Luxury cars were always rolling up to the three-bedroom, white stucco house Jesse James Hollywood bought for himself in West Hills at the age of 19. Hollywood drove a black Mercedes, neighbors said, or sometimes a racy blue sports car.
He and his friends used to hang out in the frontyard, a bunch of young guys in tank tops and jeans, smoking cigarettes under the elm tree that shaded the lawn. Hollywood's dogs, two pit bulls, romped in the backyard.
But in early August, everything changed at the house on Cohasset Street. Hollywood took off suddenly, telling one neighbor he needed to go because "too many people know where I live."
A few days later, the reason became clear: Hollywood, 20, was wanted in connection with the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz, whose half-brother Benjamin allegedly owed Hollywood $36,000 for marijuana.
Now the subject of a nationwide manhunt, Hollywood is described by those who know him as a popular, athletic kid who loved baseball, not a drug kingpin who masterminded a murder.
But at his deserted house--no more cars, no more dogs--there's a small clue to Hollywood's hasty departure: a jagged hole in one of his front windows.
Shortly before the kidnapping, Hollywood had allegedly taunted Benjamin Markowitz by eating at a restaurant where Markowitz's girlfriend worked and skipping out without paying, said Lt. Mike Burridge of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.
"Put it on Ben's tab," Hollywood told her, according to a police report.
In retaliation, Markowitz, 22, allegedly smashed a window at Hollywood's house.
It was that broken window that sent Hollywood over to Markowitz's family home Aug. 6, the day Nicholas was snatched from his West Hills neighborhood, said H. Russell Halpern, a defense attorney representing one of four defendants already charged in the case.
On the way to the Markowitz house, according to police, Hollywood and his friends spotted Markowitz's younger brother.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing that wasn't well thought out," Halpern said. "[Hollywood] saw this kid and decided to grab him because he was mad at Ben Markowitz. . . . I don't think he had any real plan of what to do with him. It was not some sophisticated crime. He's not some great mastermind."
Robin Leduc remembers watching Hollywood as a boy, darting around the baseball field with her son, Ray, and the other pint-sized ballplayers.
"He was a great little athlete," she said. "We lived for watching those boys play baseball."
Jack Hollywood, Jesse's father, is a longtime coach in the Westhills Baseball league, a family-oriented club in which many parents become close friends as they root for their children or flip hamburgers together during volunteer stints at the snack shack. Hollywood's mom, Laurie, showed up at all of Jesse's games and most of his practices, friends said.
The Hollywoods, who declined to comment on the murder case or their son, are still involved with the league, in which their younger son J.P., who is about 12, plays.
Years ago, Jesse Hollywood played baseball here with three of the others now charged in the kidnapping and execution-style shooting of Nicholas Markowitz: William R. Skidmore, 20, of Simi Valley; Ryan James Hoyt, 21, of West Hills; and Jesse Taylor Rugge, 20, of Santa Barbara. A young friend of Rugge, 17-year-old Graham Pressley of Goleta, faces the same charges. All four have pleaded not guilty.
"Everyone in the community keeps asking, 'What didn't we see?' Nobody can understand this," Leduc said.
A small kid--even today, Hollywood stands only 5 feet 5 and weighs 140 pounds--Jesse was an outgoing boy who liked to joke around.
"He was a real popular kid," said Peter Gunny, 20, who grew up playing baseball with Hollywood. "Everyone knew him and wanted to be friends with him."
The Hollywoods moved briefly to Colorado to start a restaurant business in the mid-1990s, friends said, returning to the west San Fernando Valley in 1995. Still an avid ballplayer, Jesse spent his sophomore year at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, where he played second base on the junior varsity team.
Agile and focused, Jesse was a good player who took his sport seriously, said Bob Ganssle, his coach at El Camino. But Hollywood was asked to leave the school in May 1996, near the end of his sophomore year, after he "blew up" at a teacher.
"It was a fairly serious incident," said Principal Ron Bauer, who declined to elaborate but said the teenager was not arrested during the confrontation.
Jesse transferred to Calabasas High School as a junior and played baseball on the varsity squad, a strong team that won the league championship that year. He wasn't a starting player, but the gritty infielder caught his coach's eye as a pinch hitter.
"He had an uncanny knack for getting on base," said Coach Rick Nathanson. The following year, Nathanson had high hopes for Jesse, but the teenager injured his back and leg before the season started, the coach said.