Jesse Rugge (pictured), convicted on charges of aggravated kidnapping in connection with the killing of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz 13 years ago, was released from Chino prison after serving 11 years of a life sentence. The state parole board voted to release Rugge over the objections of Governor Jerry Brown, Santa Barbara prosecutors, and Susan Markowitz, the victim’s mother.
Rugge was one of five young men arrested and convicted for the shooting masterminded by Jesse James Hollywood, a small-time San Fernando Valley pot dealer who ordered the kidnapping after Markowitz’s older brother ripped him off in a drug deal. Prosecutors alleged that Rugge was more intimately involved in the killing but could never prove it. Susan Markowitz reminded the 12 parole board officers that Rugge had initially told investigators that he had bound her son’s wrists with duct tape and had helped bury him after he’d been shot in the face at a location near Lizard’s Mouth. But those admissions were ruled inadmissible by Judge William Gordon because the investigator had suggested Rugge could face the death penalty if he didn’t confess. Rugge has never repeated those admissions, and during his trial he testified that he had left the group after they’d arrived at Lizard’s Mouth and had no idea that a murder was in the making.
Speaking to the parole boardmembers, Rugge said he took responsibility for Markowitz’s death because his role in the kidnapping precipitated the chain of events that led to the murder. Ron Zonen, who prosecuted Rugge and the other four defendants, termed the admission “shallow and cynical,” and he objected that Rugge has never really acknowledged the depth of his involvement. According to state prison records, Rugge — now 33 — had been a model prisoner, had taken numerous classes, completed his GED, and participated in AA meetings. Rugge had come up for release several times prior, but he had always been turned down. Hollywood was convicted of ordering Markowitz killed and was sentenced to life. Ryan Hoyt, the actual triggerman, was sentenced to death. One of Hoyt’s attorneys was disbarred for professional misconduct shortly after his conviction. Whether Hoyt received competent representation will be the subject of lengthy appeals.