The case of Jesse James Hollywood has already been a book and a movie, has been brought 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 almost bigger than the man himself.

And the case is just now getting to trial.

Hollywood was the youngest man to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, escaping just days after the murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in August 2000. Hollywood, alleged by prosecutors to have been the mastermind behind Markowitz’s kidnapping and murder, first fled to Las Vegas, then to Colorado, and then back to Los Angeles. He then disappeared until 2005 when, acting on a tip picked up from a phone tap, investigators discovered Hollywood was living in Brazil.

Jesse James Hollywood leaving the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse (May 2009)
Paul Wellman (file)

There at a cafe in a small fishing village, where he had just sat down to meet his seven-months-pregnant Brazilian girlfriend, Hollywood-at that time passing himself off as a Portuguese-speaking native – was arrested by local law enforcement. March 10, 2005, four-and-a-half years after Nicholas Markowitz breathed his last breath, Hollywood landed at Los Angeles International Airport, back on U.S. soil to finally face charges for the murder.

And Friday, more than four years after that return, Hollywood’s day in court finally came. 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 all happened. If found guilty, Hollywood could face the death penalty.

Prosecutor Joshua Lynn opened up the day calling Hollywood a “ruthless coward” who killed Markowitz because of business. Lynn alleged that he supplied the gun, vehicle and instructions to have the boy killed. “Jesse James Hollywood murdered 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz like he pulled the trigger himself,” Lynn claimed.

Lynn took jurors on a journey through dates and events over a few weeks in August 2000 that climaxed with Markowitz being shot to death at Lizard’s Mouth in the hills above Santa Barbara. Lynn claims that 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, a one-time ally 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. But the pills didn’t have their intended effect, and Markowitz was out the money. As a result, the debt then became his, according to prosecutors.

A downward spiral in their relationship led to a back and forth of threats between the two. Hollywood, along with two friends, on his way to go rough up Ben Markowitz, drove past Nick walking along the street, and decided to pick him up. They eventually headed north to Santa Barbara to celebrate Fiesta. Along the way, the boy was free much of the time and not in danger, but partying, drinking and doing drugs with much of the crew. One of Hollywood’s crew, Jesse Rugge, held the boy for days “in lieu of Jesse James Hollywood’s orders to do anything else with him,” Lynn said.

In the meantime, 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 members of his crew to kill the boy, while he himself made plans to escape, emptying out sizable bank accounts and trading in cars. Markowitz was killed on August 9, 2000.

On the other side, Hollywood’s defense counsel, high-powered Los Angeles-based attorney James Blatt, said that 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 let’s party.” There is no evidence of a request for ransom or extortion that would point toward kidnapping, Blatt said, and Hollywood had nothing to do with the boy being moved around to various locations, throughout Santa Barbara, including the Lemon Tree Inn.

Blatt, who also downplayed Hollywood’s involvement in the San Fernando drug trade, said that his client also had nothing to do with the teenager’s murder. Two witnesses, he said, will testify to a conversation between Markowitz’s killer, Ryan Hoyt, and Hollywood. The two had a fight, Blatt alleged, in which Hollywood asked Hoyt, “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 how badly things had become and worried about the possible consequences. But Hollywood never ordered the killing. “You will never hear that from anybody in the case,” Blatt told the jury.

All of Hollywood’s alleged accomplices were sentenced years for their involvement in the murder. Ryan Hoyt, now 29, was found guilty of pulling the trigger on Markowitz nine times in the head and the back with a semi-automatic found buried next to the victim’s body at Lizard’s Mouth. Hoyt confessed in a videotaped interview with authorities, but never admitted during his trial to his involvement. He is currently on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.

Graham Pressley is a fourth-generation Santa Barbaran. He was the first minor in Santa Barbara 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.

Jesse 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. The prosecution will begin calling witnesses Monday morning in Judge Brian Hill’s courtroom.

Included on the witness list are members of the Markowitz family. Lynn said the family is a “great family,” and his hope is that the prosecution will bring “whatever minor relief we can bring” through the outcome of the trial.

There are about 200 binders of evidence to review, Lynn said in an interview previous to a gag order being issued by Hill. One of the toughest things leading up to trial, Lynn said, was finding the 86 witnesses to subpoena. Many law enforcement officials have since retired, while many people, who at the time were in their late teens or early 20s, now live in another state or another country. Subpoenas were served as far away as Michigan in the U.S. and France abroad.

Perhaps the biggest issue Lynn will face is the witnesses’ ability to remember. Normally, two to three years would be considered a long time between an incident and going to trial. This has taken nearly nine years to get to trial. “We have to make sure people are testifying from memory,” Lynn said.

But perhaps of more importance, as Blatt hinted at in his opening statement, will be deciphering what testimony is truthful and what is not. Several of the witnesses, including the previously convicted, have made statements to each other, to law enforcement, to movie producers and in court, and often those statements don’t align. Hoyt, for example, had a reputation among his friends for embellishing. “He would lie so much that they wouldn’t accept certain things he’d say,” Blatt said.

The trial will undoubtedly be eventful and interesting as details of a sad story that grabbed the Santa Barbara community in 2000 emerge once again nine years later. Perhaps most tragic is the large number of young people who were involved in the murder but who didn’t speak up. After Markowitz’s kidnapping, there were several opportunities to do so for those who claimed to have seen Markowitz tied up or spotted him at parties when they knew he had been taken to Santa Barbara. Even Markowitz himself, at one point in the ordeal, allegedly could have packed up and left. But he didn’t.

It’s a case which all of the elements one might expect from a silver screen crime caper – and just seven years after Markowitz’s death, that movie hit theaters. Alpha Dog, directed by Nick Cassavetes and starring Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Shawn Hatosy, Ben Foster, Olivia Wilde, Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis, brought in more than $32 million worldwide. The story is based on the events surrounding Markowitz’s murder.

But in addition to telling the tragic story of the events surrounding the murder, the movie also presented plenty of trouble for the prosecution down the road.

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, among other things, giving producers his files. Zonen explained he had done so because he hoped more publicity would help flush Hollywood out of hiding, as the movie was made prior to the fugitive’s capture. But Blatt argued that as a result of these actions, not only should Zonen be thrown off the case so should the entire Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office. Hill decided that shouldn’t be the case, but Hollywood’s team won a victory when the court of appeals decided Zonen should be recused.

That decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court, and in a decision rendered just more than a year ago, the high court decided that while Zonen’s behavior was “highly inappropriate and disturbing,” he shouldn’t be removed. Still, DA Christie Stanley decided to drop Zonen from the case regardless to eliminate any chance of problems in the future.

Taking the reins for the prosecution is Lynn, the district attorney office’s chief trial deputy. He’s been on the case for roughly two years, preparing in case the state Supreme Court’s decision went against his office. Aiding Lynn is another veteran prosecutor in the office, Hans Almgren.

The trial resumes in front of Brian Hill in Department 14 at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

To read The Independent‘s previous coverage of the Jesse James Hollywood case, click here.


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