The Last Days of Nick Markowitz

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hours before he was killed, Nick Markowitz thought he was finally going home.

It had been a strange, often scary two-day odyssey since a group of young men had snatched him off the street in his West Hills neighborhood and carted him up the coast to Santa Barbara, according to testimony before a Santa Barbara County grand jury released last week.

The kidnappers told Nick that his older half-brother Ben owed one of them drug money, the grand jury transcript says, and they were taking the 15-year-old hostage until Ben paid the debt.

Nick had been beaten up, thrown into a van, and later blindfolded and bound. But after the most threatening guy in the bunch took off--a tough-talking 20-year-old named Jesse James Hollywood--he'd been allowed to amble around some of the houses where he was taken, free to eat or watch TV.

The 750-page transcript, which provides the basis for this story, offers the most complete account yet of Nick Markowitz's kidnapping and murder. Based on testimony taken in closed court sessions in October, it sketches a tragic portrait of the boy's last days--when the pendulum seemed to swing wildly between the laid-back vibe of teenagers hanging out and the ominous sense that Nick was in terrible danger.

Much of the time he was barely guarded by his captors, and had he realized how dire his plight was, authorities say, he probably could have escaped.

On Tuesday night, Aug. 8, the pendulum appeared to be swaying back in Nick's favor. At a small party at a State Street hotel in Santa Barbara fueled by rum and Coke, cigarettes and marijuana, Nick and another teenage boy went swimming in the outdoor pool, according to testimony from a 17-year-old Santa Barbara girl who was there.

Over and over, the girl told the grand jury, one of Nick's alleged abductors, 20-year-old Jesse Rugge, had assured him, "I'm going to take you home. I'll put you on a Greyhound. I'm going to get you home." The girl's name is being withheld by The Times because she is a minor.

Nick, she said, believed Rugge.

"He seemed happy," she said. "I talked to him about it and he said that he would tell his grandkids about it, just the story."

But a few hours later, Nick was dead.

Authorities say Rugge and another man, 21-year-old Ryan Hoyt, marched the boy into the mountains in the middle of the night and that Hoyt shot him nine times beside a narrow trail. Graham Pressley, the skinny 17-year-old who had joined Nick in the swimming pool, was there too, authorities say. He had allegedly helped dig the grave and was waiting in a car at the foot of the trail when he heard the burst of gunfire.

Today, all three are behind bars, awaiting trial on kidnapping and murder charges in Santa Barbara, where the grand jury returned indictments after the October hearings. Also in custody and facing similar charges is another friend of the group, William Skidmore, 20, of Simi Valley, who police say helped kidnap Nick. Hoyt, Rugge, and Skidmore have pleaded not guilty; Pressley has delayed entering a plea in a bid to have his case transferred to Juvenile Court.

But in an ironic twist, Hollywood--the alleged marijuana dealer and mastermind of the crime--has managed to elude a nationwide manhunt. He is still running.

A Kidnapping on a Quiet Sunday

Even before the white van squealed to a halt beside him as he walked down the street, Nick Markowitz was in trouble. He'd had another run-in with his parents the night before, when he came home shortly before midnight with something bulging in his back pocket.

His parents confronted him and Nick ran out of the house, his father, Jeff Markowitz, testified.

He'd run away before, this dark-haired El Camino Real High School student with a dramatic flair and a taste for marijuana. He idolized his big brother Ben, his father continued in his testimony, a worrisome bond that troubled even Ben, an acknowledged drug dealer known to win more than his share of fights. When Nick ran away, he'd run to Ben.

Nick eventually returned home that night, and his parents agreed that because it was late they'd talk to him in the morning. But when his mother went to wake him around 11 a.m. the next day, Aug. 6, Nick was already gone.

He walked down Ingomar Street and headlong, police say, into a long-running power struggle between Ben, 22, and his onetime friend Jesse Hollywood, who lived nearby. According to testimony given by Ben, by Hollywood's father Jack, and by others, the two had been at odds for months over a series of slights involving a $1,200 drug debt Ben owed Hollywood, as well as a series of threatening messages left on both men's voicemail and a window Ben had smashed at Hollywood's house.

Investigators from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department have said that Ben owed $36,000.

Detectives believe that Hollywood and his pals--boyhood friends who grew up playing baseball together in the West Valley--were on their way to the Markowitz family's house to break windows in retaliation when they ran into Nick.

Pauline Ann Mahoney, a mother heading home from church with her children, was driving by when she saw a group of four young men kicking and punching a boy who was slumped on the sidewalk. It was shortly before 1 p.m.

"They were beating him up pretty badly," she testified. "[Then] the lot of them threw him into the van and then they jumped in, shut the door, and the van started moving."

Mahoney got the license plate number and called 911. Los Angeles police who responded somehow failed to track down the van until about a month later, when Santa Barbara authorities told the LAPD about the connection.

The LAPD said it has launched an internal investigation into its response to Mahoney's call.

