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Fishing for Clues, FBI Hosts Online Chat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was your FBI, coming to you live Thursday from the top of the Federal Building in Westwood. Got a question about the yearlong manhunt for murder suspect Jesse James Hollywood? Just hop online and fire away.

As a throng of dark-suited FBI agents clustered around a computer on the 17th floor--part of the Los Angeles office’s first “Web chat"--Question No. 25 put it bluntly:

“Why is the FBI having such a difficult time finding a 21-year-old kid?”

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Hollywood, a reputed marijuana dealer from West Hills, is wanted in connection with the kidnapping and killing of a teenage acquaintance last August. He has been underground ever since, and authorities seem no closer to catching him than they were the day that 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz’s bullet-riddled body was found in the hills of Santa Barbara.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley frowned at the computer screen and began to type.

“Once Hollywood has fled the Los Angeles area, he may be able to blend into other communities,” she wrote.

And so it went, as 54 questions zipped across telephone lines from as far away as Kokkola, Finland, and as close as Woodland Hills. About a third of the queries came from the Los Angeles area.

The session was part of a full-throttle drive by authorities to thrust their search for Hollywood into the media as much as possible. Last month, the FBI took the unusual step of offering a $30,000 reward (including $10,000 from the victim’s family) for information leading to Hollywood’s capture. The case has also been featured repeatedly on the television show “America’s Most Wanted,” spawning unconfirmed reports of sightings from Mexico to Canada.

The FBI’s Washington headquarters has had other Web chats (recent topics include “Economic Espionage” and “Cyber Crime”), but the fugitive confab was something new. The chat was sponsored by USAToday.com.

As Bosley read questions aloud, Patrick Patterson, the assistant special agent in charge of the local violent crimes division, spat out answers in flawless FBI-speak.

“All information provided to law enforcement will remain completely confidential,” he dictated.

More questions flashed across the screen. “Is Jesse James really his name?”

“Does he have a high intelligence level?”

“Do you believe Hollywood’s family is hiding him?”

Yes, that’s his real name. No, he doesn’t seem to be remarkably smart. But the agents hedged on that last one. Patterson said there is no reason to think Hollywood’s family is hiding him, but Bosley typed: “We are limited in comments as the investigation is ongoing.”

The FBI agents were encouraged by several online inquiries about how the agency handles tips. Maybe, Patterson said, someone out there wants to turn Hollywood in and needs assurance that the information will be kept confidential.

“Do we feel we’re any closer to finding him?” Bosley read aloud.

“We’ll know when we catch him,” Patterson shot back.

Bosley hesitated, fingertips poised above the keyboard. “Do we want to rephrase that somehow?”

They did.


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