‘SERIAL SEXUAL-THRILL KILLER’
‘Hollywood Ripper’ Survivor Breaks Her Silence: ‘I Woke Up With Someone on Top of Me’
Michael Gargiulo, an air-conditioner repairman, is facing the death penalty for allegedly targeting his young, female neighbors with a knife—including Ashton Kutcher’s ex.
The bulk of Monday, April 28, 2008, passed rather unremarkably for Michelle Murphy. The 26-year-old Santa Monica resident woke up beside her boyfriend of two months in the apartment she shared with a roommate. She left for work at 8 a.m. and returned around 6:45 p.m. She washed her bedsheets. She went out for a mani-pedi, saw the shop was closed, and walked straight home. She jumped rope and ran sprints in the alleyway behind her apartment. She showered, ate dinner, watched TV, and went to bed around 10:30. She woke up less than an hour later with a thin man straddling her in bed, stabbing her in the chest, shoulder and arm.
Monday morning, 11 years and eight days after the attack, Murphy took the witness stand at a courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles. Now 37, with her brown hair cut to her shoulders, Murphy had come to testify in the trial of 43-year-old Michael Gargiulo, the so-called “Hollywood Ripper,” who authorities believe murdered three women between 1993 and 2008 and staged the attack that left Murphy with stitches on eight parts of her right arm and permanent nerve damage in her hand. Murphy was the first in a list of more than 250 possible witness—including actor Ashton Kutcher, who dated one of the victims back in 2001—for a trial expected to last as long as six months.
“I woke up with someone on top of me, stabbing my arm,” she told the jury on Monday. “I could tell it was a knife. I thought it was serrated. I grabbed at the knife...with both hands. I wrapped my hands around the blade...I was trying to hold the knife and get some leverage to stop him from stabbing me. I was still being stabbed. I was just trying to wiggle around to keep from getting hit.”
The night she was stabbed, Murphy’s roommate had been gone for several days, visiting family in Poland. Her boyfriend was at his house. It was hot, so she slept without pajamas. She left the fan on and the window open—that was how the assailant slipped in, climbing up from the alleyway and cutting the screen. Murphy said she struggled during the attack, grabbing onto the blade, and pulling her legs up to her chest to kick off the attacker. She said she was screaming, and asking over and over “why he was doing this.” The assailant did not answer her, she said.
When Murphy kicked him onto the floor, the intruder leapt up and ran out of the room, down the hall, and toward the front door. Murphy ran after him, dripping blood over her sheets, comforter, and wall-to-wall carpeting. When she reached the living room, the attacker spoke for the first time. “I’m sorry,” Murphy recalled him saying. “I’m sorry.”
Gargiulo has pleaded not guilty to two charges of homicide and one charge of attempted murder in California. Following the trial, he will be extradited to Illinois on a third murder charge. Attorneys for the District Attorney’s Office have said that, if convicted, they will pursue the death penalty, despite the fact that California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in March placing a moratorium on capital punishment. California has not executed an inmate since 2006, but the state voted against abolishing it as recently as three years ago, and prosecutors have continued to request it, growing their death row population to 737 prisoners.
An air-conditioner repairman whom prosecutors have dubbed a “serial sexual-thrill killer,” Gargiulo allegedly moved around the country, targeting his young, female neighbors. In court documents, prosecutors claim the pattern began back in 1993, when a 17-year-old Gargiulo lived in a suburb of Chicago. At the time, he was friends with the brother of Tricia Pacaccio, an 18-year-old girl who had recently graduated from high school and was preparing to matriculate at Purdue University on an engineering scholarship. At 1 a.m. one night, Pacaccio had dropped a friend off at home, before continuing to her own house. Her father found her on their stoop the next morning, with stab wounds on her shoulder, neck and chest.
The case remained unsolved nearly eight years later, when one of Gargiulo’s neighbors, Ashley Ellerin, a 22-year-old fashion student and stripper, was found in her apartment with 47 stab wounds to the throat. The manic attack had nearly separated her head from her body. Ellerin had made plans that night to go to a Grammy Awards after party with Ashton Kutcher—then at the height of his That ‘70s Show fame—whom she had been seeing at the time. But when Kutcher came to pick her up, he told investigators, Ellerin had not come to the door.
Both cases remained unsolved four years later, when Gargiulo moved to an apartment in El Monte, California. In 2005, his neighbor, 32-year-old Maria Bruno, was attacked in her home as she slept. Police found her “quite literally butchered,” with stab wounds to the throat much like Ellerin’s. Bruno’s breasts had been cut off and left in the room with her body. During the investigation of Bruno’s murder, detectives found a blue surgical bootie with samples of Bruno’s DNA. They later found similar booties in Gargiulo’s apartment.
In court Monday morning, another witness named Gustavo Bone, Gargiulo’s business partner and the founder of a company called Gus the Plumber, said that these booties were part of the company’s standard uniform when working in someone’s home.
Bone began working with Gargiulo in 2006, after interacting with him in the L.A. home repairs circuit for several years. Bone’s plumbing business had not done any heating or air-conditioning work, and he saw the partnership as a good way to expand the business. “He was very professional,” Bone said of Gargiulo. “I was happy with him. He was well-groomed.”
Meanwhile, Murphy told the jury Monday that, in the months before the final alleged attack, she occasionally saw Gargiulo in the shared alleyway where they parked their cars. She drove a dark Mazda Protegé; he drove a white conversion van with a large business decal reading: “Gus The Plumber.” Gargiulo would wave at her from the driver’s seat, Murphy said. He did this as many as 10 times—possibly more than 20—but they never interacted in any other context.
In court, prosecutors played a recording of an emergency dispatcher returning Murphy’s 9-1-1 call that night. At 11:46 p.m., Murphy answered the phone in tears. “I was asleep,” she said. “All I know is that they were tall. I think they had a hoodie… He was standing in the dark. He had on pants…He was probably maybe at the most 5’11, and thin. He broke into my window. He broke the screen… I saw his back, that’s all I saw.” The dispatcher asked if she could walk to the door; the police had arrived. “Give me a sec,” she said, unlatching the door to the officers outside. “Help.”
The night of the attack Murphy also called her boyfriend, Vincent—now her husband—who testified after her on Monday. “I would describe her as hysterical,” he told the jury. “I recall her telling me that she had woken up to someone on top of her, that she was able to force him off, that he had run out… I remember telling her to call 9-1-1 and exit the apartment and go to Wilshire Boulevard. At the time, I thought it was a highly-trafficked area and there would be people on the street. I hung up and got in my car driving towards her.” Later, Vincent would pick Gargiulo and another man out of six suspect photos, saying the repairman looked familiar, although he couldn’t say how.
Murphy’s roommate, Olga Denirjian, another witness on Monday, told the jury she saw the same six photos, but could not recognize any of the men. Olga, notably, rarely frequented the alley behind the apartment that the girls shared with Gargiulo. Unlike Murphy, who kept a parking space there, Denirjian usually parked her car out front. Denirjian told the court that she had not heard of the attacks until days after the fact, when she returned from Poland. Neither girl spent the night in their apartment ever again.