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Though they never knew each other and ran in different circles—in vastly different cities—Tricia Pacaccio and Ashley Ellerin were in many ways very much alike. Both were pretty, sweet, feisty, likable, and fun-loving, and they attracted friends in bunches. Ellerin was the far more worldly and adventurous of the two. Having moved from Northern California to a Hollywood bungalow within walking distance of the Kodak Theatre and the fabled Walk of Fame, she had enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, hoping for a career both creative and glamorous. What’s more, the gorgeous 22-year-old blond had been romantically linked to the actors Vince Vaughn and Vin Diesel. In the winter of 2001, she was dating Ashton Kutcher, then a rising star on the sitcom That ’70s Show.
As different as they were, Tricia and Ellerin shared the same blind spot: The two young women were trusting to a fault, say those who knew them. So it wasn’t surprising that Ellerin welcomed the help of a good-looking dark-haired stranger who appeared in front of her house one day while she and a friend, Christopher Duran, were fixing a flat tire.
The man introduced himself as Mike and gave the two of them his card, saying he was a heating and air-conditioning repairman. Soon he was showing up, often unannounced and uninvited, to parties, trying to ingratiate himself with Ellerin and her friends.
Ellerin didn’t seem to mind. But several in her circle were uncomfortable with Mike’s sudden presence—particularly after a number of disturbing incidents. For example, Ellerin’s former roommate, Justin Peterson, was giving Mike a ride one day when Mike, for no apparent reason, suddenly grabbed his hand and stared at him angrily. Hours later, back at home, he saw Mike sitting in a running car across the street with the lights off. Peterson grew even more uneasy.
The next day, when Mike appeared at the door, saying he needed to come in to look at Ellerin’s furnace, Peterson confronted him. “I looked at him and asked what the heck he was doing in front of my house at three in the morning,” Peterson later testified. Mike “started stuttering” and then said that he couldn’t go home because Chicago investigators “were waiting to collect DNA samples from him [because] his best friend’s girlfriend had been murdered.”
“If you’re innocent . . . why aren’t you over there confirming this?” Peterson said he asked. Mike then pulled up his pant leg and unsheathed a jagged knife from a case strapped to his shin. “I rushed him out of the house and told him I didn’t want anything to do with his business,” Peterson testified.
For Ellerin, the night of February 21, 2001, began full of promise. Kutcher told her he was going to watch the Grammy Awards on television with a friend but asked if she wanted to meet him for drinks afterward. She agreed, and the two spoke twice by phone that evening: once at 7:30 p.m. and again an hour later.
Kutcher later called Ellerin’s cell phone, then swung by her bungalow at around 10:45 p.m. The lights were on, and her maroon BMW was in the parking lot. He knocked on the door, and when she didn’t answer, he tried the handle. Locked. He then peered through the front window, according to later testimony. The place was in disarray, but that was to be expected since Ellerin was in the midst of remodeling. Kutcher also saw a dark red stain that looked like someone had spilled wine near the entrance to her bedroom. Assuming she had brushed him off, he gave up and left.
Half an hour earlier, Ellerin’s new roommate, Jennifer Disisto, had also dropped by the apartment. She had left her keys in her boyfriend’s car and was hoping Ellerin would let her in. Spotting Ellerin’s car in the parking lot and the lights on in the bungalow, she knocked at the door. When there was no answer, she went back to her boyfriend’s house. She returned the next morning around 8:30, having retrieved her keys. A few steps into the bungalow, she came upon a gruesome scene.
Dressed in a turquoise terry cloth robe, silk boxer shorts, and a camisole, Ellerin lay sprawled in a large pool of blood on a carpeted landing leading to the bedrooms, her face already slightly blue. A medical examiner would later testify that she had been stabbed 47 times, including a gaping wound to her neck, so deep that only her spinal cord kept her head from being severed. The rest of her body was covered with deep puncture wounds—to her chest, stomach, and back—some up to six inches deep. One of the blows “actually penetrated the skull and took out a chunk of skull like a puzzle piece,” Tom Small, the Hollywood detective, would later testify. Small noticed something else: The position of the body seemed odd, as if “the victim was moved, possibly posed.” To Small, all the signs pointed to the disturbing possibility that the murderer was a serial killer.
