By the time Ben Markowitz began testifying at the Jesse James Hollywood trial on Tuesday morning, his name had already come up many times before, usually in a negative context.
In the first days of the trial, Markowitz’s father discussed the difficulties of raising him. The defendant’s former girlfriend Michelle Lasher said he had threatened her and Hollywood’s lives in a voicemail, and the prosecution read a transcript in which she described him as a “slimy piece of shit.” Even Ben Markowitz himself seemed to agree: “To be honest, I was a fucking dickhead back then,” he said, referring to the time period of August 2000.
During that time, Markowitz’s younger half-brother, Nicholas, was kidnapped and killed by a group of people who Ben Markowitz dealt drugs with. Hollywood, who now faces the death penalty for allegedly masterminding the crime, was not present for the actual murder. However, he and Ben Markowitz were apparently involved in a feud that now could strongly determine the outcome of this case.
In the prosecution’s theory, Hollywood kidnapped Nicholas Markowitz and later orchestrated his murder in revenge for a $1,200 drug debt owed by Ben Markowitz. The defense, meanwhile, has avoided discussing the drug debt, instead claiming that Hollywood was afraid of Ben Markowitz. In the defense’s cross-examination of witnesses who knew Hollywood, attorneys James Blatt and Alex Kessel focused on voicemails that Markowitz left the defendant, in which he threatened the whole Hollywood family. Multiple witnesses have testified that Hollywood claimed that Ben Markowitz broke the windows in his home and had killed his dog.
On Tuesday in court, however, Ben Markowitz painted a different picture with prosecuting attorney Josh Lynn. Markowitz gladly admitted that he “walked around with a chip on [his] shoulder,” but he also portrayed Hollywood as the instigator of the feud. Back when the defendant and the witness were still friends in 1999, Markowitz’s acquaintance from San Diego owed Hollywood $2,000. With duct tape, a bat, and a duffel bag in the back of Hollywood’s car, he and Ben Markowitz drove to San Diego to collect the money.
The acquaintance gave Hollywood the lead on some ecstasy pills, and Markowitz then agreed to take on the debt himself, in hopes of making a profit from the drugs. Only $800 worth of Markowitz’s’ share was paid off when he discovered that the pills didn’t work. But Hollywood and Markowitz had been friends for almost a year, and they continued socializing despite the money. Approximately two months later, however, Hollywood ate at the restaurant where Markowitz’s fiancee was waitressing. Instead of leaving a bill, Hollywood left a note on a napkin that said “Take this off Ben’s debt. ” Upon hearing this, Markowitz explained, “I was really mad, I thought we were friends.”
From then on, the tension between the witness and the defendant escalated, but rarely in face-to-face contact. Rather, the witness said that Hollywood avoided Markowitz in person, but threatened him through other people. Markowitz allegedly responded to the restaurant incident by leaving a threatening voicemail. He then received threatening voicemails back on behalf of the defendant, but the caller was William Skidmore, who was recently released from prison for his involvement in the kidnapping. Markowitz said that he didn’t threaten the entire Hollywood family until coming home one day to see Hollywood and Ryan Hoyt, who is on death row for shooting the victim nine times, waiting outside his home in Northridge. But there was no physical confrontation, and Markowitz responded by leaving another threatening voicemail.
Markowitz testified that, during the three-day period after his brother was kidnapped, Hollywood never tried to contact him. Markowitz, who said he regularly hung out with his younger brother but discouraged him from following in his own footsteps, allegedly had no idea where his brother was when Nicholas disappeared on August 6, 2000. After receiving a tip that Hollywood might be the one behind the disappearance, the witness left a “non-confrontational” voicemail for Hollywood. Markowitz said that Hollywood never responded.
Markowitz’s testimony contradicts many claims that the defendant’s former girlfriend made in her heated testimony several weeks earlier. She claimed that Hollywood only owned a gun to protect himself, because he lived in a bad neighborhood.
Markowitz, meanwhile, described Hollywood’s home in West Hills as a nice neighborhood. He said that Hollywood also drove a Mercedes and a custom Honda that was once featured in a magazine. In his most incriminating testimony he made on Tuesday, Ben Markowitz claimed that Hollywood owned three guns and often carried in an HK-40 in his waist band. He alleged that Hollywood also owned a Tech-9, which is the same weapon that Hoyt used to shoot the victim.
The defense, who, outside the presence of the jury, has described Markowitz as “a poisonous, horrific individual,” should begin cross-examining him on Wednesday. First, the prosecution must complete the direct examination, which will resume on Wednesday at 9 a.m.