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From ‘Popular Kid’ to Murder Suspect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Luxury cars were always rolling up to the three-bedroom, white stucco house Jesse James Hollywood bought for himself in West Hills at the age of 19. Hollywood drove a black Mercedes, neighbors said, or sometimes a racy blue sports car.

He and his friends used to hang out in the frontyard, a bunch of young guys in tank tops and jeans, smoking cigarettes under the elm tree that shaded the lawn. Hollywood’s dogs, two pit bulls, romped in the backyard.

But in early August, everything changed at the house on Cohasset Street. Hollywood took off suddenly, telling one neighbor he needed to go because “too many people know where I live.”

A few days later, the reason became clear: Hollywood, 20, was wanted in connection with the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, whose half-brother Benjamin allegedly owed Hollywood $36,000 for marijuana.

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Now the subject of a nationwide manhunt, Hollywood is described by those who know him as a popular, athletic kid who loved baseball, not a drug kingpin who masterminded a murder.

But at his deserted house--no more cars, no more dogs--there’s a small clue to Hollywood’s hasty departure: a jagged hole in one of his front windows.

Shortly before the kidnapping, Hollywood had allegedly taunted Benjamin Markowitz by eating at a restaurant where Markowitz’s girlfriend worked and skipping out without paying, said Lt. Mike Burridge of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

“Put it on Ben’s tab,” Hollywood told her, according to a police report.

In retaliation, Markowitz, 22, allegedly smashed a window at Hollywood’s house.

It was that broken window that sent Hollywood over to Markowitz’s family home Aug. 6, the day Nicholas was snatched from his West Hills neighborhood, said H. Russell Halpern, a defense attorney representing one of four defendants already charged in the case.

On the way to the Markowitz house, according to police, Hollywood and his friends spotted Markowitz’s younger brother.

“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing that wasn’t well thought out,” Halpern said. "[Hollywood] saw this kid and decided to grab him because he was mad at Ben Markowitz. . . . I don’t think he had any real plan of what to do with him. It was not some sophisticated crime. He’s not some great mastermind.”

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Robin Leduc remembers watching Hollywood as a boy, darting around the baseball field with her son, Ray, and the other pint-sized ballplayers.

“He was a great little athlete,” she said. “We lived for watching those boys play baseball.”

Jack Hollywood, Jesse’s father, is a longtime coach in the Westhills Baseball league, a family-oriented club in which many parents become close friends as they root for their children or flip hamburgers together during volunteer stints at the snack shack. Hollywood’s mom, Laurie, showed up at all of Jesse’s games and most of his practices, friends said.

The Hollywoods, who declined to comment on the murder case or their son, are still involved with the league, in which their younger son J.P., who is about 12, plays.

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Years ago, Jesse Hollywood played baseball here with three of the others now charged in the kidnapping and execution-style shooting of Nicholas Markowitz: William R. Skidmore, 20, of Simi Valley; Ryan James Hoyt, 21, of West Hills; and Jesse Taylor Rugge, 20, of Santa Barbara. A young friend of Rugge, 17-year-old Graham Pressley of Goleta, faces the same charges. All four have pleaded not guilty.

“Everyone in the community keeps asking, ‘What didn’t we see?’ Nobody can understand this,” Leduc said.

A small kid--even today, Hollywood stands only 5 feet 5 and weighs 140 pounds--Jesse was an outgoing boy who liked to joke around.

“He was a real popular kid,” said Peter Gunny, 20, who grew up playing baseball with Hollywood. “Everyone knew him and wanted to be friends with him.”

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The Hollywoods moved briefly to Colorado to start a restaurant business in the mid-1990s, friends said, returning to the west San Fernando Valley in 1995. Still an avid ballplayer, Jesse spent his sophomore year at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, where he played second base on the junior varsity team.

Agile and focused, Jesse was a good player who took his sport seriously, said Bob Ganssle, his coach at El Camino. But Hollywood was asked to leave the school in May 1996, near the end of his sophomore year, after he “blew up” at a teacher.

“It was a fairly serious incident,” said Principal Ron Bauer, who declined to elaborate but said the teenager was not arrested during the confrontation.

Jesse transferred to Calabasas High School as a junior and played baseball on the varsity squad, a strong team that won the league championship that year. He wasn’t a starting player, but the gritty infielder caught his coach’s eye as a pinch hitter.

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“He had an uncanny knack for getting on base,” said Coach Rick Nathanson. The following year, Nathanson had high hopes for Jesse, but the teenager injured his back and leg before the season started, the coach said.