Small began eliminating suspects. Kutcher was quickly ruled out, as was Mark Durbin, the manager of Ellerin’s rental house and a man with whom Ellerin also had carried on a flirty relationship, which had become physical just that night. The two had sex, in fact, sometime between 7 and 8 p.m., despite the fact that Ellerin had a date later with Kutcher. Durbin, who lived nearby with his girlfriend, left Ellerin’s house at about 8:15 p.m. Around 10 p.m., he glanced out his window and saw a figure walking back and forth in front of Ellerin’s.
One person who could not be eliminated was the mysterious “furnace guy.” Through dozens of interviews, numerous leads, and a little bit of luck, Small eventually put a name to the stranger who had inserted himself into Ellerin’s life: Michael Gargiulo. Armed with a driver’s license photo, Small began reinterviewing witnesses. With each person he talked to, he moved Gargiulo another rung higher on his ladder of potential suspects. “It’s one of those things where you get a little itch in the back of your neck, and it kind of bothers you,” says Small. “Who is this guy? What’s his connection? Nobody seemed to know, and yet, as we progressed further into the case, we came to learn that he had been to the house a number of times.”
Small began to build a profile. Six feet two, with a dragon tattoo on his back, Gargiulo was both good-looking and imposing. His arms coiled with muscles, he boxed and worked out at a local gym and also practiced martial arts. He had tried his hand at acting, landing a role in a student movie, but that seemed to be the extent of his film career. In 1999, he took a job as a bouncer at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip—a gig he was later fired from after allegedly decking a customer.
Gargiulo also had a tendency to tell tall tales about himself. One was that he was an air-conditioning and heating repairman who had once been electrocuted on a job. Another was that he was a boxer training for the Olympics. “He had an apparent habit of making himself bigger than he was,” Small told me. “He wanted to control people and impress them.” The other, more disturbing tale involved something that had happened in Illinois. According to court documents, Gargiulo told several people either that Chicago police were trying to frame him for a murder he didn’t commit or that they were after him for his DNA.
The more information Small gathered about Gargiulo, the further the detective’s suspicions deepened. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2002—and a visit from two Cook County detectives reinvestigating a 1993 Illinois murder—that Small felt he had hit pay dirt.
The detectives, including Lou Sala from the Cook County sheriff’s cold case division, had taken over for Reed and Baldwin in 2000. One of the first things the new investigators did was submit the physical evidence recovered at the Pacaccio murder scene—including Tricia’s fingernail clippings—for DNA testing at the Illinois State Police crime lab.
The hope was that newer, more sophisticated scientific methods would succeed where the initial examination had failed. And, indeed, the tests did detect DNA from two people on Tricia’s nail clippings: her own and that of an unidentified person. Armed with the information, Sala tracked down and collected DNA samples from more than 20 witnesses in the case—including the friend of Gargiulo’s who initially had been Reed and Baldwin’s prime suspect. None matched.
By the fall of 2002, only one person remained on the list: Gargiulo. Sala and his partner flew to L.A., where they contacted Small in hopes he could help them locate Gargiulo, who had been tough to find since he never seemed to put leases or utilities in his own name. When Small heard whom they were looking for—and why—“bells and whistles went off,” he says.
“The type of attack was similar, the type of victim was similar,” Small adds. “The type of weapon, the manner and method of the attack—the stabbing, the locations—everything is so similar that we all believed it’s gotta be our guy. That’s when we began to work a parallel investigation.”
They tracked Gargiulo to an apartment listed under the name of his latest girlfriend. Search warrant in hand, they found his van, and in it they discovered three knives, binoculars, and a backpack containing a Halloween mask and a handgun. Authorities apprehended Gargiulo when he arrived home and drove him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to collect DNA samples. According to sources, a livid Gargiulo fought with detectives and had to be taken to the emergency room. But what really raised eyebrows were comments he volunteered.
“What if my DNA was on a key chain that was left at a crime scene?” he asked, according to later testimony from Michael Pelletier, a Los Angeles police detective who was with Gargiulo during the testing. “They can’t find my DNA from ten years ago at a crime scene, can they?” he also asked, according to Pelletier. “What if my hairs were at a crime scene in Chicago? . . . Can they book me for that?” When Pelletier asked Gargiulo what he was talking about, Gargiulo replied, “Never mind.”
