This is the second in a series of articles about the trial of Michael Gargiulo. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read “I Buried the Bitch… Just Kidding.“
It’s crowded at the Criminal Courts Building on Wednesday morning, May 29. Normally, a small procession of jurors, attorneys, witnesses, and others funnel through one of two entrances on either side of the building, both complete with a security crew and metal-detectors, which creates moderate congestion in the early hours when court is in session. But today, the line to enter is twice as long, as the usual procession is joined by a horde of journalists swarming the doors. Along with them, a mob of film crews stands just outside the building, training their cameras on Temple Street. Their faces are masked by their equipment, aiming for the perfect shot like medieval archers anticipating a great foe.
They are here for Ashton Kutcher, who is expected to testify in the case against Michael Gargiulo, a suspected serial killer known as “The Hollywood Ripper.” He is charged with the brutal stabbing murders of three women including Ashley Ellerin, whom Kutcher knew personally back in February 2001. Many media outlets have pegged Kutcher and Ellerin as a couple who were set to go to a Grammys Party the night of the murder, but that wasn’t quite the case. So far, the only thing known for sure is that, that night, Kutcher approached Ellerin’s house, was surprised by a locked door, and looked through a window to spot what he thought was spilled red wine on the carpet. Based off that, the reporters present here today want a big story with a big celebrity, and it looks like they’ll get just that. One reporter in the front row of the gallery whispers to another, “Do you think he’ll cry?”
About an hour and a half after the gaggle of camera crews and journalists appears, their man finally arrives. Kutcher wades through the reporters and crews in a two-piece navy blue suit, towering above most of them at 6’2”, and heads to the ninth floor.
Meanwhile, Department 106 is a madhouse, packed with people shuffling in laptop bags, notebooks, and cameras, with each of the three gallery rows filled. Courtroom workers order everyone to squeeze more tightly together. Those who can’t sit stand near the door or kneel. And when Kutcher enters and makes his way to the witness stand, the laptops come out and a cacophony of clacking and tapping begins, creating a wall of white noise that forces the attorneys and Kutcher to raise their voices.
During his testimony, Kutcher dispels popular misconceptions about his and Ellerin’s relationship. He asserts that the two were not exes, not dating, and not even really friends. According to Kutcher, he had only met her a few times through a mutual friend, found her “cute,” and asked her to hang out to get to know each other better. Kutcher also relays that Ellerin had postponed the pick-up time that night and that he decided to wait at a friend’s house and watch the Grammys — a far cry from the rumors that the two were going to a “Grammys Party” as a couple. The defense attorney, Daniel Nardoni, scoffs and turns to the army of reporters: “Well then, that’s very different from what the media has led us to believe.”
Aside from disproving these myths, Kutcher fills the room with a sense of levity that clashes starkly with the mood of prior testimonies in the gruesome Gargiulo case. He jokes about how he knows it “sounds like [he’s] a creep, peeking through Ellerin’s window to see if she is home,” but he wasn’t sure at the time whether or not she was standing him up. This gets a laugh, which is cringe-inducing in a room that also contains Ellerin’s father and alleged killer. Ellerin’s father, who is present for Kutcher’s entire testimony, also witnesses the actor testify that the first thing he was worried about when hearing that Ashley had been murdered was that his fingerprints were all over her doorknob and gate. This, too, gets a big laugh.
Once Kutcher exits the room, having presented little more than a clear timeframe for the murder without much courtroom drama, the entire sea of reporters dissolves.
Those departed reporters who were seeking a juicy cover story will be disappointed to learn that they missed the testimony of Anthony Castellane, who takes the stand immediately after Kutcher.
Castellane, an actual friend of Ellerin’s, testifies that he had met Gargiulo at her home before the murder. Ashley had a housewarming party with about 50 attendees. Noticing Gargiulo sitting alone on a couch, Castellane decided to talk to this man whom he’d “never seen before.” Castellane’s testimony becomes particularly intense as he recalls how Gargiulo stopped speaking to him for a moment to watch someone intently from across the room: Ellerin. Castellane explains that Gargiulo would often pause when he spoke, his eyes fixed on Ashley. Castellane claims to have seen Gargiulo after that night as well, loitering around outside of Ellerin’s apartment, working on his truck across the street for what seemed to be hours at a time. Judge Larry P. Fidler then calls for a 10-minute break, during which Castellane breaks down in tears, sitting in the mostly empty courtroom and lamenting “how hard it is to look at [Gargiulo], knowing what he did to her.”
Castellane’s testimony is gut-wrenching. He met the alleged killer, ostensibly at the precise moment when the man formed the idea of murder in his mind. The witness is enduring the added trauma of sitting in a public courtroom and testifying in front of that same alleged killer. The intense human drama that so much of the press sought was right there in front of them, but instead, they chased the celebrity.