TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH
City News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS) – A woman who survived being stabbed eight times in her Santa Monica apartment by the man dubbed the “Hollywood Ripper” told jurors on Tuesday that she barely slept in the months following the attack.
In front of the jury that is being asked to recommend whether Michael Gargiulo should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murders of two women, Michelle Murphy testified that she was “fighting with everything she had” against her assailant and that she struggled to deal with her concerns about her safety after the April 28, 2008, attack by a man she called a “monster.”
On Aug. 15, jurors convicted Gargiulo of first-degree murder for the Feb. 22, 2001, slaying of 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin, who was killed in her Hollywood bungalow hours before she was set to go out with actor Ashton Kutcher, along with the Dec. 1, 2005, killing of 32-year-old Maria Bruno in her El Monte apartment and the attempted murder of Murphy.
Jurors found true special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder while lying in wait, making the 43-year-old defendant eligible for the death penalty, and subsequently found that Gargiulo was sane at the time of the crimes.
He is awaiting trial in Illinois on a charge that he killed an 18-year-old woman, Tricia Pacaccio, who was repeatedly stabbed on her front door step after returning home in Glenview, Illinois, from a night out with friends on Aug. 14, 1993.
Murphy — who was 26 when she was attacked while sleeping in her bed — testified that she has worked really hard to “find a happy place” since the attack that left her scarred nearly 11 1/2 years ago.
“Since becoming a mother this year, that has really changed the effect that all of this has had on me, you know, to bring a child into this world and to experience that joy,” the woman tearfully said. “All I can do is think about the parents of Tricia and Ashley and Maria and … that was taken from them so viciously by such a monster. That just destroys me. I can deal with, you know, the effects of whatever my life has been re-arranged, but when I think about what they have to go through, it just breaks my heart.”
Murphy said her friends moved all of her belongings without her ever returning to the apartment after the attack, and she went to live with her older brother and his two male roommates.
“… From the moment it happened, my sense of security was just gone,” she said. “You know, I came to this town, I was young, I was happy, I was carefree … That was taken from me and I just wasn’t that person any more.”
Murphy said she slept with the lights on for a long time.
“In the initial days and weeks and months after it happened … I barely even slept. I feared the night and going to bed,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “It was constantly checking and rechecking (windows and doors) and, you know, buying locks for the windows and more locks for the doors, and `Did I remember to check that one?’ I’ve been able over the years … not to do that as much, being able to go to sleep and know that, `O.K., you know you checked that. It’s O.K. You can close your eyes.’ But it’s taken a long time to get to that point.”
The woman’s husband, Vincent Biunno, started dating her not long before the attack. He testified that she called him moments afterward and he arrived to find her covered in blood.
“I will always have that image in my mind,” he said, noting that his wife is among four young women who contributed to Gargiulo being on trial.
“My wife is a hero,” he said. “She’s certainly my hero and I know I’m not alone.”
Two women who dated Gargiulo also testified about acts of violence they said he committed against them, with one saying he sexually assaulted her in the back of a van and threatened to kill her if she reported what had happened and another saying that he struck her in the face and threatened to kill her and her four daughters.
“Unfortunately, I had to sell my house. I had to move to a gated community … I lived with fear and always looking over my shoulder,” one of the women testified.
In his opening statement in the trial’s penalty phase, Deputy District Attorney Dan Akemon told jurors that the defendant has “led a life of crime and violence that has left a swath of death, grief and destruction behind him.”
“He has earned and deserves the maximum penalty of death,” the prosecutor said.
The violent nature of the attacks earned Gargiulo the moniker “Hollywood Ripper.” Akemon has also referred to the defendant as the “Boy Next Door” killer, noting that he lived near all of his victims and telling jurors that he targeted the women in “frenzied knife attacks” that are “inextricably linked.”
One of Gargiulo’s attorneys, Dale Rubin, countered that his client will die in prison. “The question is when? Is it going to be in God’s time or is it going to be in your time?” he said.
Rubin told jurors that Gargiulo suffers from mental illness, which should exclude him from being sentenced to death.
“The district attorney called Mr. Gargiulo a serial killer. The district attorney called Mr. Gargiulo a psychopath. The district attorney called Mr. Gargiulo psychotic. These are mental issues,” the defense attorney told the panel. “In this country, we don’t execute the mentally ill.”
After Tricia Pacaccio was killed outside her home, Gargiulo moved to Hollywood, where Ellerin’s friends noticed that he showed up uninvited to a party and that he seemed to be “fixated” on her, Akemon told jurors.
Kutcher — known for co-starring on the TV sitcoms “That ’70s Show” and “Two and a Half Men” — testified during the guilt phase of the trial that he had spoken to Ellerin on the phone the afternoon she died and showed up at her home two hours later to pick her up. When she didn’t answer her door, the actor said he looked through a window and saw what he believed was red wine spilled on the carpet. He said he left because he thought Ellerin had already gone out for the night.
The young woman’s roommate discovered her dead the next morning. She had been stabbed 47 times in the hallway outside her bathroom in an attack in which she was nearly decapitated.
Gargiulo subsequently moved to El Monte and lived in the same apartment complex where Bruno was “mutilated” as she slept, Akemon said. The prosecutor said Gargiulo stabbed the 32-year-old woman 17 times, cut off her breasts, tried to remove her breast implants and placed one of her breasts on her mouth.
A blue surgical bootie found outside the apartment contained drops of her blood along with Gargiulo’s DNA around the elastic band, and another blue surgical bootie appearing to be the same model was recovered from the attic of the El Monte apartment he had rented, according to Akemon.
Gargiulo was able to escape detection until he accidentally cut himself with a knife during the 2008 attack on Murphy — near where he lived at the time in Santa Monica — and left a “blood trail” during that attack, Akemon said.
Gargiulo was arrested in June 2008 by Santa Monica police in connection with the attack on Murphy and was subsequently charged with the killings of Ellerin and Bruno. Authorities in Illinois charged him in 2011 with Pacaccio’s slaying.
Gargiulo’s 16-year-old son, who was 8 years old when his father was arrested, is expected to testify for the defense in the penalty phase, which was delayed for just over a month because of scheduling issues.
TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH