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Jury Acquits Teen of Kidnapping Valley Boy, Deadlocks on Murder

July 31, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Santa Barbara jury acquitted Graham Pressley of kidnapping Tuesday but deadlocked on whether he participated in the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old West Hills boy in August 2000.

Pressley, 19, of Goleta, is the third of five young men--most of them childhood friends who met playing baseball in the west San Fernando Valley--to stand trial in the abduction of Nicholas Markowitz near his family's home and his shooting death two days later in Santa Barbara County.

Prosecutors will have to decide whether to retry Pressley on the murder charge. The jury of seven men and five women voted 8 to 4 in favor of acquittal on that count.

"We went into it knowing that this was a very difficult case," said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen.

Since his arrest, Pressley has told authorities "that he feared for his own life at all times" during the crime, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Michael Ganschow.

Markowitz was abducted near his home Aug. 6, 2000, and driven to Santa Barbara, where he was killed two days later, authorities said. His body was found nearly a week later by hikers.

Prosecutors allege Pressley helped dig a shallow grave for Markowitz near a campsite area called Lizard's Mouth and later that night led the victim and others back to the area, where the killing occurred.

Zonen said he does not believe Pressley's version of events, but to disprove that the defendant feared for his life "is very difficult."

Ganschow said he has already asked Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge William L. Gordon to dismiss the charges against his client. Gordon set an Aug. 15 status hearing on the case.

In November, another jury found that Ryan James Hoyt, 23, of West Hills should be executed for shooting Markowitz nine times. Hoyt is awaiting sentencing, as is Jesse Taylor Rugge, 22, of Santa Barbara, who was convicted in May of kidnapping Markowitz for ransom but not of killing him. Rugge faces life in prison.

The fourth defendant, William Skidmore, 22, of Simi Valley, is awaiting trial, and alleged ringleader Jesse James Hollywood, 22, of West Hills has been charged with kidnapping and killing Markowitz, but he has eluded authorities.

Prosecutors say Hollywood orchestrated the abduction because Markowitz's half brother, Benjamin, 24, owed him $1,200 for drugs.

They say Hollywood later ordered Markowitz killed after learning from his attorney the severe penalty for kidnapping.

At his murder trial, Hoyt testified that he didn't shoot Markowitz, contradicting a videotaped statement he made to police shortly after his August 2000 arrest. In the taped interview, Hoyt told detectives, "The only thing I did was kill him."

Rugge testified at his trial that Hoyt forced him and Pressley to go the campsite and that neither wanted Markowitz to be killed.

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