Bad Santa’s Christmas Massacre
When nine charred bodies were pulled from the wreckage of a family home in Covina, California on Christmas morning 2008, the only thing more shocking to the town’s residents than the massacre itself was the man responsible for it: Bruce Pardo. Those who knew him said he was, “just a regular guy”, a “nice” and “gentle” man, but when more than two dozen Ortega family members gathered for their annual Christmas party, the celebrations came to a life-changing end when that same man knocked on their door. An innocent eight-year-old child high on festivities rushed to answer it and stood before her was 45-year-old Pardo, her aunt’s ex-husband, dressed as Santa Claus and carrying a ‘present’ the family would never forget. The screams of ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ quickly turned into cries of ‘No, No, No’ as he pulled out a semi automatic pistol, pulled the trigger and blasted the child in the face, sending the rest of the house into a frenzied panic. Pardo stepped over his niece’s bloody body and shut the door behind him.
To look at Pardo you wouldn’t immediately think him a volatile man, despite standing 1.9 metres tall and weighing 129 kilograms. For sure, he was intelligent. Pardo had grown up in the San Fernando Valley and was well educated, majoring in computer science before he began his career as a software engineer. He was an outgoing young man who relished attention and fun, being serious clearly wasn’t in Pardo’s nature. He was a chancer, who dabbled at being cheeky and charming but who also had “issues” concerning women and relationships, according to Covina Police Lieutenant Tim Doonan.
When Pardo was 24 he became engaged to a co-worker. The wedding was to be a lavish affair, paid for by the bride-to-be. But on the day Pardo bailed and took off with the remaining $3,000 in their credit union account, only for her to later discover he had blown it in Palm Springs. Up until his late 30s Pardo seemed to skip from one disaster to another with few cares about the consequences. However, he was charitable with his time – for more than four years Pardo was an usher at the Holy Redeemer Church, he was a particular hero at Sunday mass for the community’s children, he loved kids and his “goofy” nature stood him in good stead with the younger generation. It was that characteristic that led his friends to believe his first marriage was to be a successful one.
In 2002 Sylvia Orza’s brother-in-law introduced her to Pardo, who he worked with. To the outside world they were a good match and while Pardo’s friends thought he was something of a “ladies man” and a “big kid”, they felt that Sylvia soon changed that and the fact that she already had children seemed like an ideal set up for Pardo, some thought it might mellow him from his outlandish ways. Two years later they were married. But the marriage came to an almighty and ugly end when Sylvia filed for a divorce on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences”, just over a year later.
Little was mentioned in the divorce documents but speculation of the real reason for their split came to light a short while later. Pardo apparently had a secret that he kept well hidden from his new wife, a nine year-old son named Matthew, who had been severely disabled after an accident when the boy was just 13 months old. With his mother, Pardo’s former partner out of the house for a short while one day, the responsibility of the tot fell to Pardo, who turned his attention away for just long enough for his child to wonder out to the patio, slip and fall into the pool. When his mother returned home she found Pardo clutching the injured child in fear, Pardo remained at his son’s side at the hospital where tests showed that the boy had suffered life-changing injuries to the brain and was now a paraplegic. Whether he was unable to live with the guilt or whether the commitment of a child in need became too much, Pardo walked out on his family, refusing to pay child support for his son, but still claiming him as a dependent for tax reasons, unknown to his new wife.
Pardo’s lack of commitment had continued with his new family, to the public he seemed generous and warm but behind closed doors he was stingy and lacked charm. He insisted that Sylvia looked after her three children from a previous marriage with her own finances and refused to open a joint account with her. When Pardo’s mother let the cat out of the bag about his secret, the couple drifted apart and by the spring of 2006, Sylvia had already moved out of the couple’s Montrose home with her three children and was staying in her sister’s spare bedroom, although apparently not by choice. She told her attorney that she had begged Pardo to let her and her children remain in the house until her daughter finished the school year, but after returning home from a birthday party found her things on the lawn; Pardo claimed he was just redecorating and according to his attorney, wanted to reconcile with his wife, only to be told she had made up her mind. “We feel like the fact that Sylvia had left him and he wasn’t in control that’s one of the things that pushed him off the edge and made him really angry” said Doonan.
First it was Pardo’s marriage that fell apart and then his career at ITT Electronic Systems, a military defence supplier. Pardo was fired in July for clocking up fraudulent hours at work, so his employment was terminated without a severance package. Fired with just cause, he was unable to claim unemployment benefits and the job market had dried up temporarily. Pardo, who was “desperately seeking work” faced losing everything, even the family dog. The week before Christmas Eve the judge ordered that Pardo pay his ex-wife $10,000, that he return her valuable diamond wedding ring and that the custody of the couple’s Akita fall to Sylvia. Pardo was drowning in debt from mortgage payments and thousands of dollars in expenses as well as $31,000 racked up in credit card bills. And now his marriage had been officially dissolved.
