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Kidnap Victim Could Have Fled, Witnesses Testify

Trial: Nicholas Markowitz stayed with captors because he thought he would be taken home, they say. He was later killed.

November 01, 2001|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — After he was kidnapped and taken to Santa Barbara, Nicholas Markowitz was barely guarded and could easily have fled, two witnesses testified Wednesday.

Markowitz, a soft-spoken 15-year-old from West Hills, chose not to go because he believed his abductors were about to take him home, said Kelly Carpenter and Natasha Adams, two teenagers who met the boy in Santa Barbara. But instead of going home, he was marched into the mountains and shot nine times.

"He did not seem restrained at all," Carpenter said during cross-examination. "He was left alone with just me and could have walked away if he had chosen."

The alleged gunman, Ryan Hoyt, is on trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court for the August 2000 kidnapping and murder. If convicted, the 22-year-old could be sentenced to death.

Prosecutors contend that Markowitz was killed after a group of young dope dealers who were angry at his older half-brother snatched him off the street. Once they got to Santa Barbara, the theory goes, they decided to shoot him in an ill-conceived attempt to avoid jail time for kidnapping.

The machine-gun slaying stunned the west San Fernando Valley, where the victim and four of the five accused killers grew up. Before Markowitz died, at least 11 people--including two attorneys--learned that the boy had been kidnapped, prosecutors say. Yet none of them went to the police.

Six young people who saw Markowitz with his alleged captors have testified this week, with many of them saying they did not call police because they feared for their safety and were not certain that Markowitz truly was in danger.

But two days after the kidnapping, two girls who knew that the boy had been kidnapped confronted their friend, 17-year-old Graham Pressley of Goleta. They asked him what he and the others were planning to do with Markowitz.

"He told me that they had no idea, but that they weren't going to hurt him in any way," Adams testified. She said Pressley told her that Jesse Hollywood, the alleged leader of a small band of marijuana dealers based in West Hills, had offered to pay another Santa Barbara friend, Jesse Rugge, to kill Nicholas.

"I remember being shocked and appalled," she said. "I asked what they were going to do. He said, 'We don't know what to do because now we're all in danger.'

"I told Graham we were in over our heads--but he told me not to tell anybody because something could happen to Jesse Rugge, something could happen to Graham, something could even happen to us."

Second 911 Call Is Described

Other witnesses have testified that they were afraid of Hollywood, an intimidating man with a cruel sense of humor and penchant for guns. Hollywood, Rugge and Pressley have all been charged with kidnapping and killing Markowitz, along with Hoyt and another friend of the group, William Skidmore of Simi Valley.

Hollywood, 21, fled after the killing and has not been caught. The others have pleaded not guilty and remain in jail awaiting trial, although Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen said he hopes to reach a plea agreement soon with Skidmore.

In other testimony Wednesday, a young woman who witnessed Markowitz's kidnapping described seeing a group of men pummeling the boy as he cowered on the ground.

Rosalia de la Cruz Gitau, a UCLA student whose parents live in West Hills, said she saw the men pick up the victim and throw him into a van.

She called 911 from a cell phone within a minute, she said.

"At first I thought it was some kind of gang initiation, but when I saw them pick him up and throw him into van . . . that's what I thought warranted the [911] call," she testified.

Gitau's account closely matches one given Tuesday by another witness, who also called 911.

In one of the troubling missteps that characterizes the case, Los Angeles police failed to track down the van used in the kidnapping--although they had the license plate number--and did not link the second emergency call to the initial report.

Gitau testified that although she gave the 911 operator her name and phone number, police did not contact her.

The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating its response to the kidnapping, and Chief Bernard C. Parks has recommended discipline for two officers involved.

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