Allowed to remain free pending the outcome of the tests, Gargiulo began a relationship with Maria Gurrola, whom he met while fixing her air conditioner. By February 2003, the two were living together, but things didn’t last. Gargiulo once struck her so hard she wound up with a detached retina, according to testimony. He also allegedly stalked and threatened her, saying he had a degree in forensics and thus knew how he could kill her and get away with it. Gurrola kicked him out and filed a restraining order after a confrontation in a supermarket parking lot.
In September 2003—nearly ten years after Tricia Pacaccio had been killed—the DNA results finally came back. The foreign DNA on Tricia’s fingernails belonged to Michael Gargiulo. Still, Tom Small, lacking any DNA evidence from the Ellerin crime scene, felt he could not charge Gargiulo. His hope was that Cook County prosecutors would help his case—not to mention get Gargiulo off the street—by doing so instead.
At the time, Dick Devine was the Cook County state’s attorney, but it was one of Devine’s prosecutors, Scott Cassidy, who recommended that Gargiulo not be charged. The reasoning emerged in statements to the media following Gargiulo’s eventual arrest in L.A.—and in answers to several questions I e-mailed to Sally Daly, the spokeswoman for the current Cook County state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez. (Cassidy refused requests from Chicago to speak publicly about the case.)
The state’s attorney’s office says that procedures used to gather the DNA from Tricia’s fingernail clippings made it impossible to determine whether the genetic material came from the tops of the nails or under them. Because of that, the office says, experts have not been able to rule out the possibility that the DNA found its way onto Tricia through casual contact—particularly since Gargiulo was known to have occasionally visited the Pacaccio house.
Prosecutors also point to an incident that occurred the day before the murder. Tricia had been walking down her street on the way to her boyfriend’s house when Gargiulo, driving his father’s van, pulled up and offered her a ride. Scott Olson, Gargiulo’s friend and bandmate, was in the passenger seat.
Even though Olson insists there was never any physical contact between Gargiulo and Tricia—and says he was willing to testify to that in court—prosecutors remained unwilling to bring charges. For starters, they say, Olson was equivocal when initially interviewed by police. (When I talked to Olson, he acknowledged that it was possible the two somehow came in brief contact, but added, “I never saw them touch. That’s what I can testify to.”) Prosecutors also argue that Tricia could have gotten the DNA on her by brushing up against something in the van. The bottom line, the office says, is “there are no lab analysts who are willing to take the stand and testify in court that the DNA gathered could not have come from casual contact.”
To the Pacaccios—and to the L.A. detectives who have looked into Tricia’s murder in support of their own case—the argument is hogwash. Even if Tricia had brushed the back of the seat and somehow picked up some of Gargiulo’s DNA, she took a long shower the next night before going out, they say. What’s more, witnesses told police that the night of her murder, Tricia came into contact with some two dozen of her friends, including her boyfriend, whom she both hugged and touched. Yet only Gargiulo’s DNA was found on her.
In a corporate-looking suite of offices just outside of Los Angeles, Mark Lillienfeld, a detective with the office of the L.A. County sheriff, shook his head when I asked him about the casual contact theory. “Is it possible?” he said. “Yes, and it’s possible that Barack Obama is going to appoint me head of Homeland Security and Cindy Crawford is going to leave her boyfriend for me. I haven’t gotten my letter from the president, and Cindy Crawford isn’t banging at my door.”
The standard necessary to convict, Lillienfeld says, is not proof beyond a shadow of a doubt, but beyond a reasonable doubt. “I think sometimes people are unwilling to take a risk professionally,” he says. “Every prosecution is a risk. Sometimes you’ve got to do the right thing and not worry about the consequences”—such as potentially losing a case. “To me, [charging Gargiulo] is a no-brainer.”
Small agrees. “Stupid me, I thought they [were] going to arrest him—confront him with evidence and see what he had to say,” says Small. “That’s what I thought, but it didn’t work out that way.” Reed is equally blunt in his criticism. “It troubles me enormously,” he says. “Those young women in California are dead because we dropped the ball.”
“Some police officers, family members, and journalists have second-guessed or criticized the state’s attorney’s office for not bringing charges in this case, and they are certainly entitled to their opinions,” responded a spokesperson for the Cook County state’s attorney before the new witnesses came forward in late May. “We understand and to some extent share those frustrations. But ethical guidelines prohibit the charging of a case without evidence in hand that will enable us to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
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Photograph: Courtesy of Los Angeles Police Department Hollywood Homicide Unit