The case of Jesse James Hollywood has already been made into a book and a movie, has gone before the California Supreme Court, and has necessitated the highest level of security at a Santa Barbara County courthouse since Michael Jackson was tried. Already, the growing legend of Jesse James Hollywood seems bigger than the man himself.
And the case only went to trial on Friday.
The youngest man to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Hollywood vanished just days after the murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in August 2000. Hollywood, alleged by prosecutors to have masterminded Markowitz’s kidnapping and murder, evaded authorities until 2005 when, acting on a tip, they arrested him in a small Brazilian fishing village. On March 10, 2005 -four-and-a-half years after Markowitz’s death-he landed at Los Angeles International Airport to finally face charges for the murder.
The 29-year-old’s day in court came at long last on May 15. Clad in a suit and a red tie, Hollywood strode into a packed courtroom. A jury of nine women and three men heard Hollywood’s defense of his alleged involvement in Markowitz’s kidnapping and murder, as well as the prosecution’s version of how it happened. If found guilty, Hollywood could face the death penalty.
Prosecutor Joshua Lynn opened the day calling Hollywood a “ruthless coward.” “Jesse James Hollywood murdered 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz like he pulled the trigger himself,” Lynn claimed. Lynn took jurors through the few weeks in August 2000 that climaxed with Markowitz being shot to death at Lizard’s Mouth, a popular overlook in the hills above Santa Barbara. Lynn stated the kidnapping and eventual murder came as a result of a $1,200 drug debt owed to Hollywood by Markowitz’s older half-brother Ben Markowitz, at one time an ally of Hollywood’s and one of the drug dealers who worked for Hollywood.
Markowitz was supposed to collect a debt for Hollywood, whom Lynn characterized as a well-known drug dealer in the San Fernando Valley “trying to live up to the reputation he was building.” In lieu of cash, Ben Markowitz received dozens of ecstasy pills, which he was planning to sell to repay Hollywood. When the pills turned out to be duds, however, Markowitz was out the money. The debt consequently became his, prosecutors said.
The relationship between Hollywood and Ben Markowitz deteriorated. On their way to rough up Ben Markowitz, Hollywood and two friends drove past his younger brother, Nick, walking along the street. They picked him up and eventually headed north to Santa Barbara to celebrate Fiesta. Along the way, Nick was free much of the time and was partying, drinking, and doing drugs with much of the crew. One of Hollywood’s associates, Jesse Rugge, held the boy for days “in lieu of Jesse James Hollywood’s orders to do anything else with him,” Lynn said.
Meanwhile, Lynn alleged, Hollywood visited his family attorney, who told him that the penalty for kidnapping could be life in prison. With this in mind, Lynn said, Hollywood directed his friends to kill the boy, while he himself made plans to escape, emptying out bank accounts and trading in cars. Markowitz was killed on August 9, 2000.
On the other side, Hollywood’s defense counsel, Los Angeles attorney James Blatt, said the circumstances hardly constituted kidnapping. They simply picked up the boy and asked, “Do you know where your brother is?” Blatt explained. “Okay, let’s go to Santa Barbara and party.” Blatt denied the existence of evidence such as a request for ransom or extortion that would point toward kidnapping and said Hollywood had nothing to do with the boy being moved around throughout Santa Barbara.
Blatt also said that his client had nothing to do with the teenager’s murder. Two witnesses, he said, will testify to a conversation between the shooter, Ryan Hoyt, and Hollywood in which the latter said to the former, “How could you do that? You’re f-ing crazy. You’re out of your mind.” From that point on, Blatt said, there was a different Hollywood. “He was frightened,” Blatt said, as Hollywood realized the gravity of the situation. But Blatt promised the jurors they would never hear that Hollywood ordered the murder.
Hollywood’s alleged accomplices have each been sentenced for involvement in the murder. Ryan Hoyt, now 29, was found guilty of pulling the trigger on Markowitz nine times with a semi-automatic found buried next to the victim’s body at Lizard’s Mouth. He is currently on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
Graham Pressley, a fourth-generation Santa Barbaran, was the first minor in the county to be charged as an adult for a crime under Prop. 21. He was convicted of second-degree murder as an adult by a Santa Barbara jury in 2002 but was sentenced as a minor. He was released by the California Youth Authority about a year ago at age 25. Rugge, now 29, is currently serving a life sentence for his involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Markowitz. William Skidmore pled guilty in a plea bargain and was released just weeks ago after serving nine years behind bars.
Though Hoyt, Pressley, Rugge, and Skidmore are each on the witness list, not all are expected to testify. Included on the witness list are members of the Markowitz family. Lynn said he hoped the prosecution will bring “whatever minor relief we can bring” through the outcome of the trial.
Surely posing difficulties for both sides will be accuracy of witness testimony. In addition to memory gaps created by the passage of nine years between the events being discussed and the trial, attorneys must also contend with testimony that may not be truthful. Several of the witnesses, including those previously convicted, have made statements about Markowitz’s death that contradict each other. According to Blatt, Hoyt also had a reputation among his friends for embellishing.
The trial will undoubtedly generate interest among Santa Barbarans as details of a tragic story that grabbed the community in 2000 emerge once again. Perhaps most troubling is the large number of young people who did not speak up, despite witnessing Markowitz’s incarceration. Many later admitted having seen him tied up, or that it was strange that a 15-year-old would be partying with 20-year-olds while rumors swirled that he’d been kidnapped. Even Markowitz himself, at one point in the ordeal, allegedly could have packed up and left. But he didn’t.
The events of the Jesse James Hollywood case may also be familiar to Santa Barbarans as a result of the 2006 movie Alpha Dog, which was based on these events. The film-which starred Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone, and Bruce Willis-brought in more than $32 million worldwide. It also presented trouble for the prosecution, as Ron Zonen, a veteran deputy district attorney who prosecuted the others involved in the kidnapping and murder, aided in the making of Alpha Dog by giving producers his files. Zonen explained he had done so because he hoped more publicity would help flush Hollywood out of hiding, but Blatt argued that Zonen and the entire Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office should be thrown off the case as a result of the collaboration. The matter ultimately went to the state Supreme Court, which, in October 2008, ruled that Zonen shouldn’t be removed from the case, despite “highly inappropriate and disturbing” behavior. Still, DA Christie Stanley ultimately decided to replace Zonen with Lynn to eliminate any potential problems.
Two former friends of Jesse James Hollywood, along with three other witnesses- including the victim’s father-testified in the first two days of Hollywood’s trial.
After Markowitz was murdered, Hollywood showed up on the doorstep of witness Chas Salsbury’s mother’s house in Colorado. Though the two men hadn’t spoken in five years, Salsbury agreed to drive the defendant to Las Vegas and then to Los Angeles. Salsbury alleged in court that, during the car ride, Hollywood slowly revealed he had kidnapped the brother of someone who had been harassing him.
According to Salsbury, Hollywood initially was “not sure” what to do with the victim until he consulted his attorney at the time, Stephen Hogg. Salsbury testified that “the attorney told Jesse that he was in a lot of trouble anyway and he should ‘dig a deeper hole.’” Hollywood, Rugge, and Hoyt then allegedly made a mutual decision to murder Nick Markowitz. Tuesday’s trial ended with a few minutes of Salsbury’s cross-examination by defense attorney Blatt. In his brief questioning, Blatt said Salsbury could receive the death penalty if he lied in his testimony.
Blatt was expected to continue cross-examining Salsbury on Wednesday, past The Independent‘s print deadline. Visit independent.com/hollywood for the latest on the case.