It looks like any other photograph of a loving couple cuddling for the camera, but unfortunately, that scenario could not be further from the truth.
The man in the picture is suspected serial killer Michael Thomas Gargiulo, and police have no idea who or where the woman is, although they fear the worst for her.
Gargiulo, 39, has been held at the Los Angeles County Jail for the past 7½ years and is awaiting trial for the murder of three young women and the attempted murder of a fourth.
The former bouncer and air-conditioner repairman is known variously as the “Chiller Killer,” the “Boy Next Door Killer” and the “Hollywood Ripper,” and investigators believe may have murdered as many as 10 women.
The charges relate to the 1993 murder of 18-year-old Tricia Pacaccio; the 2001 stabbing death of Ashley Ellerin, a 23-year-old fashion student and one-time girlfriend of “Two and a Half Men” star Ashton Kutcher; the 2005 slaying of Gargiulo’s neighbor Maria Bruno, 32; and the attempted murder of another neighbor, Michelle Murphy, in 2008.
But it’s the victims detectives don’t know about, or are struggling to identify, who are weighing heavily on the minds of prosecutors as Gargiulo enters his eighth year of incarceration without trial.
Investigators realized that Gargiulo may be responsible for other murders after he dropped an “odd” comment during initial questioning over the attack on Murphy, allegedly stating that “just because 10 women had been killed and his DNA was present” didn’t mean he had killed anyone.
The best lead they have is a series of four photographs found on Gargiulo’s hard drive featuring him cuddling up to a mystery brunette. LA County Sheriff’s Detective Mark Lillienfeld believes the pictures were taken in California between 2001 and 2003.
“[The woman] resembles some of the victims of the murders of which he has been charged,” Lillienfeld told People Magazine on Nov. 5.
“It’s possible, and we’re hoping, that she is fine and living her life. We’d simply like to identify her and confirm that she’s OK.”
The sheriff’s department initially released the photos after Gargiulo’s arrest, but the woman has never been identified.
“We got a couple of ‘She looks like my cousin’ calls,” Lillienfeld said. “But we just weren’t able to identify this particular woman.”
If the current attempt to identify her fails, investigators may have to consider the possibility she was visiting America from overseas and that her family and friends might not have seen the original appeal.
Police will allege Gargiulo’s killing spree began with Pacaccio’s murder in his hometown of Glenville, Illinois, in 1993. The teen, who was the older sister of a good friend, was found on her front porch with 12 stab wounds.
He was a prime suspect right from the start but was not charged with her murder until 2011, despite detectives having matched DNA found under the teenager’s fingernails to him in a 2003 test.
In 1998, still under a cloud of suspicion, Gargiulo moved to Hollywood, where he pursued acting and amateur boxing, which led to a small role as a boxer in LA movie producer Temple Brown’s graduate thesis film.
“This was in 1999. I was a film student at USC,” Brown told “48 Hours Mystery” correspondent Michelle Maher.
“I think he was perfect for that part as far as, you know, this movie goes. He looked it. And he performed it very well.”
It was in Hollywood that Gargiulo, by now working as a bouncer and air-conditioning repairman, started hanging out with Ashley Ellerin, who was dating a then-unknown Ashton Kutcher — but not exclusively.
Ellerin was found stabbed to death by her roommate in her Hollywood bungalow on the morning of Feb. 22, 2001. Her injuries were so deep and numerous that she was left almost decapitated.
Police established she had been due to meet up with Kutcher for a drink the previous night. Kutcher had turned up at 10:45 p.m., but Ellerin didn’t answer the door. Believing he’d been stood up, Kutcher decided to leave. Before he did, he peered through a front window, and saw what he believed were red wine stains on the floor. Police later determined the stains were blood.
The actor has said that he always regretted not calling for help immediately, always wondered if he could have saved her.
On Dec. 1, 2005, mother of four Maria Bruno was found butchered to death in her bed just 10 days after moving into a first-floor unit in the apartment complex where Gargiulo lived. The bodies of Ellerin and Bruno were both said to have been horribly mutilated and positioned in a sexually obscene manner.
Michelle Murphy, the only of Gargiulo’s alleged victims to have survived, woke to find someone stabbing her in a frenzy as she lay in bed. Despite suffering serious wounds to the chest, shoulder and right arm, Murphy managed to fight off her attacker before he fled.
She is expected to be the star witness in Gargiulo’s trial — whenever it finally starts.