On Christmas Eve plenty of people saw Pardo and none noticed so much as a menacing grimace across his face. Henry Baeza, a café
owner spoke to him in the morning, Pardo liked to sit in his favourite spot by the window and watch the world go by. On this particular morning Baeza didn’t notice anything unusual about Bruce, he knew that he was dealing with a divorce, Pardo had mentioned that his wife had called time on their marriage and that she was “taking him to the cleaners”. At 6pm Pardo spoke to his friend in Iowa, who he had visited in October, who had invited him to spend Christmas with him. Pardo told him he would see him and his family the next day and still, nothing was unusual about the conversation the two men had. Father and son Bong and Arvin Garcia saw Pardo in his new costume leave his apartment at 9pm, telling them he was off to a party. He wished them a “Merry Christmas” before climbing not into his usual Cadillac Escalade, but into a rented blue Dodge Caliber and made his way to 1129 Knollcrest Drive where he knew he would find his ex-wife partying with her family.
Dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve, Pardo’s exterior screamed ‘ordinary’, but the satin suit was lined with multiple guns and black street clothes. $17,000 in cash was plastic wrapped to his body and a plane ticket was tucked into his boot. Pardo’s crime wasn’t one of passion, and the trace amounts of cocaine found in his system by a later autopsy were not to blame. He had planned his rampage months in advance, when divorce proceedings between him and Sylvia were still active: “when his wife leaves and life doesn’t go his way, it’s a series of events that create a perfect storm and he hatches this plan to wipe out everybody,” said Doonan, who added that an FBI profile of the killer deemed him to potentially be suffering from a range of mental illnesses (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Narcassist Disorder and Anti-Social Disorder,) although he was never officially diagnosed by a psychiatrist.
The first part to Pardo’s plan was to assemble an arsenal, but California laws prohibit gun licensees from purchasing more than one gun in a 30-day period. On 13 June Pardo purchased his first weapon from Gun World in Burbank – a Sig Sauer nine-millimetre handgun. On 8 August he returned again to purchase the same handgun, returning three more times on 8 September, 11 October and 13 November for the same gun costing almost $1000 a piece. On the day that he purchased his third gun he called his neighbour, who owned a costume shop, and ordered a custom made Santa suit, telling her it was for a children’s party and asking for it to be made with additional slack in the fitting – “extra large” so he could be “extra jolly”. He paid her a $200 deposit and promised to pick it up in November.
On a trip to Iowa to visit a friend for his 45th birthday, Pardo purchased 16 handgun magazines. Each contained 18 bullets compared to the more strictly regulated California magazines that only allowed 10 bullets. When he returned to California he stopped by Jeri’s Costumes and paid the remaining $100 for his Santa outfit, and tipped his neighbour $20 for her remarkable work. Nobody had the slightest clue what Pardo was planning, he even hung Christmas lights just after Thanksgiving as the holiday season descended upon the residents of Covina.
80-year-old Papa Joe and 70-year-old Alice were central figures to the Ortega family. Immigrants from Torreon, a north-central Mexican state of Coahuila, they had been married for 53 years and had lived in Covina for 16 years. Almost everyone who knew them recognised what a lovely family they were and regarded them as friendly and warm-hearted members of the community. It was that same sentiment they thought of Pardo, who had no previous criminal record or history of violence prior to the events that unfolded a few hours after the Garcia’s watched him leave. At 11.30pm came a knock at the door shortly followed by the screams of a child who had come face to face with the blast of Pardo’s loaded pistol. Once inside Pardo continued to shoot, lodging a bullet into his 16-year-old niece’s back. Police later speculated that Pardo had stood over some of his victims and executed them at point blank range.
With his audience secured inside the home Pardo unwrapped the ‘present’ – a homemade flamethrower made up of two pressurised tanks, one filled with high-octane-racing car fuel, the other with pressurised gas. But as the proverb goes, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and within minutes of dousing the home, the fire from two fireplaces caused an explosion as the blaze broke out. Pardo’s outfit caught fire so while the house went up in flames, Pardo changed out of his Santa suit and escaped, leaving 25 people for dead in a burning building. Some family members had hidden under furniture or bundled up the stairs out of the way and attempted to flee for help. 20-year-old Leticia Yuzefpolsky jumped from a second storey bedroom window, breaking her ankle in her desperate leap for her life. From the safety of a neighbours home she dialled 911, watching as her parent’s house with her family still inside was engulfed in flames up to 15 meters high. “His name is Bruce Pardo,” she told the operator of the monster who had walked into her parent’s home. “Everyone was in a strange state of panic so we were getting sketchy information except that there was a shooting and a house fire,” said Doonan. Arriving at the small cul-de-sac where the crime had taken place, he described the scene as “overwhelming” and “chaotic”, pulling in 40 to 50 officers from Covina as well as those from neighbouring jurisdictions. “The house was completely engulfed in flames,” he recalls.
