diane visited detectives several times a week. She was so persistent that they began to put her off, says Rick. “One time I remember [a detective] calling and saying, ‘You better come get your wife.’ They wouldn’t let her in. They had her sitting outside. You wouldn’t treat a dog like that.” (The office of the Cook County sheriff declined to comment on the case, citing its open status.)

Still, the Pacaccios pushed. And in 1997, Michael Sheehan, then sheriff, assigned a new investigative team, including the detectives John Reed and Mark Baldwin (both retired now). “The case had pretty much been in a dormant status,” recalls Baldwin. “We went out and beat the bushes and relocated the people who had been approached back when the homicide went down. We hoped with the passage of time and the maturity of some of her classmates that they might be more forthcoming with information.”

They were. And within months, Baldwin and Reed had a prime suspect. It wasn’t Michael Gargiulo, however. It was a former classmate of Gargiulo’s at Glenbrook South High School who also knew the Pacaccio family, says Baldwin.

At the time, Baldwin and Reed say, they suspected Gargiulo might have been involved in the crime. Accordingly, they interviewed him several times but did not delve deeply into his background. Had they done so, they might have heard some disturbing stories—namely about what witnesses would later describe as Gargiulo’s dark, explosive temper.

“To watch him in action was something else,” says Scott Olson, who played in a band with Gargiulo. “This guy would go from normal to crazy in, like, a second. If he had something he wanted to do and something got in his way, he would go completely nuts. The switch would flip, and he would just become almost inhuman.”

As it was, detectives discovered several peculiarities. Born in 1976, the lean, athletic, dark-haired Gargiulo lived with his parents and siblings five houses away from the Pacaccios. Like many neighborhood kids, Gargiulo spent time at the Pacaccio house. “The dad was always working on a car, and he would show some of the boys in the neighborhood how to tear an engine apart,” says Baldwin. “Mom was always cooking something. This is a household where it wasn’t unusual in the middle of the afternoon to have two or three of their sons’ friends pop in: ‘Hey, Mrs. P., what are you cooking?’”

Unlike the other visitors, however, Gargiulo never seemed comfortable in the home. Diane told detectives that she would set some food in front of him, “and he’d pick it up and he’d start pacing back and forth like a caged animal,” Baldwin says. “She’d say, ‘Why don’t you sit down with everyone else?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, I can’t.’ And he’d take off out the door.”

Gargiulo’s social awkwardness wasn’t the only oddity that piqued the detectives’ curiosity. Shortly after Tricia’s murder, he began sending gifts to the Pacaccios. “I hardly knew this guy, but he sent me flowers. He bought Rick a shirt,” Diane recalls. “He sent us a coupon for a restaurant. It was weird.”

In the summer of 1997, detectives saw an opening. Gargiulo had been charged with felony vehicular burglary. If he would divulge what he knew about Tricia’s murder, Baldwin and Reed told him, they’d make sure the charge was knocked down to a misdemeanor—with no jail time. “Gargiulo’s lawyer was ecstatic,” says Reed. The detective wrote down a few questions he had and gave them to the attorney. “That’s it,” Reed says. “We weren’t trying to trick him or anything.”

When Gargiulo refused to talk, Reed was dumbfounded. “He turned down what was basically a walk-out for a felony conviction that will stick with him for life,” says Reed. “That’s when the [prosecutor] said, ‘Have you looked at this guy? We should look at him a little more.’”

The Pacaccios, meanwhile, had their own odd encounter with Gargiulo—one that today gives them chills. On a fall day in 1998, Diane says, she heard a knock at the side entrance. When she opened the door, there, standing on the stoop where the murder had occurred, was Gargiulo. “Is Mr. P. home?” she recalls him asking. When Diane said her husband was still at work, Gargiulo asked if he could wait.

“I was shocked,” Diane says. “He had never been in this house for more than five or ten minutes. But he sat down in this chair, in this kitchen, and he waited for over an hour.” When Rick arrived home, he, too, was surprised to see Gargiulo. But he was also hopeful. Did he know something? Were they finally going to get answers? Just as Gargiulo began to speak, however, the young man’s dad and sister burst through the door. “They didn’t knock or anything,” Rick recalls. “They just opened the door, came in, and grabbed him.”

The Pacaccios looked at each other—both shocked and crestfallen. “I said to Diane, ‘Did you see his face? It looked like he wanted to tell me something,’” Rick recalls. “I immediately got on the phone and told Cook County detectives what happened.”

It was the last time the Pacaccios saw Gargiulo, who they were now convinced was involved in their daughter’s death. Almost immediately after that encounter, Gargiulo moved 2,000 miles away, to a new life in Los Angeles.

A few months later, detectives here persuaded Gargiulo to fly back to Chicago and appear before an investigative grand jury. According to Reed, Gargiulo made a stunning claim in an interview before he was scheduled to give his testimony. He said that the day after Tricia’s murder, his friend—the one the detectives were looking at as a suspect—had admitted to killing Tricia. Today, Baldwin remembers the conversation a little differently, but at the time, he and Reed felt certain that Gargiulo’s friend was their man. But, according to a source close to the case, when Gargiulo was brought before the grand jury to repeat the story, he backed off the claim, making it sound like the friend was joking.

Gargiulo’s friend moved out of state and was never charged. Baldwin says that he tracked him down and tried for six hours to persuade him to talk. The friend demanded immunity, which Cook County prosecutors refused to grant. Gargiulo apparently was also done talking—at least to police. After his grand jury testimony, Reed says, he all but fled the building. Not long after, Gargiulo returned to L.A., and Reed and Baldwin became the latest detectives to leave the case.

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