In the meantime, Nick and his alleged abductors zoomed up the freeway to Santa Barbara, where Hollywood and his friends had previously planned to go for a party, according to the testimony. Before they left the Valley, they picked up another friend, who testified that he also dealt drugs with Hollywood.

That 20-year-old man, Brian Affronti of Canoga Park, said that when he hopped into the van, Hollywood, Skidmore and Nick Markowitz were there, with Rugge at the wheel. Affronti said he realized Nick was there involuntarily because Hollywood kept threatening him, saying things like: "Your brother is going to pay me my money right now," and, "If you run I'll break your teeth."

Two Days in Captivity

Hollywood forced Nick to empty his pockets, taking his pager (which Nick's mother called repeatedly as they drove), his wallet, and a pocketful of marijuana and Valium, Affronti said. When the group reached Santa Barbara, they stopped briefly at the home of one of Rugge's friends, where Nick was blindfolded and bound with duct tape in a bedroom.

Amid a backdrop of alcohol and drug use, at least two young men peeked into the room and were startled to see the captive boy, they testified. But in a common response--especially frequent when Hollywood was around--they opted to stay out of whatever crazy mess these guys from Los Angeles had brought with them.

"You sit back and you say, but for this person, but for that person. . . . Any one of them could have altered the horrible outcome of this situation simply by picking up the phone," said Santa Barbara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen, who is prosecuting the case.

Some people described feeling threatened by Hollywood, including a witness at Rugge's friend's house who said he had never met Hollywood before.

"I'm about to leave . . . and that's when Hollywood walked up to me and kind of like whispered to me . . . 'Keep your [expletive] mouth shut, you don't say nothing,' " testified the witness, a young man named Gabriel Ibarra.

Over the next two days, Nick was shuttled from one house to another, often staying at Rugge's family home, according to the transcripts.

Rugge's father assumed "Nick was up here visiting," he told The Times in an interview shortly after his son was arrested. Hollywood and Skidmore left Santa Barbara after the Sunday kidnapping, authorities say, but they suspect that Hollywood and his girlfriend, 20-year-old Michelle Lasher of Calabasas, showed up at Rugge's house either Monday or Tuesday.

At one point, Rugge, Pressley and Nick went to the home of the 17-year-old girl--the same girl who later contacted police when news of the murder broke, according to the transcripts. There, she helped Nick clean a scrape on his arm. She and another teenage girl testified that they knew the boy had been kidnapped, but that the casual, just-hanging-out atmosphere did not suggest real peril.

"It was just kind of surreal," the other teenager testified. "There wasn't anything to enforce a seriousness in the situation."

Back in Los Angeles, however, panic had seized several of the parents involved in the unfolding drama.

Jack Hollywood--who was compelled by a judge to testify before the grand jury--said that he had heard from his attorney, Stephen Hogg of Simi Valley, that his son was in deep trouble.

Prosecutors contend that Jesse Hollywood called Hogg for legal advice about the kidnapping and that when Hollywood realized how serious the penalties were, he decided that Nick would have to be killed instead.

Jack Hollywood testified that he met with his son late one night just after the kidnapping at his son's girlfriend's house in Calabasas.

"He seemed very scared and confused," the elder Hollywood testified. "And he--he indicated that some of his friends were holding a kid, and they--you know, he said that they were worried that they were in some kind of trouble."

But Jesse reportedly refused to tell his father where Nick was.

A Knock on the Door, a Grave in the Hills

By Tuesday morning, the 17-year-old girl had grown very anxious about Nick. She invited Pressley to go on a walk and asked him flat out whether they were going to kill the boy.

"Oh, no, of course not," Pressley said, according to the girl's testimony. But he said that mention of murder had, in fact, come up: Hollywood had offered Rugge money to kill Nick but Rugge said no, the girl testified.

Later that night, Nick was taken from the Rugge house to the hotel on State Street. The plan, Rugge said several times, was to take Nick home.

When another girl asked Nick why he didn't simply walk away from the hotel, she said he responded: "I've taken self-defense and stuff, it's not like I couldn't do anything right now, I just don't want to. I don't see a reason to, I'm going home, why would I complicate it?"

But soon any chance Nick might have had to escape during the relaxed moments of the previous days vanished with a sharp knock on the hotel room door.

Investigators believe it was Hoyt, armed with a TEC-9 automatic pistol. Witnesses said he owed Hollywood about $1,200.

Nick was then taken to a remote campsite 12 miles away. Bound and gagged, he was shot nine times. Hikers found his decomposing body a few days later.

Four months after Nick's death, authorities are still hunting for Jesse James Hollywood. The young fugitive apparently fled to Colorado and then back to the Valley, but authorities say the trail went cold after Aug. 23, when a friend dropped him off in West Hills.

As for the many people who saw or helped Hollywood after the kidnapping--including his father, his girlfriend, the friend who drove him from Colorado to West Hills, and the man who loaned him the van used in the crime--they've all been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony.

Prosecutors say they're willing to overlook lesser crimes that may have been committed in order to win convictions.

"In the overall scheme of things," Zonen said, "I want to put away the five people who murdered this child."

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