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Ashton Kutcher figured he’d screwed up nearly two decades ago when he went to pick up a date and she didn’t answer the door.
He was late, and Ashley Ellerin, a 22-year-old fashion student, hadn’t been answering his calls.
“I knocked on the door. There was no answer. Knocked again. And once again, no answer,” the actor testified in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday about the February 2001 incident. “At this point I pretty well assumed she had left for the night, and that I was late, and she was upset.”
But before he left, he peeked through a window. All the lights were on and he saw what appeared to be red wine stains on the carpet. Kutcher said he had been at a housewarming party at Ellerin’s Hollywood home about a week before where people had been drinking. He wasn’t alarmed.
“I didn’t really think anything of it,” he said.
The next day, he found out Ellerin was dead.
Kutcher’s testimony came in the capital murder trial of Michael Gargiulo, whom prosecutors have called a “serial sexual-thrill killer.” Gargiulo faces two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in attacks in the Los Angeles area between 2001 and 2008. He has pleaded not guilty.
Kutcher’s celebrity and connection to one of the dead women have heightened interest in what is already a sensational case. Kutcher, dressed in a blue suit, testified for less than an hour. He was called to the witness stand by the prosecution.
During cross-examination, Kutcher said he was “freaking out” when he spoke with police at the time, noting that his fingerprints were on the door.
“Don’t worry, you’re not a suspect,” Gargiulo’s attorney, Daniel Nardoni, told him.
“Thank you,” Kutcher replied.
Gargiulo watched Kutcher intently, sometimes sitting forward with his eyebrows raised, as several jurors took notes.
Kutcher testified that he first met Ellerin at a friend’s birthday party months earlier. He had a girlfriend at the time and introduced her to his friend, whom she began dating.
By February, Kutcher and Ellerin were both single. The night she was killed, they’d made plans to grab dinner and drinks. When they last spoke about 8:30 p.m., Kutcher said that he was running late and that they should just get drinks instead.
No problem, she told him. She’d just showered and planned to blow-dry her hair, he testified.
When he was finally on his way, he tried calling. No answer. He rang her about three more times and left messages.
When he got to her house around 10:30 p.m., he thought she couldn’t hear him knocking and tried the front door. It was locked. After peering through the window, he left.
After Kutcher finished testifying, a sheriff’s deputy escorted him out of the packed courtroom.
Prosecutors said Gargiulo’s series of attacks began in the Chicago area in 1993.
One night in August of that year, Tricia Pacaccio, 18, was celebrating her high school graduation with friends before they headed off to college. She dropped a friend off about 1 a.m. before heading home. She walked up to her door carrying her house key but never made it inside.
Her father found her on the doorstep later that morning with numerous stab wounds to her chest, shoulder and neck.
Gargiulo, 17 at the time, was a friend of Pacaccio’s younger brother. It wasn’t until a decade later that investigators discovered that the DNA collected from her fingernails was his.
By then, prosecutors say, Gargiulo had moved to the Los Angeles area and killed Ellerin.
Gargiulo first met Ellerin when he offered to help her change a flat tire. Later, he offered to help fix her heater, and from then on he’d show up to her apartment uninvited and unannounced.
Some reported seeing him park in front of her home at all hours, staring at her residence for long periods of time. Her roommate thought he was a stalker.
Prosecutors allege he entered Ellerin’s home and stabbed her 47 times, slashing her throat so severely that he almost decapitated her.
Gargiulo later moved to the El Monte area, into the same apartment complex as Maria Bruno, 32.
In 2005, prosecutors allege, Gargiulo attacked her as she slept and “quite literally butchered her,” slashing her throat and slicing off her breasts.
His last alleged attack, in April 2008, was unlike the others. Michelle Murphy survived.
She testified this month, describing for jurors the harrowing ambush more than a decade ago.
It was a Monday in April 2008. After work, Murphy washed her bedsheets, jumped rope in the alley behind her Santa Monica apartment complex and watched TV before crawling into bed. She had been asleep for about an hour, she testified, when she woke up to a man straddling her, stabbing her arm and chest with a serrated knife.
She screamed and asked why he was attacking her. The man didn’t say a word, she said.
In a struggle to save herself, Murphy said, she wrapped her hands around the knife’s blade and kicked the man off the bed. As he ran out the door, Murphy recalled, he spoke for the first time.
“I’m sorry,” the attacker said.
Gargiulo and Murphy lived across from each other, sharing an alley in Santa Monica. Gargiulo left a trail of his blood out her door and past his apartment, prosecutors said.
He was arrested less than two months later. Detectives later linked him to the killings of Ellerin and Bruno. Gargiulo was also charged with Pacaccio’s slaying in Illinois, where he will be extradited after the Los Angeles trial.