“I think he got a little depressed because he’d been looking forward to a very competitive season,” Nathanson said. Jesse later told the coach he’d lost the drive to play, and he did not join the 1998 team.

Suspended a Week Before Graduation

Jesse graduated from Calabasas High in June 1998--even though school records show he was suspended a week before graduation. School administrators declined to say why.

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Authorities suspect that Hollywood started selling marijuana at least a year before the murder. By the time Markowitz was killed, Hollywood had allegedly established himself as a well-known drug dealer with a network of other dealers working for him.

“The nexus of this case is drugs,” said Sgt. Ken Reinstadler of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. “There’s no way around it. We know or suspect that [Hollywood] was involved in the large-scale sale of marijuana.”

Among those who allegedly had drug ties to Hollywood: his boyhood friends and co-suspects Hoyt, Rugge and Skidmore, according to Reinstadler.

The description does not surprise a young man who lived in Hollywood’s neighborhood during the last year.

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“Everybody knew it was drugs,” said the 18-year-old. “I mean, all the nice cars. He didn’t really go to work or nothing. It’s kind of obvious when people drive up, run in for a second and drive off.”

Property records show that Hollywood bought the $205,000 house in June 1999, at the age of 19. He took out a $164,000 first mortgage and no second, records show, suggesting he paid $41,000 in cash toward the purchase.

Hollywood occasionally worked in the carpentry business, said Lee Esh, who hired him and his friend to help finish floors. Esh remembers Hollywood as a hard worker.

“I would’ve trusted him to give my kids a ride to the park,” Esh said. “I thought he was a responsible kid.”

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Esh suspected that Hollywood and his buddies smoked marijuana, but said he was unaware that Hollywood was allegedly selling the drug in large quantities.

“As far as I was concerned with these kids, they all smoked pot,” he said. “That’s what they did, and I basically didn’t see a problem with it because that’s not something people kill and steal for.”

But detectives believe that Markowitz was kidnapped, and then killed, over marijuana. Authorities allege that Hollywood, Skidmore and Rugge kidnapped him in a white van, taking him to the Rugge house in Santa Barbara. Two days later, Rugge and Graham allegedly took the boy to a State Street hotel, where Hoyt joined them.

Hoyt, Graham and Rugge then took the boy to a hiking trail in Los Padres National Forest, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas. Investigators believe that Hoyt shot the boy nine times in the head and torso. Hikers discovered the body four days later.

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Investigators think both Hollywood and Skidmore left Santa Barbara on the day of the kidnapping, but under California law, anyone who participates in a kidnapping that ends in a homicide can be charged with murder.

“Obviously, [Hollywood] was behind the kidnapping,” Lt. Burridge said. “He was behind the decision to bring [Markowitz] to Santa Barbara. It was all about money owed to him. . . . But I don’t know that we can definitively say that he ordered that the boy be killed.”

The allegations have deeply shaken West Hills parents and teenagers who know Hollywood. “I can’t believe Jesse would have that much power over anyone,” said Gloria Cliffords, whose son Woody used to play ball with the boys. “Come on, what is this kid, Svengali? He’s just a normal kid.”

Acting on a tip from a teenager who saw the victim at Rugge’s house, authorities quickly arrested Graham, Hoyt, Rugge and Skidmore less than a week after the body was found. But Jesse James Hollywood eluded the dragnet.

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Paying his way with cash, the young fugitive fled to Colorado Springs, stopping in Las Vegas, and then returned to the Valley, according to investigators.

Along the way, they said, he bought and then ditched a new Lincoln sedan, stayed at several posh hotels and left two firearms with a Colorado friend. He apparently looked up several old friends, including his godfather, 47-year-old Richard Dispenza of Woodland Park, Colo., who was subsequently arrested on suspicion of harboring a fugitive.

On Aug. 23, authorities believe, Hollywood was dropped off by a friend in West Hills.

“Now he’s come back home again,” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bruce Correll. “You’d think if he was a real sophisticated desperado, he’d be out of the country by now.”

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On Tuesday, the search paralyzed a West Hills neighborhood as a SWAT team stormed the house where Hollywood was thought to be hiding--only to come up empty-handed. As dozens of neighbors gathered behind police barricades, some puzzled over the suburban renegade’s notorious name. “Why on Earth would they name him Jesse James?” one woman wondered aloud.

The boy was named after an uncle who died, not the famous outlaw who led a 19th-century gang of bank and train robbers, said Jesse’s grandmother, Virginia Hollywood of Granada Hills.

“He’s just our grandson, who we love,” she said quietly. “I don’t really think things are like they seem. We’re just waiting for them to turn out differently.”


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