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Jurors Convict 1st Defendant in Kidnap-Slaying of Valley Teen

Court: Ryan Hoyt, 22, is found guilty after eight hours of deliberation. Prosecutors seek the death penalty. Four others also have been charged in the case.

November 21, 2001|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — After deliberating for eight hours, a jury found Ryan Hoyt guilty Tuesday of kidnapping and first-degree murder in the abduction killing of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz.

The jurors will reconvene next week for the penalty phase of the case. Prosecutors are seeking a death sentence.

Hoyt, 22, stared stonily at the Santa Barbara County Superior Court clerk as she read the verdict. Across the courtroom, Markowitz's mother bowed her head and cried.

Later, Markowitz's parents and other relatives hugged and wept outside the courtroom.

"It's like I don't want this [trial] to end, because then I have to accept the truth," the victim's mother, Susan Markowitz, said. "And the truth is that Nick is not coming back."

Hoyt's parents were not in court for the verdict, but his aunt and grandparents were in attendance. They were prepared for the verdict, as was Hoyt, the defendant's grandfather said.

"I think Ryan had it all squared away in his mind," said the grandfather, who declined to give his name.

The verdict capped a three-week trial that hinged on the defendant's videotaped confession given shortly after his arrest last year.

Hoyt, one of five men charged in the Aug. 8, 2000, killing, was accused of taking the West Hills teenager into the mountains above Santa Barbara and shooting him nine times. Hoyt was the first to stand trial.

Defense attorneys portrayed Hoyt as a misfit from a troubled family who often was belittled by friends. A failure even as a drug dealer--he smoked too much marijuana to turn a profit--Hoyt said he had lied about killing Markowitz to protect his friends.

Hoyt testified for two days in his own defense, insisting that he had no memory of being interrogated by Santa Barbara sheriff's detectives.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen seized upon the amnesia claim to shred the defendant's credibility.

He called an expert psychiatric witness who testified that complete memory loss is very rare, and not consistent with Hoyt's sharp recall of other events. Another prosecution witness, one of Hoyt's boyhood friends, told the jury the defendant had admitted shooting Markowitz.

The jury of seven women and five men got the case Monday and reached a decision by noon Tuesday.

Cheri Owen, one of Hoyt's attorneys, said she was disappointed with the verdict but believed the jurors were fair.

"They took the facts. They took the evidence that was presented to them. And you can't change the facts," she said. "It was an uphill battle because of the taped confession."

The Markowitz slaying horrified many in the west San Fernando Valley, where the boy and many of his accused killers had grown up. The slaying was triggered by a dispute between two marijuana dealers and former friends Jesse Hollywood and Benjamin Markowitz, Nicholas' older half-brother, authorities say.

Hollywood and a group of buddies allegedly were driving through West Hills last summer when they saw Nicholas walking along a street. Nicholas, who was about to start his junior year at El Camino Real High School, was beaten, thrown into a van and driven to Santa Barbara, detectives say.

His captors held him in several houses for two days, often allowing him to join them as they smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, witnesses said. At one point, Markowitz said he would not try to escape because he believed the kidnappers would take him home, according to testimony.

Prosecutors said Markowitz was killed after Hollywood consulted a lawyer and learned of the severe penalty for kidnapping.

Three others accused of abducting and killing Markowitz have pleaded not guilty and await trial. They are Jesse Rugge of Santa Barbara and William Skidmore of Simi Valley, both 21, and Graham Pressley, 18, of Goleta. Hollywood, the 21-year-old West Hills man accused of ordering the killing, fled after the shooting and remains a fugitive.

Owen said she hopes Hoyt's youth and troubled family background will persuade jurors to spare his life. He has no previous criminal record.

As the Markowitz family slowly filed out of court, Nicholas' grandmother began to cry.

"It's beyond belief," said Barbara Markowitz of West Hills. "I still look down and see our name all the time in the newspapers, and I can't believe this has happened to our family."

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