SANTA BARBARA — A longtime friend of Ryan Hoyt testified Thursday that the murder defendant told him that he killed a 15-year-old West Hills boy and buried him in a ditch.
Casey Sheehan, the star prosecution witness in Hoyt's capital murder trial, said Hoyt confided in him the day after the Aug. 8, 2000, machine-gun slaying of Nicholas Markowitz. The defendant had said "the problem was taken care of," Sheehan testified. "Nick had been killed."
In a later conversation, Sheehan said, Hoyt revealed that "they had shot him and put him in a ditch somewhere up here in Santa Barbara" and "used a bush" to hide the body. Hoyt, a low-level marijuana dealer always short of cash, was carrying several hundred dollars the day after the killing, Sheehan told jurors in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. The pair then went on a shopping spree, with Hoyt buying shoes and several outfits.
The next night--two days before Nicholas' bullet-ridden body was discovered in the hills above Santa Barbara--they threw Hoyt a birthday bash at Sheehan's Northridge apartment. He had turned 21.
Testifying in a low, monotonous voice for nearly two hours, Sheehan barely glanced at his old friend. Sheehan, 23, was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony--a deal that Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen reminded him of when the witness hesitated before answering questions about his conversations with Hoyt.
Sheehan is the first witness to link Hoyt directly to the execution-style slaying. Other witnesses, many of them teenagers or young adults, have described a web of friendships fueled by marijuana. At the group's center was Jesse Hollywood, a cocky drug trafficker who presided over a loose network of other dealers, including Hoyt, according to prosecutors and witnesses.
The prosecutors allege that Hoyt killed Nicholas to satisfy a $1,200 drug debt that Hoyt owed Hollywood, now 21. Hoyt's attorneys claim their client was the scapegoat, a hapless outsider who was relentlessly teased and used to clean Hollywood's house to help pay off his debt. They say Hoyt lied to protect his friends when he told police he had killed Nicholas.
Sheehan's court appearance capped a long day of testimony from several of Hollywood's close associates as well as his father.
John Hollywood, 47, told the jury that he learned hours before Nicholas died that his son had "a major problem" involving a kidnapping. The elder Hollywood--who authorities and some witnesses say dealt drugs with his son--said he cut short a vacation in Big Sur and raced back to Los Angeles to talk to Jesse.
"He said he was involved in something where his life was threatened," a feud involving Nicholas' older half-brother Benjamin Markowitz, said John Hollywood, who denied dealing drugs.
Prosecutors allege that John Hollywood, once a well-known baseball coach in a West Hills youth league, brought his son into "the family business"--drug dealing. They say he was a major marijuana trafficker who supplied the drug to Jesse.
Looking tan but haggard, Hollywood said he never supplied marijuana to his son. He said he is an auto broker. Stephen Hogg, an old family friend and the attorney for John and Jesse Hollywood, testified that he had spoken to Jesse after the alleged kidnapping. The young man showed up at Hogg's Simi Valley home hours before Nicholas was machine-gunned to death, seeking legal advice.
Hogg--compelled to testify by Superior Court Judge William L. Gordon--told the jury that Hollywood said his friends had abducted someone. Hogg said he urged him to go to the police.
"He said no. He was afraid," Hogg testified. Hollywood seemed concerned that Benjamin Markowitz, who had vandalized Hollywood's house after a falling-out involving a drug debt, would come after him.
After Hogg told Hollywood the penalty for kidnapping to extort money was life in prison, he again suggested calling police, the attorney said. "He got more agitated," Hogg said. "He stood up and was pacing around."
After Hollywood left, both his father and his lawyer said, they tried repeatedly to telephone him to locate Nicholas. The next day, John Hollywood said, he met Hoyt in a park and pleaded with him to tell him what was going on, but Hoyt said he did not know.
In an interview with The Times, John Hollywood said the charges against his son have turned his family's life upside-down. Jesse Hollywood fled after Nicholas was killed and remains the San Fernando Valley's most wanted fugitive.
"We're devastated," said his father. "We haven't seen our son. We don't know if he's dead or alive."