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Fugitive Kept Low Profile in Quiet Brazilian Beach Town

Murder suspect Jesse James Hollywood is returned to Santa Barbara after his arrest.

March 11, 2005|Henry Chu and Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writers

SAQUAREMA, Brazil — People in this placid surfing town knew him as Miguel, the young gringo who lived with his Brazilian girlfriend and jogged on the beach with his two pit bulls.

He seemed to drink a lot, kept to himself and spoke hardly a word in his American-accented Portuguese.

When he did, neighbors said, it was often in a domestic quarrel or, once, in a drunken spat with customers in the bar across the street from the small beach house he shared with his girlfriend.

"He always had his head down.... He never said anything," said Walma Lindberg da Silva, who lived next door. "I told my husband I thought there was something wrong about him."

But that vague unease did not prepare Da Silva for the news on her television Thursday: "Miguel" was actually Jesse James Hollywood, a fugitive and alleged drug dealer from the United States accused of kidnapping and killing 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in a crime that made headlines five years ago.

Despite being one of California's most wanted men, Hollywood was able to elude an international manhunt in this town near Rio de Janeiro. He told people that he worked as an English tutor, but Brazilian authorities said he actually received $1,200 monthly checks from his parents in California -- enough to live a comfortable life.

Using an Interpol warrant, Brazilian authorities arrested Hollywood, 25, on Tuesday at a shopping center just after he and his girlfriend sat down at an outdoor table. As he was led away in handcuffs, witnesses said his girlfriend cried: "My son! My son! I have a son with him!"

Reached by a reporter Thursday at their home, the woman declined to comment.

"I'm not feeling well. I'm pregnant," she said, only the top of her face visible from behind the locked wooden gates of the house on Avenida Oceanica.

Brazilian officials said American investigators had warned them of Hollywood's presence in the country in 2002, after monitoring phone calls from his parents.

After the arrest, the Brazilian officials determined that Hollywood's identification papers were fakes and turned him over to United States authorities. No formal extradition was necessary, because Hollywood was deemed an immigration violator, investigators said. Although he has refused to cooperate with authorities and has denied his identity, FBI Agent Richard Garcia said U.S. officials had used fingerprints to establish that he was Hollywood.

He landed at Los Angeles International Airport early Thursday morning and was being held in Santa Barbara County Jail on charges of kidnapping, conspiracy and murder.

Not-Guilty Plea Seen

Hollywood's attorney, James E. Blatt of Encino, said his client would plead not guilty to all the charges today in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

The fugitive's capture comes five years after he and four friends, who police described as a band of drug dealers operating in the western San Fernando Valley, allegedly kidnapped and later killed Nicholas because the boy's half brother hadn't repaid a drug debt.

Though the accomplices were quickly captured, Hollywood remained on the run despite a $50,000 reward and segments about him on TV's "America's Most Wanted." Detectives followed up leads in Colorado, Canada and Mexico, but were unable to find him. Authorities now believe that he had been hiding in various parts of South America for four years.

Authorities said he first entered that country with a fake Canadian passport, landing in Rio, where he stayed for a time, making pocket money by passing out fliers for a local bar. Brazilian authorities said Hollywood used forged identity papers with the name of Michael Costa Giroux.

In mid-2002, the FBI sent photographs and video footage of Hollywood, according to Wanderley Martins, an agent in the Brazilian federal police. Acting on a tip, officers tried to nab Hollywood at Rio's Sao Bento Monastery, but the lead turned out to be false.

The FBI monitored phone conversations with Hollywood's parents. Those calls indicated that he had moved to an area outside Rio called the Region of the Lakes, a string of lake- and seaside resort towns popular with vacationing Brazilians, investigators said.

Eventually, he settled in Saquarema's Itauna Beach neighborhood and maintained a low profile. About the biggest events there are surfing tournaments on the sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean, waters so well-known for exciting waves that real-time surf conditions are posted online.

Perhaps because of its resemblance to the Southern California coast, perhaps because of the anonymity it afforded -- or both -- Hollywood had lived in Saquarema about a year, in a slightly rundown, one-story house 20 paces from the beach.

He was "more than quiet," said a neighbor, who declined to give his name. "He'd sit there [in a bar] with a beer, alone, not saying anything." At most, he would exchange a curt "Bom dia" or "Boa tarde."

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