’Twas the night before Christmas, 2008. The Ortegas — Joseph, 80, and Alice, 70 — were hosting their annual Christmas party at their Covena, California, home, about a half hour east of Los Angeles. There were 25 people in attendance, including Joseph and Alice’s five grown children and their spouses and children. One of their daughters, 43-year-old Sylvia, had recently moved back in with them after a bitter divorce.
Sylvia had married Bruce Pardo in January 2006. Bruce was a volunteer usher at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, and everyone who knew him described him as outgoing and friendly, someone who liked to be the center of attention. But it wasn’t long after the nuptials that Sylvia began to see her new husband wasn’t the man she thought he was.
It started, as most marital problems do, with money troubles. Not that the couple was having trouble making ends meet; Bruce had a six-figure job as an electrical engineer at a military contractor in Van Nuys. The two had purchased a large home in Montrose, and Bruce owned a Cadillac Escalade, a Hummer, and a boat he kept on Lake Havasu.
Sylvia, who was a single mom of three when they got married, worked as a secretary at a flower nursery and only made a fraction of what Bruce did. Yet Bruce refused to open a joint bank account with her or help with any of her children’s expenses, insisting she take care of them on her own.
By the end of their first year of marriage, he had become cold, distant, and miserly with money, leading to frequent arguments.
Unbeknownst to Sylvia, FBI profilers would later discover an incident that shed light on just how selfish Bruce could be. Back in 1989, he had gotten engaged to a coworker, and the two had planned a large wedding and expensive honeymoon in Tahiti. At the time, Bruce didn’t have a lot of money and was living with his mother. So his fiancée dipped into her savings to fund the reception and put down deposits on the honeymoon.
On their wedding day, Bruce never showed up. She would later learn he had withdrawn all the money from their joint bank account and used it to fund a trip to Palm Springs, Florida.
By late 2007, however, Sylvia learned something even more disturbing about her husband. Apparently, Bruce had a child from a previous relationship that he never disclosed to Sylvia. That was bad enough, though perhaps forgivable. But what she found out next shocked her conscience.
About five years earlier, Bruce had been watching his then-13-month-old son while the boy’s mother, Elena Lucano, went shopping. While Bruce watched TV, the toddler fell into the pool; when Elena came home, Bruce was cradling the unconscious boy in his arms, screaming uncontrollably.
It took hours of resuscitation and a helicopter flight to another hospital to stabilize the boy’s condition. During this time, Bruce never left his son’s side.
A few weeks later, doctors determined that the boy had suffered severe brain damage from lack of oxygen. He was left a paraplegic who would need constant care for the rest of his life. Upon learning this, Bruce broke off the relationship with Elena and left his son.
Although she never suspected Bruce of any wrongdoing, Elena needed help to pay the almost $350,000 in medical bills that had accumulated. Because Bruce refused to help her pay them, she was forced to sue his homeowner’s insurance. The settlement money — less than a third of what the bills were — was used to pay down some of the medical bills and establish a trust to help pay the ongoing expenses of caring for their son.
After the claim was settled, Bruce cut off all contact with both Elena and their son. He never paid a penny in child support, but he did continue to illegally declare the boy as his dependent on his taxes.
When Sylvia learned of this, she could not forgive such callousness — and didn’t want to be held liable for the tax fraud he was committing by claiming the boy as a dependent. They began sleeping in separate beds, and in March of 2008, they separated.
Bruce was livid. He fought her over everything, no matter how petty. Sylvia had asked Bruce if she could continue to live in their home until the end of the school year so her daughter could finish Kindergarten. But while she and her daughter were away at a relative’s birthday party, Bruce tossed all their belongings out onto the driveway. So Sylvia filed for divorce.
In June 2008, Bruce was ordered to pay her more than $1,700 a month in alimony. His first alimony check bounced; he stopped payment on the second check.
It was also in June that Bruce bought a 9mm Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun.
Then, only a month later, Bruce was fired from his job. Apparently, he had been fraudulently billing clients for hours he did not work. Unsurprisingly, he was denied unemployment benefits.
Now that he had no income, the judge waived his alimony obligation. But he was still $31,000 in credit card debt and had a $2,700 monthly mortgage payment.
His debts didn’t stop him from buying another 9mm Sig Sauer Aug. 8.
A month later — a wait required by California law — he purchased a third 9mm Sig Sauer. The same day, he ordered a custom-made Santa suit from a local tailor.
In October, after the mandated 30 days, he bought a fourth 9mm Sig Sauer. That same month, he visited a friend in Iowa, where he purchased 16 magazines that held 18 rounds each — more than is legally allowed in California.
Bruce’s friend said he had seemed in good spirits, though he had confessed that Sylvia was “taking him to the cleaners” in the divorce.
