MISSION HILLS — Hundreds of mourners came to a sun-glazed hillside Friday to bury 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz and listen to the words of the rabbi:
"There are deaths, such as this, when we can't shake an angry finger at God and say, 'Why?' We can only look to ourselves."
Rabbi James Lee Kaufman seemed to get to the heart of a mystery that police consider solved--one suspect has confessed--but that no one may ever truly comprehend.
How did a 15-year-old boy come to be bound and shot in a grave allegedly dug by the friends of his older half-brother? How did a bunch of adolescent baseball players grow into adults accused of kidnapping and murder? How did parents, including a father at the house where Nicholas was allegedly held for two days before he was killed, fail to see the signs of impending tragedy?
Authorities investigating Nicholas' Aug. 8 death in the rugged hills east of Santa Barbara don't yet have all the answers. But they have charged four young men with murder and kidnapping and are looking for a fifth. Included in the group are four who had played in the same San Fernando Valley youth baseball league with Benjamin Markowitz, 22, Nicholas' half-brother.
One of the suspects confessed to helping kidnap Nicholas from his West Hills neighborhood, according to papers filed Friday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. After walking Nicholas up a rugged trail two days later, the suspect said, a companion shot the boy as he lay in a makeshift grave beneath a manzanita bush.
On Friday, about 300 or so people, perhaps half of them teenagers, packed the chapel at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills for the boy's funeral and then trudged up a grassy hill in 90-plus degree heat to witness his burial.
Six young pallbearers carried the casket, three of them weeping as they marched.
Nicholas would have been a junior at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills this fall. "He always made me laugh," said Elizabeth Harless, 16, of Chatsworth. "Even when I was mad at him, I couldn't stay mad for long."
One 17-year-old friend who asked not to be identified said: "You wake up and realize that all the drug dealing has to stop, because a nice guy like Nick had to die."
On its surface, the crime was straightforward, if unusually coldblooded.
According to sheriff's investigators in Santa Barbara, Nicholas was kidnapped Aug. 6 by five young men in order to put pressure on Benjamin Markowitz. Investigators said the older Markowitz told them he owed one of the suspects, Jesse James Hollywood, $36,000 for marijuana.
"It's my fault that my 15-year-old brother's dead," Benjamin Markowitz said in an interview Friday with KNBC-TV Channel 4. He said during the interview that he owed Hollywood only $1,200.
His eyes welling with tears, he said he had known the suspects since childhood. "I mean, I couldn't even fathom anyone doing that, especially people that I grew up with, laughed with, cried with," he said. "I mean, these are, like, my friends."
Drugs apparently were common to the group of friends. Even Nicholas had been caught with marijuana at his former school, Chatsworth High, apparently forcing his transfer to El Camino, according to Santa Barbara sheriff's officials.
On Aug. 6, Nicholas was brought to the Santa Barbara home of Barron Rugge, the father of one of the suspects. Rugge, who manages a greenhouse at UC Santa Barbara, told The Times he thought Nicholas was a guest of his son's and that the younger boy showed no signs of being held against his will during the two days he was there.
The suspects believed they would face kidnapping charges if they released Nicholas, authorities said, so they decided to kill him.
Driving into the mountains east of Santa Barbara, three of the suspects--Ryan James Hoyt, 21, of West Hills; Jesse Taylor Rugge, 20, of Santa Barbara, and Graham Pressley, 17, of Goleta--parked alongside a popular trail that is known as a party spot among area teenagers, authorities said.
A fourth suspect, William Skidmore, 20, of Simi Valley, and Hollywood, who remains at large, were not at the scene, authorities said.
Nicholas' hands were bound with duct tape, and he was allegedly forced to walk about a mile along the rugged dirt trail, around boulders and past thick stands of brush, until he reached the spot where the suspects had dug his grave beneath an overarching manzanita bush, investigators said.
Only Hoyt and Rugge accompanied Nicholas, investigators said, with Pressley staying behind in the car. Authorities said they believe Hoyt then fired nine shots into the boy's head and torso, with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun, stopping only after it jammed. He is believed to have thrown the gun on top of Nicholas, who was later covered with dirt. Hikers noticed an odor a few days later, leading to the discovery of the body.
On Friday, a bright orange "X" painted by sheriff's investigators marked a boulder near the makeshift grave, and the odor of death still hung in the air.