A Santa Barbara County judge sentenced a 22-year-old man to life in prison Tuesday for his role in the abduction and murder of a 15-year-old West Hills boy.
Jesse Rugge of Santa Barbara, one of five young men charged in the crimes, was convicted in May of kidnapping Nicholas Markowitz on Aug. 6, 2000, near his home, but was acquitted in the boy's murder that occurred two days later outside Santa Barbara.
Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Zonen told the judge that Rugge was involved in the abduction and murder from start to finish. He drove the van used to kidnap Markowitz and stayed with the boy throughout the ordeal, often at the Rugge family home.
"The actual killing would not have happened without Mr. Rugge," Zonen said.
But Rugge's attorney, Michael A. Carty, argued in court that the jury did not find his client guilty of aiding and abetting in the murder and so he should be sentenced to probation instead of state prison.
Carty described Rugge as a misguided youth devastated by his parents' divorce, "a budding artist" and a well-behaved inmate who is remorseful for his crime.
He said Rugge also fears for his safety in prison because Ryan Hoyt, who was convicted of murdering Markowitz, has openly threatened to kill him.
In denying the motion, Superior Court Judge William L. Gordon said he took into consideration the seriousness of the offense and the victim's vulnerability.
Kidnapping for ransom carries a mandatory life sentence. Rugge will be eligible for parole in five years, although Carty was skeptical that his client would get a prompt parole hearing and be released from prison at that time.
Gordon said Rugge had several opportunities to help Markowitz escape but did nothing.
"He lured Mr. Markowitz into a sense of security, which he had no right to feel," the judge said. He added that Rugge also should have known when Hoyt showed up with an automatic weapon that Markowitz's life was in danger.
Then, after the killing, Gordon said that Rugge still did nothing, helping his friends to cover up their crimes while authorities were searching for the missing boy. Hikers found Markowitz's body nearly a week later.
Authorities say Rugge and the others kidnapped and killed Markowitz in retaliation for a debt the boy's older half-brother, Benjamin, owed their alleged ringleader, Jesse James Hollywood, 22.
Also Tuesday, Gordon denied a motion to dismiss a murder charge against Graham Pressley, who was acquitted of kidnapping in July. The jury deadlocked on the murder charge, voting 8 to 4 in favor of acquittal. A new trial is set for Oct. 21.
Prosecutors say Pressley, now 19, of Goleta 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.
Earlier this month, William Skidmore, 22, of Simi Valley was sentenced to nine years in state prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping and robbing Markowitz.
Hoyt, 23, of West Hills is set to be sentenced Nov. 12. A separate jury decided last November that Hoyt should be executed for shooting Markowitz nine times.
Hollywood, an alleged West Hills drug dealer, meanwhile, also has been charged in Markowitz's kidnapping and murder, but remains at large. There is a $50,000 reward for his capture.
After Tuesday's hearings, Susan Markowitz said her life ended on the day her only child was killed. She watched as Pressley, who posted bail and is out of custody awaiting trial, was comforted in the hallway by his family.
"It's very difficult to see him go home with his mommy and daddy," she said. "I miss those hugs."