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Two years after the DNA match, on the night of December 1, 2005, a killer climbed through the kitchen window of an apartment in El Monte, a working-class suburb of L.A. The striking young woman who lived there, an aspiring model named Maria Bruno, had been uneasy in the days leading up to that night. A “weird guy” had been watching her, she told friends. Once, the dark-haired man, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap, had followed her into her apartment without her realizing it, according to witness testimony. A few seconds later, he backed out, saying, “OK, I’m leaving,” and she shut the door in his face.
Bruno was attacked sometime that December evening. The intruder grabbed a butcher knife on her kitchen counter and, in a frenzied attack that police believe may have spanned several minutes, stabbed her 17 times, causing deep wounds to her chest, arms, and stomach. As with Ellerin, Bruno’s throat was slashed so deeply she was nearly decapitated. The killer also sliced off both of Bruno’s breasts and put one of them in her mouth. Several of the wounds were inflicted after Bruno was dead, Lillienfeld says. As with the Ellerin case, the killer appeared to have changed Bruno’s body position. Also, like the Pacaccio and Ellerin murders, both robbery and sexual assault were ruled out. Like Small, Lillienfeld thought the attack had all the markings of a serial killing. Unfortunately, he had little to go on beyond a description given to a sketch artist of a young, good-looking, dark-haired man and the “weird guy” who had been paying attention to Bruno. Lillienfeld did discover one intriguing piece of physical evidence: a blue medical bootie, found outside Bruno’s apartment.
Three years later, on an April night in 2008, Michelle Murphy, a petite, beautiful 28-year-old blond, finished her laundry, turned out the lights in her Santa Monica apartment, and went to sleep. She awoke sometime after midnight in a fight for her life. A man wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap was straddling her body, stabbing her in the chest. She grabbed the blade, the steel slicing her palms. She kicked wildly at the man, her blood-slicked body making it hard for him to hold her. At some point, the man cut himself, and Murphy, seizing the moment, pulled her feet to her chest and vaulted the attacker off of her. The man fell against the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said, and staggered out. As he fled, he left a trail of blood. The spatters led down Murphy’s steps and across the alley toward an adjoining apartment complex. It was the same complex, detectives later learned, where Michael Gargiulo—by then married to a woman named Ana Luz Gonzales—had lived since around 2007. His second-floor apartment, in fact, had a direct view across the alley into Murphy’s.
For Sergeant Rich Lewis of the Santa Monica Police Department, the next step was obvious: Test the DNA collected from the blood left at the scene, enter it into a national police database, and hope for a hit. A month later, he got it. The attacker’s DNA was the same as that found on the fingernail clippings of a 1993 murder victim in Glenview, Illinois, named Tricia Pacaccio. The DNA belonged to Michael Gargiulo.
The Santa Monica Police Department arrested Gargiulo in a Rite Aid parking lot on June 6, 2008. A search of his car produced a bag with some tools and blue medical booties. He was charged with the attempted murder of Michelle Murphy.
Soon other dominoes began to tumble. The DNA match made Lewis think of a murder he had discussed months earlier with Lillienfeld—the Bruno slaying. On a hunch, Lewis called Lillienfeld, who, armed with a name and a face, began reinvestigating Bruno’s death. He discovered that Gargiulo had lived in the same complex as Bruno and, according to witnesses, had made several statements about how attractive he found her. Lillienfeld returned to Gargiulo’s apartment, now vacant, hoping to find some remnant of physical evidence. After searching the rooms, he checked the attic. There, in a plastic bag, was a single medical bootie—the same make and manufacturer as the one he had found at the Bruno murder scene. A test of skin cells on the bootie matched the DNA to that of Gargiulo.
With DNA linking Gargiulo to two murders and one attempted murder, Small and Lillienfeld had enough evidence to file their own cases with the L.A. district attorney’s office. Already in jail for the alleged attempted murder of Michelle Murphy, Gargiulo was charged in September 2008 in the Ellerin and Bruno killings. After a two-week preliminary hearing in June 2010—at which the judge allowed evidence of the Pacaccio murder to be introduced—Gargiulo was ordered to stand trial. At the time this story went to press, a trial date had not yet been set. Among those expected to testify was the actor Ashton Kutcher, who would help establish the time of the Ellerin attack.
If a Los Angeles judge allows it, Lillienfeld and Small say, the Pacaccio murder will be recounted when Gargiulo is tried for the killings of Maria Bruno and Ashley Ellerin, as well as the attempted murder of Michelle Murphy. As with the preliminary hearing, the evidence would be introduced under California’s “prior bad acts” statute. The law allows allusions to crimes that are substantially similar in motive and method to the offense that’s been charged, provided the judge rules there’s a reasonable likelihood the defendant committed both crimes. A similar law does not exist in Illinois.
As tough as they have been on the Cook County state’s attorney, the L.A. detectives and the Pacaccios both praise the efforts of Lou Sala and the other Cook County sheriff’s cold case detectives who continued to investigate Tricia’s death. “Since I started working with the Cook County sheriff’s police in 2002, the guys that I’ve dealt with and worked with are first-class detectives,” says Small. “I have nothing but good things to say about them.”
As for the state’s attorney’s office, Lillienfeld, Small, Reed, and Baldwin remain harsh critics. “All I know is, if I were [the Pacaccio] family, I would be beyond outraged,” Small says. “Because I know what the Ellerin family went through. All those years of being patient and wanting to know what happened to their daughter.”
Nightfall looms in Glenview when I pay my last visit to the Pacaccios. The mother and father, sitting at the kitchen table, are weary after a long day of work. I glance again at the door that leads to the stoop where it happened, where Rick found his daughter, the entrance that they no longer use. I look back at their stricken faces.
The Pacaccios are grateful about the late May development—the two new witnesses who have come forward saying that Gargiulo confessed to killing their daughter. They are pleased at the thought that justice may finally be at hand for the girl whose room they keep exactly as it was 18 years ago. But for them the notion of closure—or forgiveness—is as foreign as the traces of Gargiulo’s DNA found on their daughter’s fingernails.
“There is no such thing,” Rick says, his voice rising. “What was done to this family can’t be erased. That will stay with me until I die.”
For a moment, they are both silent. They look at me with beseeching, red-rimmed eyes. Outside, thunderclouds gather. The rain comes in torrents.