The hunt finished at a TGI Fridays, where Karen, who was heading off to study arts, and Tricia, who had been accepted into an Indiana university to study engineering, ate and drank late into the unusually cool and foggy August evening. At the end of the night, Karen and Tricia were dropped back to their homes. “The next morning I had another party to go to, a birthday party,” Karen tells marie claire. “When I came home, Dad met me at the door. I could tell something was wrong.”
Ushered upstairs by her father, she found her mum in the master bedroom, hysterical. “The first thing they said was ‘Tricia’s dead’,” says Karen, now a publicist who runs her own company in Atlanta, Georgia. “And all I could think of was that it must be some sort of medical thing that happened. And when they told me she had been murdered, I was just in shock. It was horrific.”
It marked the beginning of decades of agony for Tricia’s loved ones, and what police now believe was the start of a killing spree that would span 15 years and two states. Then, on August 15 this year, former air-conditioner repairer and father-of-two Michael Gargiulo, 43, was found guilty of three stabbing attacks in Los Angeles that left two women dead, including Ashley Ellerin, a fashion design student who’d been dating actor Ashton Kutcher at the time.
But in a twist worthy of its Hollywood setting, it was Tricia’s unsolved slaying that led LA police to Gargiulo’s door. While police were investigating Ashley’s homicide, detectives in Chicago reached out to their LA counterparts for their help in locating Gargiulo, who had been a close friend of Tricia’s younger brother, Doug, and had lived five doors down from the Pacaccio’s Glenview home. New technology had uncovered DNA under one of Tricia’s fingernails and police wanted to see if it belonged to Gargiulo, who had long been a person of interest in Tricia’s murder and had fled Chicago for LA.
22-year-old fashion student Ashley Ellerin. On the night of her murder, Ellerin was due to go on a date with actor Ashton Kutcher.
On the night of the scavenger-hunt party, Tricia was dropped home around 1am. She never made it inside. Her father, Rick, found her limp, bloodied body in the morning, on the steps of a side door. She had been stabbed 47 times in a frenzied attack that sent shock waves through the Glenview community. There was no evidence of sexual abuse and detectives found no motive. She had no enemies.
Then, one of the local boys began acting in a way that put him on the police radar. It was a 17-year-old Michael Gargiulo. The teen would come to the Pacaccio home bearing gifts for Tricia’s grieving parents, including flowers and a dinner voucher. And when questioned by police, he tried to pin the murder on a friend. But though his behaviour seemed odd, there was no evidence linking Gargiulo to the crime.
“Her murder was so horrific it was hard to believe, and then you had to deal with the fact that no-one had been arrested, there [was] no closure,” says Karen. "How is that possible that we couldn't find out who did this?"
The combined investigation eventually led to the arrest of Gargiulo, whose DNA matched the sample in a stunning breakthrough, but not before he had attacked a further two women. The development was welcomed by Tricia’s loved ones, but they questioned if enough had been done earlier to put away a man who would go on to destroy so many lives. Gargiulo will be tried separately for Tricia’s murder in Illinois, most likely next year.
“I was blindsided by the news of his arrest,” says Karen, now 44. “It was a moment of knowing that so much pain from over 20 years ago was being dug up. And I was angry it took so long.” Sitting in her home in Atlanta, where she lives with her husband and their two boys aged 12 and 10, Karen remembers Tricia as a bubbly, smart and positive person. “She was just a dynamo,” she says. “She was in the school band and on the debate team. We went to concerts, had sleepovers, passed each other notes in the hall. We used to talk about boys for hours.”
So much pain from over 20 years ago was being dug up. I was angry it took so longKaren Jones, friend
Five years after Tricia’s murder, Gargiulo, then 22, moved to LA, settling in the Hollywood Hills, a short stroll from the heady tourist strip of Hollywood Boulevard. He first worked as a bouncer, then an air-conditioner repairman, but the amateur boxer also sought out acting jobs. “He was kind of quiet,” Temple Brown, a filmmaker who hired Gargiulo for a boxing role in a student short film, tells marie claire. “He wasn’t anybody who stood out, he was just an average guy.” So average that Ashley Ellerin saw no reason for concern when Gargiulo introduced himself while she changed a flat tyre outside her Hollywood Hills home. Ashley was a fashion student with dreams of becoming a designer. Her social life and beauty had led to dates with celebrities including Vin Diesel and future Law & Order star Jeremy Sisto.
