Mourners arrived at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in San Dimas last December [above] to celebrate a Mass for the nine members of a family killed during a Christmas Eve shooting rampage.
Last Christmas season we were all horrified with the mass murder of nine people in a California home by a disgruntled ex-husband dressed in a Santa suit. At the time, like most of us, I was stunned by the violent juxtaposition of such an incomprehnsible tragedy and the holiday around which it occurred. Now, nearly seven months after the crime, the events that led up to the horror have come to light.
We already knew that it was nearing midnight when a large man emerged from his rented blue Dodge and approached a brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Covina, Californi. The man wore a handmade Santa Claus suit with boot-covers, belt, beard, glasses and gloves. This sight in and of itself was hardly suspicious, as it was Christmas Eve.
But underneath the Santa outfit the man wore black street clothes, carried five 9-millimeter handguns and $17,000 in cash plastic-wrapped to his body. He was pulling a compressor wrapped in Christmas paper and primed with high-octane fuel. In one shoe he had a printout for a ticket on a Northwest Airlines flight to Moline, Ill.
The man knocked. Inside, a family Christmas party was ending, and Sylvia Pardo's relatives had gathered near the door to say good night. The door swung open and an 8-year-old girl ran to Santa. He shot her in the face. Then he stepped into the house and opened fire. Sylvia's sister - who would be dead in seconds - frantically dialed 911. "His name," she told the dispatcher before being shot to death, "is Bruce Pardo."
Nine people died in that rampage - although miraculously the 8-year old survived...physically, anyway. Emotionally, the trauma has scarred her, and her family fears she will never be able to lead what one might call a 'normal' life. All before her 9th birthday. Among the dead were Bruce Pardo's former wife, Sylvia, and her parents. Pardo, 45, in a burst of good taste, took his own life a few hours later.
It now appears that, although privately troubled by the deterioration of his marriage, Bruce Pardo glowed with charm and generosity in public. Even those closest to him had no inkling that last June, long before his divorce was final, he had begun secretly assembling an arsenal and plotting an elaborate getaway.
Pardo grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, the son of an engineer, and demonstrated an early knack for mathematics. He graduated from Cal State Northridge with a degree in computer science.
As with many mass murderers, friends and co-workers recalled Pardo as exceptionally bright. Just out of college he landed a job as a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL] in La Canada Flintridge. Again, as with most mass murderers, there were undertones of 'whacko' in some of his behavior, not the least of which was his unusual joy in defeating the computer security systems he helped create. Once, he even hacked into the JPL computer system to learn his co-workers' salaries.
Pardo's personal life contained far more substantial evidence of 'lunatic'. In 1988, when he was 24, Pardo became engaged to a JPL co-worker. They invited 250 guests to the nuptials at the San Fernando Mission. Because Pardo didn't have much money [he was living with his Mommy at the time], his easily-duped bride-to-be dipped into her own life savings for a country club reception and honeymoon reservations in Tahiti. You know what happened next, right? On the day of the wedding, June 17, 1989, his fiancee as well as his brother Brad and his mother, Nancy Windsor, waited for nearly an hour for Pardo to show up. He never did. The next week, his fiancee learned he had withdrawn the $3,000 left in their credit union account. Turns out, Pardo had fled to Palm Springs and blew all the money. For some unknown reason, his fiancee refused to file charges...although the wedding was off.
Throughout the 1990s Pardo drifted from relationship to relationship. By 2001, at age 37, he was living in Woodland Hills with his girlfriend, Elena Lucano, and their 13-month-old son, Bruce Matthew. What happened next was perhaps the biggest indicator of the psychotic that Pardo truly was. A week after New Year's, little Matthew fell into the backyard swimming pool while Pardo was watching television in the house. When Lucano returned home, she found Pardo screaming and holding Matthew in his arms. While Pardo did maintain a vigil by the boy's hospital bed for about a week, once doctors determined that Matthew would never fully recover, Pardo was gone. Matthew, now 9, is severely brain-damaged and a paraplegic. Neither Lucano nor Matthew ever saw Pardo again.
