Who Murdered Our Daughter?

A harrowing tale of three murders, inconclusive evidence, and the 18-year search for a serial killer.

Rock and Diane PacaccioKatrina Wittkamp

Diane and Rick Pacaccio mount the stairs in silence. They trudge to the second floor of their modest two-story house in Glenview, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and stand before the bedroom just to the left. Diane turns the knob with a trembling hand.

The room is all pastel pinks and powder blues. Porcelain clowns line a set of shelves. The words Happy Sweet 16 shimmer on a piece of poster board. “Everything is just the same,” Diane says. She pauses, spots a framed photo of her daughter. The girl’s dark hair, parted on the left, falls gently over her shoulders. Her smile is girlish, sweet, tinged with yearning. “She’s got a beautiful face, this girl,” Diane murmurs.

Rick lets out a sudden, sharp sob. He turns and waves at the air, as if beating back an attacker. He staggers toward the door. “I gotta go,” he says.

A Grisly Scene
Eighteen. That’s how old Tricia Pacaccio was on August 14, 1993, when, between 1 and 2 a.m., someone plunged a knife into her a dozen times on the stoop of her home’s side door. Her father found her bloody body later that morning.

From that day forward, the Pacaccios, now in their early 60s, have wanted one thing: to catch the killer. When the investigation began, detectives had what seemed to be a few good leads. Police collected physical evidence, including Tricia’s key chain, which they found next to her, and some fingernail clippings. They also found a man’s shoe print.

The Pacaccios’ usually quiet cul-de-sac was teeming with potential witnesses the night of the murder—their neighbors had hosted a pool party earlier that evening.

Tricia PacaccioCourtesy of the Pacaccio Family
Tricia Pacaccio in 1993. She knew the man accused of her murder.
Yet the leads evaporated as quickly as they appeared. The key chain and fingernail clippings were examined, but the less sophisticated forensic testing methods at that time yielded no useful evidence. The shoe print, it turned out, belonged to Rick Pacaccio, left in the first frantic moments after discovering his daughter. No one from the party reported seeing anything out of the ordinary that night.

Detectives tried to determine a motive-. Sexual assault was ruled out as Tricia had been found fully clothed with no sign of such injuries. Nothing had been taken from her, so robbery didn’t fit. The brutality of the crime suggested personal animus, but investigators couldn’t find anyone who harbored the slightest ill will toward Tricia. “She was a beautiful person, inside and out,” says Karen Isenberg Jones, a friend of Tricia’s, who was with her earlier on the night of the murder. “She was genuinely nice to everybody.”

For more than ten years, leads appeared and faded, trails went cold, strings of detectives came and went.

Then in 2006, homicide detective Tom Small from Hollywood, California, called the Pacaccios. He was investigating the similarities between Tricia’s death and the 2001 murder of a Los Angeles woman. He had a question: Did they know a Michael Gargiulo?

They did.

Next: Portrait of an Accused Killer

Michael GargiuloSanta Monica Police Department/AP Photo
Gargiulo is implicated in three murders.
Portrait of an Accused Killer
Born in 1976, the lean, dark-haired Gargiulo lived with his parents and siblings five houses away from the Pacaccios. Like many neighborhood kids, Gargiulo, a friend of Tricia’s brother Doug, spent time at the Pacaccio house.

In 1997, as new detectives on the case, John Reed and Mark Baldwin interviewed some of the same people that detectives had approached four years earlier, including Gargiulo.

Reed and Baldwin say they suspected Gargiulo might have been involved in the crime, but they did not delve deeply enough into his background to uncover his dark, explosive temper. “If he had something he wanted to do and something got in his way, he would go completely nuts,” said Scott Olson, who played in a band with Gargiulo.

In 1998, five years after losing her daughter, Diane Pacaccio heard a knock at her home’s side door. When she opened it, Michael Gargiulo was standing there. “Is Mr. P. home?” he asked. Diane told him her husband was still at work, and Gargiulo asked if he could wait.

“He sat down in the kitchen and waited for over an hour,” says Diane. When Rick arrived home, he was hopeful that Gargiulo might have some information about their daughter’s murder. Just as Gargiulo began to speak, however, his father and sister burst through the door. “They didn’t knock or anything,” Rick recalls. “They just came in and grabbed him.”

Soon after that encounter, Gargiulo moved to Los Angeles. No one was charged in the murder, and Reed and Baldwin became the latest detectives to leave the case.

West Coast Victim
Ashley Ellerin, a sweet and fun-loving 22-year-old had enrolled in L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, hoping for a career both creative and glamorous. In 2001, she was dating Ashton Kutcher, a rising Hollywood star.

