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Jury Returns With Death Verdict for Killer of West Hills Teenager

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Court: Santa Barbara panel takes six hours to reach decision against Ryan Hoyt in the abduction-slaying over a $200 drug debt.

November 30, 2001|TRACY WILSON and SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA BARBARA — A jury Thursday decided Ryan Hoyt should be executed for kidnapping and killing a 15-year-old West Hills boy to settle a $200 drug debt.

The verdict backing a death sentence came after six hours of deliberations by jurors who last week found Hoyt, 22, guilty in the abduction-slaying of Nicholas Markowitz.

Hoyt is one of five men charged in the Aug. 8, 2000, killing. Most of them grew up playing baseball together in the west San Fernando Valley and later formed a loose-knit group of marijuana dealers. The first to stand trial, Hoyt was convicted of taking Markowitz into the hills near Santa Barbara and shooting him nine times to avoid prosecution for the kidnapping. He faced life in prison or the death penalty.

On Thursday, Hoyt sat expressionless as jurors filed into Santa Barbara County Superior Court with a verdict. The foreman handed the bailiff a two-page form, which he passed to the clerk.

Standing before a hushed, crowded courtroom, she announced the decision: Death.

Hoyt showed no reaction. Across the courtroom, Markowitz's mother wiped tears.

Later, after Judge William Gordon excused the jury, Markowitz's parents and other relatives hugged outside the courtroom.

"There is no relief," said Susan Markowitz, the victim's mother. "This is not a sweet victory."

Hoyt's parents were not in court for the verdict.

Cheri Owen, one of Hoyt's attorneys, said she was "dumbfounded" by the jury's recommendation. She had hoped testimony about her client's tumultuous family background would persuade jurors to spare his life. He had no previous criminal record.

Sentencing Hearing Scheduled for January

Now, she said, the defense plans to file briefs in coming weeks to try to persuade the court not to impose the death sentence. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 14.

"We will be pursuing motions on any grounds we can," Owens said.

Thursday's verdict followed a three-day penalty hearing in which defense attorneys portrayed Hoyt as a troubled young man who would do anything to win his friends' approval--even killing a boy he barely knew.

Hoyt's parents and younger brother--a convicted felon serving 12 years in prison for armed robbery--described a dysfunctional family scarred by divorce, violence, alcohol and drug abuse.

After Hoyt's parents split up when he was 5, he was raised by his father and stepmother. Hoyt's father beat his sons, while their stepmother often berated them, according to testimony.

Hoyt's mother testified her former husband had beat her when she was pregnant.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen argued that despite Hoyt's ugly upbringing, his crime was so terrible that he deserved to die. Hoyt, Zonen said, had killed Markowitz to get a $200 drug debt forgiven.

Susan Markowitz took the stand Monday to describe her devastation, a pain so unbearable that she said she has twice tried to kill herself. Some jurors cried as she spoke.

The penalty phase came on the heels of a three-week trial in which Hoyt, testifying in his own defense, insisted he had no memory of confessing to the killing during a videotaped interrogation by Santa Barbara sheriff's detectives.

Prosecutors turned Hoyt's amnesia claim against him by calling an expert psychiatric witness who testified that complete memory loss is very rare and inconsistent with Hoyt's sharp recall of other events.

Authorities say the killing was triggered by a dispute between marijuana dealers and onetime friends Jesse Hollywood and Benjamin Markowitz, Nicholas' older half-brother.

Hollywood and his friends allegedly were driving through West Hills last summer when they saw Nicholas. They beat him and took him to Santa Barbara, detectives say.

Markowitz was held in several houses for two days, but he was rarely restrained and even attended parties with his captors, witnesses said. At one point he 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 Remains Fugitive in Case

Hollywood, the 21-year-old West Hills man accused of ordering the killing, fled after the shooting and remains a fugitive.

After Thursday's verdict, Jeff Markowitz, the victim's father, said family members have increased to $50,000 the award being offered for information leading to the arrest of Hollywood.

"There is one culprit missing," Markowitz said. "I want him found. I want him on trial. . . . He is the one who instigated this."

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