The Hollywood Ripper: How Ashton Kutcher's testimony in his date's murder unmasked a serial killer
The actor's involvement in the case gave it more visibility and ultimately led to Michael Gargiulo being sentenced to death
A 22-year-old vivacious girl from Los Altos, a small town in San Fransisco, California moved to Los Angeles in September 2000, with a dream to make it big in the fashion industry. A resolute Ashley Ellerin, described by her close friends as one of the friendliest people they had known, enrolled in the LA Fashion Institute. Within a few months, it appeared her dreams were becoming a reality as she made influential friends in the entertainment industry, one of them being then-upcoming Hollywood star Ashley Kutcher.
Ellerin, on February 21, 2001, was getting ready for a date with Kutcher, who had recently gone through a breakup. It was Grammy awards night in Hollywood, and the pair decided to go out and get to know each other better. Kutcher was supposed to pick Ellerin up from her house, but he was running late. He called around 8:20 pm but she did not answer his call.
Realizing that he had made a mistake, the actor reached Ellerin's house at about 10:45 pm, he saw her car parked there and knew she was home. He repeatedly rang the doorbell and rang her phone, but there was no response. Kutcher walked towards her window, and attempted to look inside, but all he could see was wine spilled on the floorboards. Kutcher decided to get back to Ellerin the next morning and apologize for being late for their date. However, hours later, he would get to know that it was not wine on the floorboards after all.
On February 22nd morning, at 9 am, Ellerin's flatmate, Jennifer Disisto, entered their house and found Ellerin lying in a pool of her own blood, stabbed to death. Panicked and in a shock, she immediately called 911.
"It was around 9:15 am when we received the call. I saw the condition she [Ellerin] was left in. It was probably one of the most gruesome crime scenes that I've seen," Detective Tom Small, with the Los Angeles Police Department at the time said. "She was stabbed in the front, neck, back of the head. She had defensive wounds on her head, and arms."
The detective found the bathtub "still damp," her hairdryer on the counter, and her curling iron left on the toilet seat. Ellerin was preparing for her date night.
"She was stabbed over 47 times," the former detective said. "She was pretty much decapitated." The attack was ferocious, its intensity suggested personal hatred and resentment. The detectives concluded that the murderer was a person she had known enough to have entered her house without breaking in. There was no DNA evidence left at the crime scene except for the victim's blood, which was everywhere. "There was blood from the floor level up to 4 or 5 ft on the walls, the doors, the carpeting was saturated," Small said. "There was a bloody shoe print heading toward the front door." The victim was not robbed or sexually assaulted. It looked like a personal vendetta.
Authorities began getting in touch with the people close to Ellerin, but one day they received a call they had least expected - from one of Hollywood's hottest stars, Ashton Kutcher.
The then 23-year-old called the detectives as soon as he heard about Ellerin's murder and relayed the account of February 21 night when he visited her house. Initially, a suspect, authorities cleared him after his alibi was confirmed by his phone calls to her on the night of her death.
With Kutcher's involvement, the cases exploded and garnered nationwide media attention. On further probing, detectives found that Ellerin had a brief affair with Mark Durbin, the building manager. He willingly admitted to authorities that he was at the building on the night of the murder. Authorities suspected his involvement and searched his apartment. They found nothing. Durbin was also ruled out.
Authorities, in a desperate search to find the killer, were running out of leads. It was then when witnesses began talking of a furnace guy named Mike. Ellerin's friend Chris told authorities of an incident when Ellerin and him were trying to change a tire of their car, when a white guy, who seemed Italian, approached them to help. According to Chris, he did not really help but struck a conversation with Ellerin.
Soon after, he was spotted at several of the parties she went to. He was not invited for any of them. Her close friends became acquainted with who Mike 'the furnace guy' was. One of Ellerin's flatmates, Justin, had once noticed a pickup truck at night outside their apartment, and in the morning 'Mike' came out of the car towards their house, stepping onto the porch, asking if Ellerin was home. Justin found him suspicious and escorted him outside.
Authorities began searching for this 'Mike', however, months passed away and they found no leads on him. One day the building manager Durbin confirmed that he had seen Mike back in town, but his appearance had changed and he went by the name Tony now. Mike also told Durbin about a vehicle accident he was involved in.
Detective Small attempted to shoot in the dark and ran a collision record check in the area and found one suspicious person: Michael Gargiulo. The witnesses identified him as Mike. The case began to gather steam as authorities from Chicago came to LA to hunt for a guy suspected to be involved in a 1993 murder case. The person was Garguilo.
The 26-year-old suspect was found and a DNA test was run in the 1993 murder case of an 18-year-old girl who was stabbed multiple times at the door of her house. Garguilo was a match, but the state DA did not convict him in the case.
Garguilo, in the following years, continued his killing spree by killing a third victim in 2005, a 35-year-old mother of two. Undetected, Garguilo became audacious and attempted stabbing another victim to death in 2008, however, this time the victim fought back.
Michelle Murphy, 26, woke up from her sleep with a feeling of being stabbed. Garguilo, a husband and a father of two children by this time, was repeatedly stabbing Murphy with a knife in her bedroom. Murphy fought back, which resulted in Garguilo being injured too. With his blood everywhere, he fled the scene. The DNA evidence was collected and it was run against the database. The sample matched the 1993 murder case DNA, and Murphy identified Garguilo as the attacker. The serial killer, whom the media infamously named 'The Hollywood Ripper' was finally convicted.
The trial of the case became much-publicized after Kutcher's participation in the testimony. It was because of the actor's star power, the news reached across Hollywood and an anonymous person from the region revealed that Garguilo on a drunken night in a bar told him that he had "buried a bitch" in Chicago, confirming Garguilo's connection to the 1993 murder case.
A jury sentenced him to death last year. However, Gargilo's defense filed multiple appeals, and it remains to be seen whether the sentence will be carried out.
A 90-minute special, 'Snapped: Notorious Hollywood Ripper', was released by Oxygen on April 19, detailing how the infamous serial killer went about his murder spree.