A tense time on the stand finally came to an end Friday for Chas Saulsbury, a witness in the death penalty murder trial of his former friend Jesse James Hollywood, accused of ordering the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in August 2000.
Saulsbury was at his home in Colorado when Hollywood showed up at his door shortly after Markowitz’s death. From there, he drove Hollywood to Las Vegas and then on to Los Angeles, a trip during which Hollywood allegedly spilled the beans about what had happened to Markowitz.
Often looking distraught on the stand (and crying afterward one day, according to one attorney), Saulsbury explained that he didn’t expect to be on the stand for the better part of the week, and the day after he arrived in Santa Barbara he caught word that his dog was sick. This news, he said, came just one day after Hollywood’s attorney James Blatt asked for Saulsbury’s address. The dog was “fed some sort of poisoning,” and was very sick and bleeding, Saulsbury said, implying that perhaps the defense had something to do with the sickness, much to the surprise of Blatt.
After expressing all this at the prompting of questions from prosecutor Josh Lynn, Saulsbury faced Blatt. “Are you saying that I actually called you? Did I call you?” Blatt asked. “No,” Saulsbury said, explaining it was really an investigator from Blatt’s office. “If I called and asked for your address, wouldn’t that be a threat?” Blatt asked. “That’s the way I took it,” Saulsbury replied, saying he would be going home to put the dog – whose sickness, doctors told him, was consistent with rat poisoning – down.
Earlier in the day, Saulsbury, during cross-examination, admitted he didn’t tell police everything he knew about the murder to avoid getting himself in trouble for being an accomplice. Many times throughout his testimony, he contradicted his story about the sequence of events, as well as what he was told by Hollywood and what he read in a newspaper article.
Blatt clearly rattled Saulsbury with his questioning, making him not want to cooperate with the questions. But Judge Brian Hill threatened to bring Saulsbury back on Tuesday, May 26, meaning he would have to stay through the weekend. “I’m not going to tolerate your continued disobedience of my orders,” the judge told the witness.
After Saulsbury stepped off the stand, Kelly Carpenter, 25, stepped up. A 16-year-old at the time, she was friends with Graham Pressley and Jesse Rugge, both of whom were previously charged and convicted in this case. Rugge is serving a life sentence while Pressley was recently released from a juvenile facility at age 25. Carpenter testified at their trials, as well as the trial of Ryan Hoyt, who was convicted of shooting Markowitz nine times near Lizard’s Mouth in the Santa Barbara foothills. The prosecution alleges that the kidnapping and murder came as a result of a drug debt owed to Hollywood.
Carpenter, who had reviewed transcripts of her testimony in previous cases and indicated she was relying on that information for much of her testimony, said she, her best friend Natasha Adams, Pressley, and Rugge would get together often that summer to hang out and smoke marijuana. On August 7, 2000, she arrived at Adams’ house to find Markowitz there. Hollywood was also present with his girlfriend. At one point, she heard Hollywood, in a “joking manner” tell his girlfriend they could tie Markowitz up and throw him in the back of the car while they had dinner. “My heart skipped a beat,” she said, and she ended up leaving. “I felt uncomfortable.”
The next day she and Adams went to Rugge’s house, where Pressley, Markowitz, and Rugge all were hanging out. She testified that she was concerned for Markowitz at this point, but that the boy wasn’t upset and that no one was physically confining him. “He said he wasn’t worried about it,” she said. “This would be a story he could tell his grandkids.”
She later overheard an agitated and frustrated Rugge telling Markowitz: “I want to take you home, I want to get you a bus ride home. I don’t want to be a babysitter. I just better not have the police show up at my door.” A calm Markowitz assured him they wouldn’t.
Later, the group hitched a ride with Pressley’s mother to the Lemon Tree Inn, and partied in a hotel room for awhile. When she left that night, it was the last time Carpenter would see Markowitz until newspaper reports came out days later.
The defense attorney cross-examined Carpenter, and immediately cut to the chase. “Did you feel like you were part of a group to keep Nick Markowitz in a specific location?” he asked. “No,” she replied. She also never saw Hollywood hit or threaten the teen, and there were plenty of times when the boy could have left, including one time it was just her and him in a grocery store parking lot and she encouraged him to leave. In fact, several times she encouraged him to leave.
Markowitz was partaking in the drinking and smoking marijuana just as everyone else, and Carpenter, though aware of the circumstances, was never told by anyone to not act suspicious or draw attention to the group. “I didn’t feel like what I saw was a kidnapping,” she said.
Carpenter will return to the stand Tuesday. Hill indicated both sides should be ready for Rugge to testify this week, whether it is Tuesday or later. The judge hasn’t made a ruling on whether Rugge, currently in the Santa Barbara County Jail, will be forced to testify, but he warned that he was leaning more toward Rugge getting on the witness stand than not.
The prosecution planned to give immunity to Rugge, but the defense objected, because Rugge has given conflicting testimony in the past. The defense has argued that it wasn’t fair to grant immunity to someone who perjured himself and admitted to it. “They’re calling the witnesses they pick and choose what they want,” defense co-counsel Alex Kessel said. “The prosecution is using known perjurers, known liars.” Hill, however, said it wasn’t unusual for a witness to lie in his testimony when he is the one on trial.
Hill will make a decision prior to testimony sometime this week. Expected to testify Tuesday are Adams and Richard Hoeflinger, a friend of Rugge’s and witness to Markowitz’s alleged kidnapping.
The trial continues Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. For previous stories, visit independent.com/hollywood.