It took years for authorities to tie the cases together and bring charges, but they eventually did — and, following a legal saga that stretched an additional decade, a Los Angeles jury in August found Michael Gargiulo guilty of two counts of murder and one of attempted murder. He is still awaiting trial in Illinois on another murder charge.
On Friday, jurors unanimously recommended Gargiulo be put to death for his crimes. The panel of six men and six women deliberated for several hours before reaching the decision, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
The decision brings one of the country’s most closely watched serial killer cases closer to a resolution, though it is unlikely Gargiulo will be executed soon, if ever. Earlier this year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) suspended the death penalty indefinitely, calling capital punishment an immoral punishment and a public policy “failure.” The state has more than 700 inmates on death row — the most of any state — but California authorities have not executed a prisoner since 2006.
Gargiulo is scheduled to be formally sentenced at the end of February, at which point Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler will rule on motions for a new trial or lighter sentence.
The 43-year-old was silent as a court clerk read the jury’s decision Friday, saying only “yes” when the judge asked if he agreed with the sentencing date, Courthouse News reported. Gargiulo had pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Gargiulo’s attorney, Daniel Nardoni, said he was disappointed by the outcome. The defense team argued at trial that Gargiulo had dissociative personality disorder, a mental illness often marked by memory gaps. Given his condition, Nardoni told the Associated Press, jurors should have recommended life without parole.
“You don't kill people that are mentally ill,” he said. “It's just a matter of humanity.”
Gargiulo’s case has been a magnet for public attention for years, not just because of the brutal manner in which he is said to have stalked and killed his victims over a long stretch of time, but because of its Hollywood connection.
One of Gargiulo’s victims, 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin, was dating actor Ashton Kutcher when she was killed. On an evening in February 2001, Kutcher, then best known for his role in the sitcom “That ’70s Show,” went to the fashion student’s house near historic Hollywood to pick her up for a Grammy Awards after-party. When she didn’t come to the door, he peered into a window to see if she was there and saw what he thought was a trail of spilled red wine on the carpet, as LA Weekly has reported. In reality, prosecutors said, it was a murder scene. A friend found Ellerin’s body the next day.
Ellerin’s mother testified during the penalty phase of the trial, saying she “fell to her knees” when she learned of her daughter’s death.
“I ache for her,” Cynthia Ellerin told the court, according to the Associated Press. “I ache to hold her. I ache to hear her voice, to hug her. But that’s not going to happen.”
Kutcher, who also testified, said he was worried he would become a suspect. Authorities quickly cleared him.
In addition to Ellerin’s murder, Gargiulo was convicted of murdering 32-year-old Maria Bruno, a mother of four who was discovered stabbed to death in her apartment in El Monte, a Los Angeles suburb, in December 2005.
Gargiulo also tried to kill Michelle Murphy in April 2008, prosecutors said. At trial, Murphy testified that she was in bed in her Santa Monica apartment when she awoke to Gargiulo attacking her with a knife. As she struggled to push him away, authorities said, Gargiulo cut himself and fled, leaving behind a trail of blood that investigators used to link him to the other women’s deaths.
“In the days, weeks and months after it happened, I barely even slept,” Murphy testified, according to the Associated Press. “I feared the nighttime and going to bed. I still slept with the lights on for a long time."
During their investigation, authorities found yet another woman they said was killed by Gargiulo, 18-year-old Tricia Pacaccio. In 1993, the rising Purdue University student’s father found her stabbed to death on the family’s front steps. Gargiulo, who was 17 at the time, lived down the street. Authorities considered him a suspect initially but did not charge him until 2011, three years after he was arrested in connection with the other stabbings.
As trial began earlier this year, Gargiulo’s defense attorney said there was “not one single bit of physical evidence” tying him to Ellerin’s death, KABC reported. Gargiulo has also long insisted he had no role in the other deaths. In the attack on Murphy, defense attorneys argued he was suffering from a “fugue state” stemming from his disorder.