Since the Jesse James Hollywood trial started on May 18, prosecutors Joshua Lynn and Hans Almgren have been calling witnesses to testify in front of a jury of nine women and three men. The two are attempting to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hollywood kidnapped 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in the summer of 2000 and then had Ryan Hoyt shoot and kill the teenager at Lizard’s Mouth, a popular hiking spot in the mountains above Santa Barbara.
Dozens of witnesses took the stand, from Hollywood’s friends and an ex-girlfriend to his family lawyer, forensic investigators, and the victim’s father and stepbrother. As the defense attorneys this week prepare to call their own witnesses - and, they predict, conclude their case by the end of the week - we’re presenting this review of what’s been said so far on the stand. Though not meant to be 100 percent conclusive, this synopsis includes almost all of the witnesses and mostly in the order that they were called.
The father of Ben and Nicholas Markowitz, he tried to keep his two children apart, due to Ben’s criminal history. However, he said that they loved each other and that Nicholas Markowitz would often run away and spend the night at his half brother’s apartment. On August 5, 2000, Jeffrey and Susan Markowitz, who is Nicholas’s birth mother but not Ben’s, confronted the victim about a bag of drugs in his pocket. Nicholas asked if they could wait to discuss it the following morning. But Nicholas left his house the next day, before the family could talk.
She called 911 on August 6, 2000, saying she saw a group of men beating up another in the spot in the San Fernando Valley where Markowitz was kidnapped. She also remembered the license plate number on the car. Her 911 call was played in court.
Already having plans to travel with Hollywood and William Skidmore (who served time for kidnapping Markowitz) to Santa Barbara when they picked him up on August 6, 2000, Affronti wasn’t planning on seeing Nicholas Markowitz’s unfamiliar face inside the van being interrogated by Hollywood about the whereabouts of his brother, Ben.
In Santa Barbara, Affronti testified, Markowitz’s hands were duct-taped and he helped the boy smoke marijuana out of a bong. Affronti said Hollywood and Jesse Rugge then left the Santa Barbara house together and returned a short time later. Affronti, not wanting to get involved in the situation, decided to leave with Skidmore, but had to return after realizing he forgot his cellular phone.
When he returned, he said, Markowitz was unbound and playing videogames on the couch. After Markowitz’s murder three days later, Affronti said he received a phone call from Skidmore, who allegedly warned Affronti to stay away from Hollywood. Affronti testified that Hollywood had labeled him a “weak link,” and had instructed Skidmore to kill him.
Affronti had also seen the Tec-9 gun at Hollywood’s house, which is the weapon that Ryan Hoyt used to kill Markowitz. The defense said they plan to bring Affronti back to the stand.
In August 2000, Saulsbury went to his mother’s house in Colorado and found Hollywood waiting at the doorstep. Saulsbury said he was “shocked” to see Hollywood, as the two hadn’t spoken since Hollywood moved to California years prior. Saulsbury said that Hollywood appeared very stressed out, and that he told Saulsbury that he was in trouble. Acting out of a “misguided care for Jesse,” Saulsbury agreed to drive Hollywood to Las Vegas and then back to the Los Angeles area. “It was a bad decision,” Saulsbury said.
He alleged that, during the approximately 15-hour car ride, Hollywood slowly revealed how he had kidnapped the brother of someone who had been harassing him. According to Saulsbury, Hollywood was initially “not sure” what to do with the victim until he consulted his attorney at the time, Stephen Hogg. In what would become the most contentious part of his testimony, Saulsbury said, “The attorney told Jesse that he was in a lot of trouble anyway and he should ‘dig a deeper hole.’” Saulsbury said that Hollywood told Jesse Rugge and Ryan Hoyt what his lawyer had told him, and that Hoyt then volunteered to “do it.”
Saulsbury often looked frazzled, panicked, and uncomfortable during the multiple days he was on the stand. The defense spent a good amount of time trying to discredit Saulsbury’s testimony by portraying him as a weak and dishonest individual. As he testified in this case, Saulsbury learned that his dog had eaten poison at his Colorado home and had to be put down, a development he tried to pin on the Hollywood camp.
Carpenter and Natasha Adams were best friends in August 2000. She and a group of friends all were hanging out with Markowitz for a period of time, smoking marijuana. She knew he had been taken, but never saw him bound or harmed in any way. Carpenter was alone with Markowitz at one point in the Ralph’s parking lot on the night of August 8, where she encouraged him to escape. But Markowitz refused.
On August 6, 2000, Rugge arrived unexpectedly at his childhood friend Richard Hoeflinger’s Santa Barbara house. Hoeflinger testified that Rugge said he was in trouble and needed a place to stay. Rugge then left and returned later with the defendant, the victim, and two other young men. According to Hoeflinger, Rugge said that Markowitz was being kept there against his own free will because Hollywood was looking for the victim’s brother. However, Hoeflinger chose not to report the kidnapping to the police because he was afraid of Hollywood. The prosecution asked for specific incidents describing why Hollywood was so frightening, but Hoeflinger only had vague answers, responding that Hollywood looked stern, “very angry,” and was “barking orders” to “pretty much everybody.”
On the day that Rugge, Hollywood, and Markowitz arrived at Hoeflinger’s house, the witness already had plans to attend a barbeque. Though concerned about the kidnapping victim in his duplex, Hoeflinger followed through on his original plans and attended the barbeque anyway. When he returned home later in the evening, he saw that Markowitz was unbound and playing video games with Rugge in the living room.
Hollywood’s girlfriend at the time of the murder, Lasher she said she is still in love with the defendant. She was uncooperative with the prosecution, crying throughout her testimony that she would never recover from her traumatic separation from Hollywood. She claimed to not know anything about Nicholas Markowitz’s kidnapping, but she remembered that on August 8, 2000, Hollywood told friend Casey Sheehan that the situation had been “unwound.”
Later on, she overheard Hollywood fighting with Ryan Hoyt, asking if he was crazy. Hollywood was then so distraught that his eye vessel allegedly popped. He told Lasher that he would not take her home. She eventually fled with him to Colorado, but flew back alone. When she came home, she said she suffered through a traumatic ordeal with various detectives and the prosecution. Her most damning claims were that the prosecution threatened to charge her with murder, that detectives told her they would shoot Hollywood on the street once they found him, and that the officers who searched her home pulled her out of bed while she was still naked and held a gun to her head.
The then-teenager said she had had a sexual relationship with Jesse Hollywood. Her best friend at the time lived a few houses down from Hollywood.
She told of how there was “frequent selling of drugs and purchasing of numerous guns” at Hollywood’s house. One day she saw Hollywood driving a white van and he seemed distressed, telling her that he was suddenly moving “because too many people knew where he lived.” Blackford said that she was aware that Ben Markowitz owed Hollywood money. After that interaction with Hollywood outside the van, Blackford never saw him again until the courtroom.
Pressley, 17 at the time, met Markowitz on August 7, 2000, at Rugge’s house. Pressley never saw Markowitz being bound during his stay, but Markowitz explained that he had been beaten up and thrown into a van. He said that his brother owed Hollywood drug money. When Pressley discussed the situation in private with Rugge, Rugge allegedly told him that Hollywood was crazy and offered him $2,000 to kill Markowitz.
By Paul Wellman