“Ashley was only just starting her life,” her close friend Carolyn Murnick tells marie claire. Gargiulo became obsessed with her, inviting himself over to her bungalow, and on one occasion he was seen in his car watching Ashley through a window in her home.
On the evening of February 21, 2001, Ashley was getting ready to go on a date with Ashton Kutcher, then 23, who she had met at a party. Kutcher, then a newly minted star riding the success of his roles in That ’70s Show and Dude, Where’s My Car?, was hours late picking up Ashley. “I knocked and there was no answer,” testified Kutcher, 41, who said he peeked through a window to see what he thought looked like red wine stains on the floor. “At this point I assumed she had left for the night, and that I was late and she was upset.”
In fact, Ashley lay dead, nearly decapitated, stabbed 47 times by Gargiulo. “Ashley wasn’t just a party girl,” says Carolyn, who wrote the 2017 memoir, The Hot One, about her friendship with Ashley. “She was a real person with a childhood and people around her who loved her.”
For almost 15 years, Gargiulo was always watching. His hobby was plotting the perfect opportunity to attack women with a knife in and around their homesDaniel Akemon, LA prosecutor
Gargiulo would strike twice more, becoming known as the “Hollywood Ripper”. After moving to the LA suburb of El Monte, he stabbed to death his neighbour, single mother and aspiring model Maria Bruno in her apartment on December 1, 2005. Three years later he was living in Santa Monica when he attempted to kill his neighbour, Michelle Murphy. The 28-year-old beauty woke to find Gargiulo on top of her stabbing her. She fought him off, and Gargiulo cut his hand in the process. As he fled the apartment, leaving a trail of his own blood that would finally lead to his arrest and conviction, he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Michael Gargiulo, for almost 15 years, was always watching,” said LA prosecutor Daniel Akemon is his opening statement at the trial. “And his hobby was plotting the perfect opportunity to attack women with a knife in and around their homes.”
Despite the verdict in California, justice still waits for Tricia Pacaccio, 26 years after her slaughter. Her parents Diane and Rick continue to live in the house where their kids grew up, and have kept Tricia’s pastel pink room exactly as she left it the night she bounced out the door for the scavenger hunt.
They still hold much anger over how their daughter’s case has been handled and that Gargiulo was not arrested immediately after his DNA matched the sample found on Tricia. Instead, authorities in Cook County, which oversees the Chicago area, felt that the DNA evidence would not hold up in court (due to Gargiulo’s friendship with Tricia’s brother, prosecutors deemed his DNA could have been left there by casual contact). It’s a theory Diane and Rick find absurd, given that no other foreign DNA was found on Tricia.
“I’m very angry that this has gone on for 26 years,” an emotional Diane told a local TV station following news of the guilty verdicts. Police in both states were just as frustrated.
After Ashley’s murder, LA police were certain Gargiulo was their man, but there was no evidence to put him at the scene. They hoped Cook County prosecutors would use the DNA evidence to get him off the street. “It troubles me enormously,” Cook County detective John Reed told Chicago magazine. “Those young women in California are dead because we dropped the ball.”
At press time, Gargiulo was awaiting sentencing in California, where he faces the death penalty. He is then expected to be extradited to Illinois to be tried over Tricia’s murder. No matter what the outcome, Rick said it will not bring them closure. “What was done to this family can’t be erased,” he told Chicago. “That will stay with me until I die.”
Tricia’s loss is also a constant fixture in Karen Jones’ life. She hopes justice and an end to the case will bring some peace to the community and her high school alumni. “Maybe we’ll finally have the opportunity to share some happy memories of her,” she says. “The only thing I’m grateful for now is that the person who killed many people won’t be able to kill anybody else. But it’s an awful situation, no-one wins, nothing is going to bring Tricia back. And that’s a horrible thing that we all live with.”
Photography by Nate Brunton/Zuma Press/Australscope; Getty Images; Rialto Images/Stocksy.com: AAP.
This story originally appeared in the November issue of marie claire.