LOS ANGELES — A jury on Thursday found a man described by prosecutors as a serial killer guilty of fatally stabbing two women and attempting to kill a third in their Southern California homes.
The Los Angeles jury reached the verdict against 43-year-old Michael Gargiulo, who is also awaiting trial for a similar killing in Illinois in 1993.
Gargiulo was charged with the murder of 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin in her Hollywood home in 2001 — on a night when she was supposed to have drinks with Ashton Kutcher, who testified at the trial.
Gargiulo was also charged with the 2005 murder of 32-year old Maria Bruno in her El Monte home, and with the 2008 attempted murder of Michelle Murphy, who fought off her attacker in her Santa Monica apartment and forced him to flee.
A native of the Chicago area who moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s, Gargiulo had acting aspirations and worked as an air-conditioning repairman and nightclub bouncer at the time of the attacks.
With little physical evidence tying Gargiulo to the scenes in the two murders, prosecutors during the trial urged jurors to look at the cases connectively, citing uncannily similar patterns in attacks that were all in places near the place where Gargiulo lived at the time.
Allowed to cite evidence from the Illinois case, they said all four attacks were the work of a skilled serial killer who studied the lives, homes and habits of victims that he stabbed quickly, powerfully and repeatedly with a knife that he knew how to use, and studied ways to cover his tracks.
"Those similarities point to one man, one killer: Michael Gargiulo," Deputy District Attorney Garrett Dameron said during closing arguments.
The defense relied heavily on the lack of forensic or eyewitness evidence putting Gargiulo at the scenes of the killings of Ellerin and Bruno. A shoe-covering bootie with Bruno's blood and Gargiulo's DNA was found near her apartment in a complex where they both lived.
"It's incomprehensible to me that you can make a case against someone when you can't even prove where they were," defense attorney Dale Rubin said during closing arguments. "There is absolutely no evidence as to where Mr. Gargiulo was, except that he wasn't inside the apartments."
Gargiulo's attorneys suggested that both women were killed by the last men who saw them alive: Bruno by her estranged husband, Ellerin by her apartment manager, with whom she'd had a sexual relationship.
Gargiulo's attorney Daniel Nardoni suggested that the apartment manager, who had been with Ellerin when she received a call from Kutcher on the night of her death, was driven to a jealous rage.
Kutcher, who in 2001 was a rising star of "That '70s Show" but not yet the household name he would become a few years later, testified early in the trial that he and Ellerin were just getting to know each other and had made plans to go out together for drinks, but he arrived at her Hollywood home very late. He knocked on the door and got no answer, looked inside and saw what he thought were wine stains, and left thinking she had gone out without him in frustration.
"I remember the next day, after I heard about what happened, I went to the detectives and said, 'My fingerprints are on the door,'" Kutcher testified. "I was freaking out."
The first and most important witness in the case was Murphy, a fitness buff who fought off the much larger Gargiulo in 2008 and caused him to cut himself, leaving a trail of blood as he fled that made the physical evidence against him so overwhelming that defense attorneys conceded that it was him.
They offered as their only defense that he suffers from split personalities and did not know he was in Murphy's apartment, offering as evidence the fact that he said "sorry" as he fled.
In the prosecution's closing argument, Dameron praised Murphy, whose resistance against Gargiulo led to his arrest in all of the other cases as they grew increasingly cold.
"Michelle Murphy, because of her strength and courage, allowed investigators to work backwards," Dameron said. "This case begins and ends with Michelle Murphy."