80 fire fighters attempted to dampen the flames licking at the family home, a job that took them more than an hour and a half to accomplish. It was approximately 12 hours until the police could get into the house to investigate. The fire had ripped through the house, leaving only the exterior walls intact.
The blaze claimed nine lives altogether; 43-year-old Sylvia Pardo, and her parents Joseph and Alicia Ortega were all shot. Three of Sylvia’s four siblings, 52-year-old James Ortega, 50-year-old Charlie Ortega and 46-year-old Alicia Ortiz, along with James’ wife Teresa and Charlie’s wife Cheri and Alicia Ortiz’s 17-year-old son Michael all died inside the house from a combination of gunshot wounds, smoke inhalation and severe burns. The deceased members had to be identified via dental or medical records due to the extremity of their charred bodies. Three more people from the same party were injured, the eight-year-old who was shot in the face remarkably survived, as did the 16-year-old shot in the back, besides her broken ankle Yuzefpolsky suffered no other serious injuries. Police received conflicting information as to the whereabouts of Pardo, some claimed he had perished in the fire however, one neighbour saw a dark coloured Cadillac with its lights blacked out sneak away from the scene while other rushed to help.
The next phase of Pardo’s plan once he had left the house was his getaway. But police were unsure as to whether the slaughtering Santa figure intended to follow through with his flight plan to Illinois and then onto Iowa, or whether it was a ruse to lead investigators away from his trail. The week before he had rented two cars, the Dodge Caliber he was driving and a 1999 Toyota Rav-4. He had filled the Toyota with food, water, clothing, a map of the south west of America and Mexico, a can of gasoline similar to the one he had taken to the Christmas party, a laptop and desktop computer, and parked 500 feet away from the home of his ex-wife’s divorce attorney, which he shared with his wife and two small children.
Had Pardo planned to drive back to the Toyota after his massacre, kill the attorney and his family? When asked this question Doonon replied, “I have absolutely no doubt that he was going to continue that crime spree and the attorney’s house and then use the vehicle to flee to country.” But the second and third degree burns on Pardo’s arms, hands and neck would have caused considerable discomfort following the explosion at the house: his Santa suit had melted onto his skin before his escape, “we’re talking like chunks of skin peeling off, like really burnt” recalls Doonan. Instead of getting as far away from the scene of the crime as possible, Pardo drove to his brother’s home in Sylmar. His brother had been at a holiday party and when he returned to his house at 3.10am he found his brother sprawled out on his couch with two handguns by his side. Pardo had taken his own life having orphaned 13 children just hours before. With his wedding band still intact on his left hand, he had placed a loaded gun in his mouth and shot himself in the head. His brother called the LAPD on 911.
The police discovered the keys to the Dodge Caliber in Pardo’s possession and found that the car, which had been parked a block away from his brother’s home, was packed with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, black powder and the discarded Santa suit. The bomb squad sent a robot into the vicinity to check the car out and destroy it. At first it appeared that the car may have been booby-trapped but upon further inspection it was determined that the car had accidentally caught fire from a flare igniting the ammunition inside. In the harsh light of Christmas morning, the rubble of the family home was a sore sight for the residents who had watched through the night and the following days as fire fighters, police officers and a multitude of other officials swarmed the neighbourhood.
As daylight broke the full extent of Pardo’s murderous rampage became all too clear as friends and family placed candles, flowers, stuffed toys and messages of sympathy along the border of the property. Since the ordeal the family has remained strong, and while for some the idea of welcoming a murderer’s mother into the folds of their grief might seem strange, the surviving members of the Ortega family have still supported Pardo’s mother, who lost a son and her daughter-in-law, who she was particularly fond of. Psychiatrist David Singer spoke at a community meeting regarding the heartbreaking aftermath of the attack. “He was so full of hate that he had to disguise his hate by dressing up as a figure of love – Santa Claus,” he said to the grieving crowds.
Investigators later cited that Pardo’s own mother was supposed to be at the Christmas party the night of the massacre but in a twist of fate, stayed home because she was sick. Pardo had been angry that his mother had shown solidarity to his ex partner during the divorce. The supporting community wore orange ribbons to honour the family. Yuzefpolsky’s webpage, a place to honour the family members so tragically killed, is devoid of bitterness and anger and instead focuses on empowering those who have experienced painful struggles in life, much like her family has. Real Crime reached out to Yuzefpolsky for a comment but did not receive a reply. According to local and national news sources she has been busy bringing up her own children as well as some of her orphaned family members, ensuring that they’re not plagued by nightmares of a psychologically unstable Santa Clause and that they remember the good times before Pardo stole Christmas from them.
This article was featured in issue 18 of Real Crime magazine. Read more of the world’s most horrifying murders – Subscribe to the magazine and never miss an issue.