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Killer Gets Death Penalty

Times Staff Writer

A man sat emotionless Friday as a judge sentenced him to death for the execution-style slaying of a 15-year-old West Hills boy, killed to collect a drug debt and impress the defendant’s drug-dealing friends.

Superior Court Judge William L. Gordon said Ryan Hoyt, 23, of West Hills had many chances to walk away from the crime before he shot Nicholas Markowitz nine times in the hills above Santa Barbara and left the body in a shallow grave.

“Any feelings of sympathy for the defendant ... are substantially outweighed by the circumstances of the crime,” the judge said.

Moments before imposing the sentence, Gordon denied a motion to reduce the jury’s death verdict, signaling his intent to order Hoyt to San Quentin’s death row. Gordon said Hoyt’s tumultuous childhood, relative youth and lack of a criminal record did not mitigate kidnapping and murder.

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Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald Zonen looked back from the counsel table and nodded at Susan Markowitz, the victim’s mother, as Gordon prepared to impose the ultimate sentence on the killer of her son. Across the aisle, Hoyt’s mother sobbed in her husband’s arms as other family members wiped at tears.

Hoyt’s sentencing caps a wave of criminal trials arising from Markowitz’s Aug. 6, 2000, kidnapping. Hoyt is one of five young men, all but one of whom grew up in the San Fernando Valley, charged in the crime.

Markowitz was kidnapped near his parents’ West Hills home in an attempt to force his older half-brother to settle a $1,200 drug debt to Jesse James Hollywood, the alleged mastermind of the kidnapping and killing.

Hollywood and his friends drove Markowitz to Santa Barbara, where the boy was held at various homes before being moved to the Lemon Tree Inn downtown in the hours before his death.

Zonen said Hoyt brought the weapon used in the slaying to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles. Then with another defendant, Graham Pressley, Hoyt went to a remote camping area known as Lizard’s Mouth and dug a grave. Later that night, Hoyt led Markowitz, bound and gagged, to the site and shot him to death, Zonen said.

Hoyt “accepted this assignment” from Hollywood to kill Markowitz to raise his stature among Hollywood and his friends and to erase a drug debt, Zonen said.

“All of this was done for the purposes of money and prestige,” he said.

Death verdicts are rare in southern Santa Barbara County. Hoyt is the first person to be sentenced to death there since 1988, and only the fifth since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, Zonen said.

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Outside the courtroom, Susan Markowitz, wearing her son’s picture in a small silver frame pinned to her black jacket, declared, “If there is ever justice, it has been done.” She said she is comforted by the sentence, though it will never ease a pain that she described as her own “life sentence.”

With the criminal cases nearly concluded, Susan Markowitz said she and her husband now plan to focus on helping authorities capture 22-year-old fugitive Hollywood.

She quietly passed out business cards affixed with a picture of Hollywood and information on the $50,000 reward being offered for help in his capture. It describes Hollywood as a “5' 4", blue-eyed coward, drug dealer and thug.”

Her husband, Jeffrey Markowitz, wearing a black leather jacket that belonged to their son, said he expects others to help.

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“You would think all the other families would want to find Jesse Hollywood,” he said. “All of our kids were sentenced in some way by something he did.”

In addition to the capital murder charge, a Santa Barbara jury also convicted Hoyt of kidnapping and using a gun. He will return to court briefly next month for sentencing on those crimes, which together carry a maximum of 33 years to life in prison.

Pressley, 19, of Goleta also is awaiting sentencing. He could be ordered Tuesday to serve up to 18 years in prison for his role in the killing.

Two other defendants have already begun serving their terms. Jesse Rugge, 22, of Santa Barbara was sentenced to life in prison in September after a jury found him guilty of kidnapping for ransom.

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William Skidmore, 22, of Simi Valley pleaded guilty to kidnapping and robbing Markowitz and received a nine-year state prison sentence.

While Hoyt appeared to have anticipated the outcome of Friday’s hearing, his attorney, Robert M. Sanger, said he was surprised. “I figured if there was a case that deserved a new trial, this was it,” he said outside court.

Earlier, the judge denied Sanger’s motions for a new trial. He also denied a defense motion to set aside the death penalty because, the defense argued, it violates international law and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Sanger argued that Hoyt’s first lawyer should have presented expert testimony to show the defendant suffered brain damage that might have explained his allegedly “false confession.” But Zonen said his experts concluded there was no brain damage.

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At trial, Hoyt contradicted an earlier statement to detectives when he testified he “did not kill Nicholas Markowitz.”

Hoyt said he could not recall an earlier videotaped confession in which he told detectives, “The only thing I did was kill him.”


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