In the fall of 2000, Christopher Duran and Ashley Ellerin were outside her yellow bungalow behind Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood when a good-looking guy offered to help Duran fix his flat tire. The friendly stranger, Michael Gargiulo, paid special attention to blond beauty and part-time Las Vegas stripper Ellerin, a student at L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
Ellerin had attracted dates and boyfriends including Ashton Kutcher, then starring in That '70s Show as hunky dimwit Michael Kelso; Vin Diesel, who'd just starred in the 2000 cult hit Pitch Black; and Jeremy Sisto, later of Law & Order fame, who reportedly flew Ellerin to a set in Toronto, where he was filming 2001's Angel Eyes.
Gargiulo, 24, an air-conditioning repairman recently arrived from Chicago, gave Duran and Ellerin his card. He lived nearby with his girlfriend in the Armor Arms on Orchid Avenue, and began visiting the bungalow where 22-year-old Ellerin lived with roommate Justin Peterson. He offered to fix their heater, and even persuaded his lover — a doctor his girlfriend Alison didn't know about — to write Ellerin a prescription for medication for her carpal tunnel syndrome.
But the cute air-conditioning guy gave some of Ellerin's friends, and her roommate, Peterson, the willies.
When Gargiulo attended a bash of young Hollywood glam types thrown by Ellerin in December, her pal Anthony Castellane later told a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, "[Gargiulo] kept his eyes on her the whole time."
Then Gargiulo began parking outside Ellerin's and Peterson's bungalow in his green Ford pickup at odd hours. When Peterson confronted him, Gargiulo insisted he was merely laying low, telling him a story that would have prompted a lot of young urbanites to cut him loose. But among this group of gorgeous go-getters, Gargiulo's dark-edged tales, which he had told to many, were met with bemusement, disdain — and continued admission to the group.
He claimed he had been linked to a murder near Chicago, that police and FBI were showing up, and that the FBI wanted to test his DNA. Peterson later told the judge Gargiulo had shown him a hunting knife strapped to his ankle. Peterson and Ellerin had heard his weird tales before, but this one freaked Peterson out. "I rushed him out of the house and told him I didn't want anything to do with his business. ... I didn't want any part of it."
This group of beautiful young people were The Hills before anyone invented The Hills for reality TV. They were naive, living a life that college-age kids in Midwestern towns could only dream about. Sunset Boulevard. Studio parties. Clubs.
They were without a care and felt safe. So carefree, in fact, that Ellerin made love with her hunky, muscled young landlord, a Frasier bit actor, one afternoon, and casually made plans to date another dreamy boyfriend the same night — Kutcher.
But that evening, she was brutally murdered — just a few months after she pooh-poohed Peterson's warning that, beneath his too-charming surface, Gargiulo was a threat.
She "probably thought I was being dramatic about it," a sorrowful Peterson would say later. "Ashley knew I had 'an occurrence' with him and she knew how I felt. She didn't seem concerned. She was an amazing person who would make friends with everyone."
Her naïveté about the danger lurking so near tragically put Ellerin in harm's way. But the same youthful naïveté ended up protecting Kutcher, who was a biochemical-engineering student before he moved to Hollywood. His innocent outlook saved him from finding his date dead on the evening of Feb. 21, 2001. As Kutcher peered through her bungalow window, wondering why she didn't answer to his repeated knocking, the That '70s Show heartthrob mistook a trail of blood he could clearly see on her floor for spilled red wine. It was Grammy night. Mayhem never crossed the young man's mind.
Remarkably, the media largely left Kutcher alone through the pretrial hearing in June. In the decade since the tragedy that befell Ellerin, he has rarely commented on it. Kutcher went on to wed actress Demi Moore, and to star in What Happens in Vegas opposite Cameron Diaz and Killers with Katherine Heigl. He can be seen hawking Nikon's newest digital camera, and he's become a Twitter sensation, with more than a million followers.
Some of that will change at the trial, for which no date has been set, when he probably will have to testify against Gargiulo, the father of two accused of killing Ellerin and Maria Bruno, 34, who was hideously butchered 10 days after she moved into Gargiulo's gated El Monte apartment building in 2005.
Detectives found a blue surgical bootie that had been worn by Bruno's attacker outside her El Monte apartment, and theorize that the killer wore booties so he wouldn't leave forensic evidence behind. It didn't work — forensic evidence was recovered.