In 2004, Pardo met Sylvia Orza. They were introduced by her brother-in-law, one of Pardo's co-workers at JPL. He never mentioned Matthew to her. Orza, 40, had three children from two previous marriages. They were married Jan. 29, 2006, and Pardo bought a three-bedroom, $565,000 home in Montrose, taking on a $452,000 mortgage. They also bought an Akita, which they named Saki, and seemed to live happily with Sylvia's 4-year-old daughter. Pardo was a regular usher for Sunday Mass at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, a few blocks away.
At first, Pardo was drawn to his wife's warm and welcoming family. But after the first year of their marriage, his bizarre personality took over. He became cold, miserly and distant. Pardo and Sylvia often argued about money. At the same time, Pardo's own mother had grown quite fond of Sylvia and her children. Somehow it took his mother nearly three years before her concience became too much: in late 2007, Pardo's mother confided to Sylvia that Pardo had a severely disabled son whom he claimed as a tax deduction but didn't support.
That was the final straw for Sylvia. The couple separated March 7, 2008. Sylvia asked Pardo if she could stay in the home while her daughter finished the last few months of kindergarten, but Pardo - by now clearly Mr. Stability - instead moved her belongings onto the driveway while she was at a niece's birthday party. She filed for divorce and moved in with her sister in Glendale. That would be a fateful - and deadly - decision for Sylvia's sister and her family, half of whom would be killed by Pardo before the year was over. Sylvia hired an attorney, Scott Nord, who almost ended up being victim number 10.
Meanwhile, Pardo had left JPL and was working as an engineer for ITT Radar Systems, a Van Nuys defense contractor, earning $122,000 a year. Sylvia was making about $31,000 as an administrative assistant for an El Monte flower company. On June 18, 2008, a Burbank judge ordered Pardo to pay $1,785 a month in spousal support. Pardo's first check bounced and he stopped payment on the second, Sylvia's attorney Nord told the court. On July 31, Pardo was fired from ITT for billing fraudulent hours.
By then, however, Pardo had already launched his plan to kill Sylvia and her entire family. The job loss merely presented him an opportunity to spend more time on the plan, as well as to get out of paying her any support until the divorce was finalized. Authorities believe that Pardo had planned on killing Sylvia and her family before - not because - he was fired.
Back on June 13, he drove to Burbank and walked into Gun World [very creative name, no?], and paid $999.95 cash for a Sig Sauer 9-millimeter handgun. On Aug. 8, Pardo was back at Gun World to buy another Sig Sauer 9-millimeter handgun. California law limits sales of concealable firearms to one per customer every 30 days. A month later, on Sept. 8, Pardo bought a third from the same store. He returned for a fourth on Oct. 11 and a fifth on Nov. 13.
While lawyers for Pardo and Sylvia exchanged briefs in the fall, Pardo spent most of his time at home in Montrose. On Sept. 8, he called a neighbor, Jeri Deiotte, owner of Jeri's Costumes. He ordered a Santa Claus outfit, saying it was for a children's party. He dropped off a $200 deposit and promised to return in November.
During August and September, Pardo applied for jobs in the high-tech industry, but few companies were hiring. Because of Pardo's financial difficulties, the judge hearing their divorce case agreed to suspend his support payments.
About that time, Steve Erwin, an old high school friend of Pardo's, telephoned completely out of the blue. By now, Erwin, his wife and six children lived in Iowa, and he and Pardo hadn't been in touch for several years. Erwin invited Pardo to Iowa in October to help celebrate Erwin's 45th birthday. When Pardo arrived, he told Erwin about the divorce and said he had "been sitting at home and thinking about everything." Pardo seemed embarrassed that his personal life, including his firing and finances, was on public display in divorce court. Pardo told Erwin that he and his mother were barely speaking and that she sat with Sylvia's family at divorce hearings. Pardo seemed to enjoy Erwin's children. He helped them with their algebra homework and gave them change from his pockets. When he left town, he left seven $1 bills under Erwin's 9-year-old son's pillow.
Pardo's visit wasn't all pleasure however, there was also business to tend to: he stopped by a gun shop in Iowa and bought 16 handgun magazines, each of which holds 18 bullets, eight more than allowed in magazines sold in California.
After his visit to Erwin, Pardo returned to California and went to pick up his Santa outfit from Deiotte. Most of her customers rented costumes, but Pardo, at 6 feet 4 and 275 pounds, had wanted his made to order. And he specifically asked that it have extra room. When he picked up the suit, he paid the $100 remaining on his bill and tipped her $20.
By now, his plan was coming together. He had five handguns in a room at home and a DeWalt compressor, a 50-foot hose and a tank of high-octane fuel in a backyard shed. Days before Thanksgiving, as further evidence of his psychosis, he set up his Christmas lights.
A week before Christmas, in a hearing room on the second floor of the Burbank courthouse, the marriage of Bruce Pardo and Sylvia Orza was officially terminated. The cause: irreconcilable differences. Pardo agreed to pay his ex-wife $10,000. She kept the diamond engagement ring and got their dog, Saki.
The next day, the Friday before Christmas, Pardo walked into a Montrose travel agency to price a plane ticket to visit Erwin's family. He returned to the agency on Monday and paid $650 cash for a round-trip ticket to Moline, Ill., the closest airport to Erwin's home. The itinerary called for Pardo to depart California at 12:20 a.m. on Christmas Day and return two weeks later. He called Erwin to say he was planning to visit.
In the week before Christmas, Pardo rented a Dodge Caliber from Budget and a silver Toyota Rav-4 from Rent-a-Wreck [again, creative name, no?]. He packed the Toyota with maps of the southwestern United States and Mexico, water, food, clothing, a can of gasoline and both a laptop and a desktop computer.
On Christmas Eve, he drove the Toyota to Glendale and parked it near the home of Nord, his ex-wife's attorney. Investigators theorize that Pardo planned to drive the Dodge to Nord's house after the Covina killings, kill Nord, and then make his escape in the Toyota.
At 6 p.m. Pardo called Erwin and his wife, Michelle. Pardo sounded down, but he said he'd see them the next day. They promised to lend him warm clothes. Investigators aren't sure if he really intended to go to Iowa or if it was a backup plan to throw authorities off his trail.
Sometime that evening, he used cocaine; a trace amount was found in his body.
To this point, Sylvia and her family had witnessed nothing that would indicate to them that Pardo was any danger. As far as Sylvia was aware, the divorce had been accepted by Pardo and both would go on with their lives separately. We now know, obviously, that neither would do so.
If Sylvia was not alarmed, Pardo's next-door neighbor was slightly curious. On Christmas Eve, the neighbor, Bong Garcia, stepped onto his porch with his nephew to smoke a cigarette. Pardo walked by and greeted them, saying he was off to a Christmas party. It wasn't the Santa outfit that alarmed Garcia. It was the vehicle Pardo got into: instead of his black Cadillac Escalade or his white Hummer - both parked in his own driveway - Pardo got into a blue Dodge parked on the street.
About 10 p.m., Pardo's younger brother Brad pulled up to the Montrose house. They had arranged to go to a friend's holiday party, but Pardo wasn't home. Later, Pardo was a no-show at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, where he had signed up to be an usher for midnight Mass.
The first 911 call from Covina was logged at 11:27 p.m.
When firefighters arrived, the house was engulfed in flames. Pardo had sprayed racing fuel, intending to ignite it with a flare. But flames in two fireplaces triggered an explosion. Killed along with Sylvia were her parents, her two brothers and their wives, her sister and her 17-year-old nephew. The 8-year-old niece, shot in the cheek, survived. Thirteen young people were orphaned.
As the house burned, a neighbor saw a blue car drive away with its headlights off. A pair of fake glasses and Santa's cap had been dropped in the frontyard.
Pardo drove 40 miles to his brother's home in Sylmar. He had second- and third-degree burns on his arms, hands and the back of his neck. He also had leg burns; his Santa suit had melted into his skin. A clean getaway was no longer an option.
When Pardo's brother returned home at 3:10 a.m., he found Pardo's body sprawled on the living room couch, two handguns by his side. He had shot himself in the mouth. He was still wearing his wedding ring.
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