On Nov. 13, he purchased a fifth 9mm Sig Sauer and picked up the Santa suit.
On Dec. 18, 2008, the divorce Bruce so hated was finalized. He was able to keep the house, but was ordered to pay Sylvia $10,000; she was allowed to keep her expensive engagement ring and the family dog.
Late on the night of Christmas Eve, residents of the quiet cul-de-sac in Covena reported seeing a man in a Santa suit get out of a blue Dodge Caliber. The Santa, who was pulling a large gift-wrapped box on wheels, waved and said “Merry Christmas” to passers-by.
Soon, many of those neighbors would be calling 911 in a panic: the Ortegas’ house was on fire. Callers told dispatchers they had heard gunfire and then an explosion.
Some of the Ortegas’ guests had managed to escape the burning house, including a 16-year-old girl who had been shot in the back and an 8-year-old girl who had been shot in the face. Another woman had jumped from a second-story window and broken her ankle.
When firefighters arrived, the Ortegas’ house was burning so hot, flames were shooting 50 feet in the air. It took firefighters nearly two hours to put it out.
When the fire was finally doused, investigators immediately spotted several heavily charred bodies near the front of the house. As they continued their search, they would discover a total of nine bodies in the ruins of the once-happy family home.
The bodies were so burnt they could only be identified by dental records. They were Joseph and Alice Ortega; their son Charles and his wife, Cheri; another son, James Jr., and his wife, Teresa; their daughter Alicia and her son, Michael; and their other daughter Sylvia. Nearly all of them had all been shot with a 9mm weapon. Based on bullet trajectories, some had been shot execution style.
The surviving family members were able to tell police exactly what had transpired, and who was responsible: Bruce Pardo. From their accounts, as well as evidence at the scene, investigators were able to piece together a truly horrific crime.
Bruce, dressed as Santa and pulling a large gift-wrapped box, knocked on the Ortegas’ door around 11:30 that night. Eight-year-old Katrina Yuzefpolsky rushed to the door to let him in. As soon as she opened the door, “Santa” shot her in the face. He then rushed into the house, a gun in each hand, shooting everyone he could see. Then, he opened the large box and pulled out a home-made flamethrower, which he used to spray a high-octane fuel mixture inside the house, which he likely planned to ignite on his way out. However, he didn’t know there were already open flames in the home, in the two fireplaces. Those flames sparked an explosion.
It didn’t take long for police to find Bruce. Only three hours later, and about 40 miles away in Sylmar, Brad Pardo called his local police. He had just returned from another Christmas party to find his brother, Bruce, lying in a pool of blood on his couch. Bruce had died of one self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. Lying next to him was a 9mm Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun; in his lap was another just like it, which would later prove to be the weapon that fired the fatal shot.
Bruce had extensive third-degree burns on his hands and arms, and parts of a Santa suit had melted onto his skin. Wrapped around his legs and held in with a girdle was $17,000 in cash. He also had traces of cocaine in his system.
But the sad story was not over yet. Parked outside Brad’s house was a blue Dodge Caliber, which records showed had been rented to Bruce. Inside it, police could see the burnt remains of a Santa suit and thousands of rounds of ammunition. They could also tell the car had been booby trapped. Using a robotic device, police were able to safely detonate the bomb that had been rigged inside the vehicle.
Around the same time, Pasadena police received a call from attorney Scott Nord. He wanted to report a suspicious vehicle parked at the end of his driveway. Nord, coincidentally, had been Sylvia’s divorce attorney.
The vehicle, a silver Toyota RAV4, had also been rented by Bruce. This vehicle, thankfully, wasn’t booby trapped. Instead, it contained supplies that indicated Bruce had been planning a rather long road trip: maps of the US and Mexico, food, water, and computers. After he killed the Ortegas, his plan had apparently been to drive the booby-trapped Dodge to Nord’s home, where he had previously parked the RAV4 to use as his getaway car.
Evidence would later show he also intended to kill his own mother, whom he believed had taken Sylvia’s side in the divorce. But the explosion at the Ortegas’ home had burned him so badly he couldn’t follow through with the rest of the plan. Instead, he took his own life.
After the shooting, some so-called Men’s Rights Activists hailed Bruce Pardo as someone who was “provoked” and “overwhelmed” by the “injustice” of the divorce court, whose rampage was somehow justified because the courts had taken everything — including his family — from him. This despite the fact that he never wanted custody of his step-children and even fought supporting them while he was married to their mother. It also ignores the fact that he lost none of his property, and paid only a fraction of the value of the home he kept while he put his wife and her young child out on the street.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Katrina Yusefpolsky, the 8-year-old who Bruce shot in the face that Christmas Eve, went on to become a gun-control activist. In 2018, she helped organize a school walkout in solidarity with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students.