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Victim’s Brother Tries to Make Sense of Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It’s been almost a year, but Benjamin Markowitz still has trouble believing his childhood friends could have kidnapped and killed his younger brother.

“In my worst nightmares, I never would have thought that that would have happened,” Markowitz, 23, said last week in an interview.

It was a brazen crime that stunned the West Valley, where most of the young suspects had grown up. They’d played baseball together on the well-groomed fields of a private league. They had known each other--and Ben--for years.

No one could have imagined that one day last summer a few of the old buddies allegedly would throw Nicholas Markowitz, 15, into a van and hold him against his will. Eventually, the group would come to the twisted conclusion that killing the teenager was the only way to spare themselves a kidnapping prosecution, authorities said.

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Friends Were Drawn In by Charismatic Leader

To hear Benjamin Markowitz tell it, the crime was probably just a terrible mistake, a spur-of-the-moment retaliation by his friends that spiraled out of control. Markowitz said the young men he knew, now jailed on murder charges, were not people to be feared. They were more like tough-guy wannabes, suburban kids who got drawn in by a charismatic and troublesome leader named Jesse James Hollywood.

But the end result was that Markowitz’s younger half-brother was shot multiple times in the head and buried in a shallow grave outside Santa Barbara. Markowitz said in an extended interview that it was his attempts to straighten out his life--leaving behind his old friends and their life of drug dealing--that angered Hollywood and the others, triggering the deadly events.

Markowitz has had plenty of time to comb through the past and ponder his relationships with the young men accused of killing Nicholas. He was arrested in February for two unrelated armed robberies and pleaded no contest to one count of felony attempted robbery. He is being held in Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, awaiting transfer to a state prison to serve up to 16 months.

In a jailhouse interview, an unshaven and tattooed Markowitz appeared far more composed than he did last summer, when he appeared on television and tearfully blamed himself for Nicholas’ death. He spoke about his short-lived effort to reform himself after his years of crime. He has told authorities that he used to buy and sell $30,000 worth of marijuana a month. He said he bought it from Hollywood, a popular onetime high school baseball player.

Markowitz said that nothing in that relationship, however, prepared him for the events that would unfold last August, when Nicholas was kidnapped on a street near his family’s West Hills home. The teenager was driven to Santa Barbara, where he was held for a few days before being taken into the mountains outside town and shot to death, authorities said.

Investigators at the time said the boy was abducted and killed in retaliation for a $36,000 drug debt that Benjamin Markowitz owed Hollywood. But Markowitz said the whole story is more complicated and only marginally related to drugs.

Markowitz believes Hollywood, one of five men charged in Nicholas’ murder, was not driven by money or drugs. Rather, he was mostly angry because Markowitz had dumped him as a friend and moved on to a cleaner life.

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At one point, the pair had worked out daily at a Malibu gym. But Markowitz said he stopped selling drugs. He moved into his dad’s West Hills home and was working as a machinist in the family aerospace business. His new early morning schedule did not leave much time for his longtime friends.

“It was when I stopped hanging out with him and started working with my dad that [Hollywood] really got upset,” Markowitz said.

“I was getting on with my life. I was going to get married. I was doing what I thought was the right thing--what I still think was the right thing,” he said. “Everything just kind of fell apart.”

By last summer, tension with Ben’s friends had reached the boiling point. Still, he said he never suspected they would hurt his younger brother, up until the day the boy’s body was found buried in the rugged hills east of Santa Barbara.

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“The worst possible scenario was that [Hollywood] was just hanging out with my brother and giving him drugs and having him sell drugs for him,” he said.

Benjamin Markowitz admitted he sold marijuana and Ecstasy and still owed Hollywood about $1,200. But his old friend seemed to be more angry about the fact that Markowitz had told authorities about an insurance fraud scam. Hollywood had reported one of his cars missing and hoped to collect $36,000--a scheme that was foiled by Markowitz.

This week, investigators confirmed Markowitz’s account of the debt.

“That’s what Hollywood felt [Markowitz] owed him. His sense of right and wrong was all askew,” said Lt. Jeff Klapakis of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

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“I just hope that everyone will realize that I was doing the right thing,” Markowitz said. “I was not dealing drugs. This had nothing to do with drugs.”

Markowitz suspects that the alleged killers never actually mapped out his half-brother’s execution.

“They were all on drugs,” Markowitz said. “It wasn’t something that was thought out. It couldn’t have been.”

Authorities agree. They allege that Hollywood and his friends abducted the boy in a spur-of-the-moment act that spun out of control once they reached Santa Barbara. After Hollywood called his lawyer and learned the severe penalty for kidnapping, police say, the young men decided they had to kill Nicholas.

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What they didn’t count on was the testimony of several teenagers who allegedly saw the group holding the boy captive in the days before his death. After Nicholas’ bullet-ridden body was found, a 17-year-old girl called police to say she knew who did it.

Four of the five defendants charged with kidnapping and killing Nicholas remain in jail, awaiting trial in Santa Barbara. They are Ryan James Hoyt of West Hills, Jesse Taylor Rugge of Santa Barbara and William Skidmore of Simi Valley--all boyhood friends of Ben Markowitz who are now 21--and Graham Pressley of Goleta, 18, a friend of Rugge’s.

Hollywood, however, has eluded a nationwide manhunt. Now 21, he apparently fled his West Hills home a few days after the killing. Police tracked him to Colorado and back last August before the trail cooled.

FBI Offers $30,000 for Hollywood’s Capture

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Earlier this month, authorities ratcheted up the pressure.

In a rare move, the FBI offered a $30,000 reward--including $10,000 put up by the Markowitz family--for information leading to his capture.

Markowitz said he got to know Ryan Hoyt, who allegedly shot Nicholas to death, while dating Hoyt’s sister as a teenager. They grew up down the street from each other. Markowitz considered him a follower who was often teased.

“Everyone just pretty much made fun of him . . . whoever he’s hanging out with at the moment, he is going to try to impress.”

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Now, Markowitz said he may testify against his former friends. He is negotiating with prosecutors about the terms.

But he has trouble accepting what has happened, saying: “I don’t really like to think of these guys doing what they did.”


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