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The Last Days of Nick Markowitz

Slaying: West Hills youth was held hostage while others partied, grand jury transcript reveals. Tragic chain of events could easily have been interrupted--but wasn't.

December 10, 2000|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hours before he was killed, Nick Markowitz thought he was finally going home.

It had been a strange, often scary two-day odyssey since a group of young men had snatched him off the street in his West Hills neighborhood and carted him up the coast to Santa Barbara, according to testimony before a Santa Barbara County grand jury released last week.

The kidnappers told Nick that his older half-brother Ben owed one of them drug money, the grand jury transcript says, and they were taking the 15-year-old hostage until Ben paid the debt.

Nick had been beaten up, thrown into a van, and later blindfolded and bound. But after the most threatening guy in the bunch took off--a tough-talking 20-year-old named Jesse James Hollywood--he'd been allowed to amble around some of the houses where he was taken, free to eat or watch TV.

The 750-page transcript, which provides the basis for this story, offers the most complete account yet of Nick Markowitz's kidnapping and murder. Based on testimony taken in closed court sessions in October, it sketches a tragic portrait of the boy's last days--when the pendulum seemed to swing wildly between the laid-back vibe of teenagers hanging out and the ominous sense that Nick was in terrible danger.

Much of the time he was barely guarded by his captors, and had he realized how dire his plight was, authorities say, he probably could have escaped.

On Tuesday night, Aug. 8, the pendulum appeared to be swaying back in Nick's favor. At a small party at a State Street hotel in Santa Barbara fueled by rum and Coke, cigarettes and marijuana, Nick and another teenage boy went swimming in the outdoor pool, according to testimony from a 17-year-old Santa Barbara girl who was there.

Over and over, the girl told the grand jury, one of Nick's alleged abductors, 20-year-old Jesse Rugge, had assured him, "I'm going to take you home. I'll put you on a Greyhound. I'm going to get you home." The girl's name is being withheld by The Times because she is a minor.

Nick, she said, believed Rugge.

"He seemed happy," she said. "I talked to him about it and he said that he would tell his grandkids about it, just the story."

But a few hours later, Nick was dead.

Authorities say Rugge and another man, 21-year-old Ryan Hoyt, marched the boy into the mountains in the middle of the night and that Hoyt shot him nine times beside a narrow trail. Graham Pressley, the skinny 17-year-old who had joined Nick in the swimming pool, was there too, authorities say. He had allegedly helped dig the grave and was waiting in a car at the foot of the trail when he heard the burst of gunfire.

Today, all three are behind bars, awaiting trial on kidnapping and murder charges in Santa Barbara, where the grand jury returned indictments after the October hearings. Also in custody and facing similar charges is another friend of the group, William Skidmore, 20, of Simi Valley, who police say helped kidnap Nick. Hoyt, Rugge, and Skidmore have pleaded not guilty; Pressley has delayed entering a plea in a bid to have his case transferred to Juvenile Court.

But in an ironic twist, Hollywood--the alleged marijuana dealer and mastermind of the crime--has managed to elude a nationwide manhunt. He is still running.

A Kidnapping on a Quiet Sunday

Even before the white van squealed to a halt beside him as he walked down the street, Nick Markowitz was in trouble. He'd had another run-in with his parents the night before, when he came home shortly before midnight with something bulging in his back pocket.

His parents confronted him and Nick ran out of the house, his father, Jeff Markowitz, testified.

He'd run away before, this dark-haired El Camino Real High School student with a dramatic flair and a taste for marijuana. He idolized his big brother Ben, his father continued in his testimony, a worrisome bond that troubled even Ben, an acknowledged drug dealer known to win more than his share of fights. When Nick ran away, he'd run to Ben.

Nick eventually returned home that night, and his parents agreed that because it was late they'd talk to him in the morning. But when his mother went to wake him around 11 a.m. the next day, Aug. 6, Nick was already gone.

He walked down Ingomar Street and headlong, police say, into a long-running power struggle between Ben, 22, and his onetime friend Jesse Hollywood, who lived nearby. According to testimony given by Ben, by Hollywood's father Jack, and by others, the two had been at odds for months over a series of slights involving a $1,200 drug debt Ben owed Hollywood, as well as a series of threatening messages left on both men's voicemail and a window Ben had smashed at Hollywood's house.

Investigators from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department have said that Ben owed $36,000.

Detectives believe that Hollywood and his pals--boyhood friends who grew up playing baseball together in the West Valley--were on their way to the Markowitz family's house to break windows in retaliation when they ran into Nick.

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