LOS ANGELES (CN) – There were four women. Three were attacked at their homes in Los Angeles County, one in a suburban Illinois neighborhood, in a violent crime spree that spanned 26 years.
Only one woman survived.
Opening statements in the murder trial of Michael Gargiulo began Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court where a jury was shown pictures of the victims, their homes and where their bodies were found.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office displayed graphic photos of the women’s stab wounds. One of the victims was murdered while she stepped out of her bathroom, another was murdered and mutilated in her bed.
Prosecutors say Gargiulo, 43, lived near his victims, fixated on them and methodically stalked them before he attacked.
“What you’ll hear is that hear Michael Gargiulo for almost 15 years was watching. Always watching,” Deputy District Attorney Daniel Akemon said. “His hobby was to plot the perfect opportunity to attack women in and around their homes.”
Three attacks took place from 2001 to 2008 throughout Los Angeles County. Prosecutors say Gargiulo’s first victim was 18-year-old Tricia Pacaccio, who was stabbed to death on her front porch in Glenview, Illinois in 1993. Gargiulo was 17 years old at the time of her death, and he was friends with Pacaccio’s younger brother.
Gargiulo’s DNA was found on Pacaccio’s fingernails.
Years later, Gargiulo moved to Los Angeles and attacked three other women in a similar fashion, according to Akemon. He was dubbed the “Hollywood Ripper” by the media as he targeted young, attractive women.
The second victim, Ashley Ellerin, 22, was stabbed 47 times as she stepped out of her bathroom in 2001. She was murdered in her Hollywood home near the then Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Prosecutors said her throat was slashed and her head was nearly decapitated.
The night of her murder, Ellerin’s friend – actor Ashton Kutcher – went to pick her up for a late-night Grammy party. When he arrived at her home around 10:45 p.m. no one answered the door. Kutcher looked through a window and saw what he thought was a wine stain on the floor.
Investigators say Gargiulo crashed a party at Ellerin’s home several days before the murder. Gargiulo can be seen in the background of a photo of the party, which prosecutors showed to the jury Thursday.
A third victim, Maria Bruno, 32, was murdered and mutilated in her El Monte apartment in 2005. Bruno went out the night before her death with her estranged husband, Irving Bruno, for dinner and drinks.
Bruno left her apartment shortly before 3 a.m., but when he returned around 8 a.m. he found a window screen on the floor and found his wife. Her throat had been slashed and one of her breasts was cut off and placed over her mouth, according to Akemon.
Police found a surgical shoe slipper near the apartment stained with Maria Bruno’s blood. Some of Gargiulo’s DNA was found near the elastic of the slipper.
The fourth victim, Michelle Murphy, 26, was able to fight off Gargiulo when he attacked her in her Santa Monica apartment in 2008. Prosecutors said that Murphy was able to get her legs out from under her as Gargiulo stabbed her arms and chest.
During that struggle, Gargiulo allegedly cut his own wrist and bled profusely over Murphy’s bedspread. As he ran out her apartment, prosecutors say Gargiulo apologized.
Prosecutors intend to show jurors over a six-month trial that Gargiulo’s DNA was matched to the blue shoe slipper found near Bruno’s apartment, the blood spilled over Murphy’s bedspread and also found under Paccacio’s fingernails.
Gargiulo was arrested in June 2008 and is charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Paccacio’s murder charge will not be determined by the Los Angeles jury, but prosecutors say they are showing the evidence in her case for special evidentiary purposes.
Jurors will also hear testimony from witnesses who say Gargiulo tried to inject himself into Ellerin’s life, allegedly scaring her and a roommate with a key he fashioned for her door, and showing one of her friends a knife he had stashed away in a sheath around his ankle.
Prosecutors will also call to the stand Gargiulo’s friends, who say he admitted to stabbing Paccacio and bragging about her murder.
On Thursday afternoon, prosecutors played 911 audio recordings from Irving Bruno after he discovered his wife’s body in 2005 and another 911 recording from Murphy after she was attacked in 2008. Prosecutors called her apartment a “bloodbath,” and said she crawled out of her bedroom on her hands and knees. She was still able to lock her door and window and call for help on her cellphone.
Undercover detectives spent 40 hours inside a jail cell with Gargiulo after he was arrested. Prosecutors played audio from an El Monte jail cell where Gargiulo allegedly hatched a plan to attack his jailer, steal a police car and escape. Police found a makeshift handcuff key tucked into Gargiulo’s pants. Gargiulo is also charged with attempted escape.
Defense attorney Daniel Nardoni called this a “subterfuge” to try and get his client to admit to the murders, but said that he never did. Nardoni claims there was a lack of DNA evidence connecting his client to Ellerin’s or Bruno’s apartments.
“The issue in a broad sense is identity,” Nardoni told the jury.
He later added that Gargiulo denies killing Ellerin, Bruno and Paccacio.
Testimony in the murder trial will resume Monday morning.
Gargiulo wore glasses and a violet shirt on Thursday as he listened to the prosecution’s opening argument. He maintains his innocence.
The LA District Attorney’s office is seeking the death penalty.
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