Jesse James Hollywood On Trial: Part One

by Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Jesse James Hollywood On Trial

SANTA BARBARA-Trials are terrible things in that they bring people together. This past Friday, in the afternoon, Jack Hollywood, a brawny man in billowy khaki pants and dark sunglasses, stood in the sun at the top of the Santa Barbara courthouse stairs. His son is accused of kidnapping and ordering the murder of the son of Jeff Markowitz-who stood at the foot of the stairs. The two men stood and looked beyond each other for roughly ten minutes. Hollywood smoked and paced. Markowitz stood with his shoulders rolled back and his hands resting in his pockets.

And earlier, I had been trapped on the landing of a staircase between Jack Hollywood and Jeff Markowitz’s wife, Susan. At last, outside the Spanish-style Santa Barbara courthouse, the two camps segregated, the Markowitzs and the Hollywoods. In a snug black skirt and crisp white blazer, Susan Markowitz remained inches the from the courthouse door, and remained there for most of the afternoon recess, attended to by friends.

Nine years since the body of Nicholas Markowitz was discovered in the hills nearby, his abductor Jesse James Hollywood is finally standing trial.

* * *

This is not the first trial in this murder.

The then-17-year-old boy who dug Nick’s grave was released from prison in 2007. The young man who led Nick on a death march to his shallow grave, off Lizard’s Mouth trail in the mountains above Goleta, the one who duct-taped Nick’s mouth shut, is serving a life sentence. And the man who shot Nick nine times with a Tec-9 is on death row.

Hollywood, who eluded police for 4 years and was extradited from Brazil in 2005, who allegedly ordered Nick’s kidnapping and execution, may also, if convicted, be sentenced to death.

The trial has been so long coming that it has been three years since the movie Alpha Dog, a fictional account of the murder, was released. The numb savagery involved in the murder is the kind of stuff that any amateur sociologist could base a thesis on: the suburbs breed their own brand of wanton boys with too much money and too much time, etc. So Nick Cassavetes did just that. He cast Justin Timberlake as Jesse Rugge, the duct-taper of Hollywood’s crew. The movie was marketed to tweens as Timberlake’s gritty star-turn.

I grew up with Nick Markowitz. We had a three-day hand-holding affair the summer of 7th grade. He was a part of my tight circle of goofy theater kid friends who were transformed into a traumatized fraternity after his murder.

In the summer of 2000, Nick’s older brother Ben owed a $1,200 drug debt to Hollywood. Ben and Jesse-who had played in Little League together-were now feuding.

In a haphazard plan to exact revenge and ransom, Hollywood and his friends kidnapped Nick, who was 15. The boys took Nick to Santa Barbara, where they partied, hung out with girls. Hollywood consulted a retired attorney about the circumstances. Instead of possibly facing a life-sentence for aggravated kidnapping, it was decided that they would kill Nick and make it look as though he disappeared. Ryan Hoyt, also in debt to Hollywood, and now on death row, volunteered to fire the gun.

* * *

The trial started on Monday, May 18, with the usual amount of civility. Throughout the week, that dissolved, due largely to the style of defense attorney James Blatt. In a silk suit, with cropped hair and an ostentatious pinky-ring, Blatt’s tactic is to accuse witnesses of lying, and regularly badgers them until Judge Brian E. Hill intervenes.

Beginning on Tuesday, the second day of the trial, witness for the prosecution Chas Saulsbury took the stand. According to Saulsbury, Hollywood revealed the details of the murder and kidnapping to him just days after police had discovered Nick’s body. Saulsbury’s testimony is meant to bolster the argument that Hollywood not only ordered the capture and execution of Markowitz but also played direct role in the slaying.

On Friday, things erupted. The session opened with the defense playing a tape-recorded interview that detectives conducted with Saulsbury in August of 2000. Saulsbury, dressed casually in flip flops and shorts, with sunglasses resting on top of his tussled hair, sat silently in the witness booth. The defense played the recording in its entirety. The jury-9 women and 3 men-read along on individual printed transcripts.

At the end of the recording, Saulsbury asks detectives, “Was this helpful?”

Hollywood’s defense seized upon this last statement. Blatt insisted that Saulsbury assisted detectives, so that he wouldn’t be considered accessory to the crime.

Saulsbury also said that he regretted having any involvement with his childhood friend Hollywood.

“I was trying to help him, like an idiot,” Saulsbury said.

“You sound angry,” Blatt said.

“I am angry,” said Saulsbury. “A little boy was murdered.”

Judge Hill admonished Saulsbury for repeatedly making statements that were not in direct response to a question.The prosecutor, deputy D.A. Joshua Lynn, later asked Saulsbury if his agitated demeanor was due to factors outside of the courtroom.

Saulsbury said that his wife had received a phone call from Blatt’s private investigator, requesting his home address.

On Thursday-the day after that phone call-Saulsbury’s dog had ingested rat poison and was, he said, “bleeding out of his eyeballs.” He said that, after testifying, he would need to go immediately to the vet and have his dog euthanized.

Blatt began another round of questioning.

“Are you accusing me of poisoning your dog to threaten you?” asked Blatt.

“Yes, I am,” said Saulsbury.

Blatt threw his arms open. “How could you say that?” he asked.

The prosecution, unsurprisingly, objected to this line of questioning. The defense ended their re-cross examination of Saulsbury. Saulsbury asked if he could address the court. Judge Hill said no. Saulsbury rushed out of the courtroom.

Though these outbursts are theatrical-and, to my layperson’s eye, unprofessional-they are welcome. The sobs, finger-pointing, frantic gesticulating; watching Hollywood’s face curve with a smile or going slack when testimony seems unfavorable; all this affords some small level of pathos, or at least drama. It’s satisfying to watch the illusions of impartiality and civility break, and to see a witness’s tribal urge to humiliate the person they believe to be a bad person.

The more a case plays out like a movie, one finds out, complete with mawkish dialogue and grandstanding lawyers, the more realistic and terrifying it seems.