Struggling to change a flat tire in front of Ellerin’s house one day, Ellerin and a friend welcomed the help of a good-looking dark-haired stranger. The man introduced himself as Mike and gave the two of them his card, saying he was a furnace and air-conditioning repairman. Soon he was showing up, often unannounced and uninvited, to parties at Ellerin’s house.

On February 21, 2001, after having arranged to meet, Kutcher swung by Ellerin’s split-level Hollywood bungalow at around 10:45 p.m. He knocked on the door, and when she didn’t answer, he tried the handle. Locked. He then peered through the front window. The place was in disarray, but that was to be expected since Ellerin was in the midst of remodeling. Kutcher also saw a dark red stain that looked like someone had spilled wine near the entrance to her bedroom. Assuming she had stood him up, he left.

When Ellerin’s new roommate, Jennifer Disisto, entered the bungalow the next morning around 8:30, she saw Ellerin sprawled in a pool of blood on a landing leading to the bedrooms. She’d been stabbed 47 times. Tom Small, the Hollywood detective assigned to investigate the case, noticed something else at the murder scene: The position of the body seemed odd, as if “the victim was moved, possibly posed.”

Next: A Break in  the Case

Maria BrunoCourtesy Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Homicide Bureau
Maria Bruno left behind four children.
A Break in  the Case
In 2002, Illinois detectives reinvestigating Tricia Pacaccio’s murder came looking for Gargiulo in California.

The detectives, including Lou Sala from the Cook County sheriff’s cold-case division, had taken over for Reed and Baldwin in 2000. The new investigators had submitted the physical evidence recovered at the Pacaccio murder scene for DNA testing using newer, more sophisticated methods. The tests had detected DNA from two people on Tricia’s nail clippings: her own and that of an unidentified person. Sala collected DNA samples from more than 20 witnesses in the case, but none matched. Only Gargiulo remained on the list.

When Small heard who they were looking for—and why—“bells and whistles went off,” he says. “We believed it had to be our guy.”

They tracked Gargiulo to an apartment listed under his girlfriend’s name. Search warrant in hand, they discovered three knives, binoculars, and a backpack containing a Halloween mask and a handgun in his van. Authorities apprehended Gargiulo when he arrived home and collected DNA samples. Gargiulo was allowed to remain free pending the outcome of the tests.

In September 2003—ten years after Tricia Pacaccio had been killed—results indicated that the foreign DNA on Tricia’s fingernails belonged to Michael Gargiulo. Tom Small, lacking any DNA evidence from the Ellerin crime scene, felt he could not charge Gargiulo. His hope was that Cook County prosecutors would help his case by doing so instead.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office said that it was impossible to determine whether the genetic material came from the tops of the nails or under them. Because of that, the office said, experts could not rule out the possibility that Gargiulo’s DNA found its way onto Tricia’s nails through casual contact—particularly since Gargiulo had visited the Pacaccio house. “I thought they [were] going to arrest him and confront him with evidence and see what he had to say,” says Small. “But it didn’t work out that way.”

The Attacks Continue
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 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.

The intruder stabbed Bruno 17 times. As with the Ellerin case, the killer appeared to have posed Bruno’s body. Mark Lillienfeld, a detective with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department discovered a blue medical bootie outside Bruno’s apartment, but he couldn’t connect it to a suspect.

Three years later, in April 2008, Michelle Murphy, a petite, 28-year-old blonde, awoke sometime after midnight to a man wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap 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. Murphy kicked the attacker in the chest. He fell against the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said, staggering out.

The DNA collected from the blood left at the scene belonged to Michael Gargiulo. He was arrested on June 6, 2008. A bag with some tools and blue medical booties were found in his car.

Soon detectives assembled other clues. A single medical bootie was found in a plastic bag in Gargiulo’s apartment—the same make and manufacturer as the one at the Bruno murder scene. A test of skin cells on the bootie matched their DNA to that of Gargiulo. With DNA linking Gargiulo to two murders and one attempted murder, Gargiulo, already in jail for the alleged attempted murder of Michelle Murphy, was charged in the Ellerin and Bruno killings.

Delayed Justice
Nightfall looms in Glenview. Tricia’s parents, sitting at the kitchen table, are grateful about the latest developments: Two new witnesses came forward to say that Gargiulo confessed to killing their daughter, and on July 7, 2011, Gargiulo was indicted for the murder of Tricia Pacaccio. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in Los Angeles County.

The Pacaccios are pleased at the thought that justice may finally be at hand for the girl whose room they keep exactly as it was almost 20 years ago. Still, they don’t seek closure.

“There is no such thing,” Rick says, his voice rising. “What was done to this family can’t be erased.”

From Chicago Magazine (July 1, 2011)

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest