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A solitary man with murder in his heart

Bruce Pardo methodically amassed an arsenal, prepared a Santa Claus disguise and plotted his escape. Then he killed his former wife and eight other people at a Christmas Eve party.

July 11, 2009|Tami Abdollah

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. He wore a handmade Santa Claus suit with boot-covers, belt, beard, glasses and gloves. Hardly suspicious. It was Christmas Eve.

But underneath were black street clothes, 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 was 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 frantically dialed 911.

"His name," she told the dispatcher, "is Bruce Pardo."

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Nine people died in that rampage on Knollcrest Drive, including Pardo's former wife, Sylvia, and her parents. Pardo, 45, took his own life a few hours later.

Six months later, a fuller portrait of the killer and the crime has emerged from interviews with family, friends and investigators. The FBI and Covina police are creating a criminal profile of Pardo, seeking insight into what triggered one of Los Angeles County's worst mass murders.

Although privately troubled by the deterioration of his marriage, 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.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, Pardo, the son of an engineer, showed a knack for mathematics. After graduating from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, he went to Cal State Northridge to study computer science.

He loved being the center of attention. At his Cal State graduation, he carried a life-size inflatable doll.

Friends and co-workers recalled him as exceptionally bright, and he landed a job as a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. But he wasn't the most industrious worker, they remembered. He seemed to relish chances to defeat the system. Once, a colleague recalled, he hacked into the JPL computer system to learn his co-workers' salaries. He seemed to come and go as he pleased, disappearing after a fresh snowfall only to return with a goggles tan line.

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. Pardo didn't have much money, and he was living with his mother at the time. So the bride-to-be dipped into her savings for a country club reception and honeymoon reservations in Tahiti.

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.

"Whatever he felt like, he did," recalled Delia, the former fiancee. She asked that her last name not be published because she has since married and moved to another state. "There was no sense of responsibility."

A few weeks later, she saw Pardo again. "He was tanned, and he was looking good, like wow!" Delia said. "Turns out, he went to Palm Springs, and blew all the money."

On weekends, Pardo would often invite friends onto his boat on Lake Havasu.

"He was like a big kid, goofy and lovable," said Tina Westman, 39, who dated him in the early 1990s. Sometimes too goofy. Pardo coaxed Westman to join him on a rafting trip with friends, and when she fell overboard and nearly drowned, Pardo laughed. "He didn't get the severity of what happened," she said. "He was very, very intelligent, but common-sense-lacking."

By 2001, at age 37, Pardo seemed to have finally settled down. He was living in Woodland Hills with his girlfriend, Elena Lucano, and their 13-month-old son, Bruce Matthew.

A week after New Year's, 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, according to her attorney. Pardo maintained a vigil by the boy's hospital bed for a week. But when the doctors determined that Matthew would never fully recover, Lucano and Pardo split up.

Matthew, now 9, is severely brain-damaged and a paraplegic. Neither Lucano nor Matthew ever saw Pardo again.

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In 2004, Pardo met Sylvia Orza. They were introduced by her brother-in-law, one of Pardo's co-workers at JPL.

Orza, 40, had three children from two previous marriages. Pardo's friends thought she was just what he needed: a down-to-earth woman with a large family.

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