Ten years after her son was murdered in the hills outside Santa Barbara in a plot schemed up by a reputed drug dealer looking to settle a debt involving her stepson, Susan Markowitz has written a book about the life and death of the boy she called Nick.
“My Stolen Son: The Nick Markowitz Story” (Berkley, $7.99) recounts Mrs. Markowitz’s journey from joyful mother-of-one to a woman who on at least 16 occasions in the last six years attempted suicide to escape the despair brought on by the loss of her 15-year-old to a world fueled by drugs.
“Nick was my purpose. He was the reason I did what I did every morning,” Mrs. Markowitz, 51, told the News-Press by phone from her home in Santa Clarita. “When he was gone, I found that I was completely lost.”
On Tuesday, Mrs. Markowitz will sign copies of the book, which is secondarily billed as “The True Story Behind the Movie ‘Alpha Dog,’ ” at 7 p.m. at Borders, 900 State St.
Nicholas was shot dead at a place called Lizard’s Mouth, off West Camino Cielo, on Aug. 9, 2000. Hikers found his bullet-riddled body in a shallow grave several days later.
The mastermind of the crime, Jesse James Hollywood, was sentenced to life without parole. The trigger man, Ryan Hoyt, who turned 21 the day after killing the boy, is on death row at San Quentin. Two others involved in the kidnapping and murder served time and are now free.
The events gave rise to a book called “Stolen Boy” — the nickname Nicholas earned from some of the people he encountered during the final days of his life — and later the movie “Alpha Dog.”
Mrs. Markowitz said her story was 10 years in the making — and it won’t be over in just one book.
“It’s basically my journey.”
So, why write it now?
“It just feels right.”
Prior to her son’s murder, Jesse James Hollywood, 20 at the time, was an unknown to Susan Markowitz. Nor had she ever met the 17-year-old Goleta resident who dug her son’s grave, Graham Pressley.
In Oct. 2002, Mr. Pressley was convicted of second-degree murder. He was held in a California Youth Authority facility until 2007, when he turned 25, and has since been released.
The two others associated with Nicholas’ kidnapping and murder came into his life in casual ways.
William Skidmore, 20 at the time, was the son of a woman who cleaned house for a friend of Mrs. Markowitz. He was charged with kidnapping and robbery. As part of a 2002 plea deal, he was sentenced to nine years in state prison. Mr. Skidmore was released last year.
Jesse Rugge, 20 at the time, and now serving life with the possibility of parole for aiding in the kidnapping and execution of Nicholas, “wrestled around under a Christmas tree (with Nicholas) at Hannukah one year when he was about 13 or 14,” recalled Mrs. Markowitz.
“He was Nick’s best friend’s brother’s friend. That’s how Nick kind of knew him and that’s where Nick was given a sense of false security.”
“He, in my opinion, is why Nick is dead,” Mrs. Markowitz added. “He led him to his grave. Nick never felt that somebody who knows you is going to do something so awful.”
Mr. Rugge’s last parole bid, in 2006, was denied.
Nicholas’ murder grew out of an attempt by Mr. Hollywood to collect a $1,200 drug debt from Ben Markowitz, Nicholas’ older stepbrother.
On Aug. 6, 2000, Nicholas was kidnapped in a ransom attempt. Over the next few days until his killing, he was held in various locations on the South Coast and plied with alcohol, drugs and girls. It’s during this time that people started calling him the stolen boy.
No one tried to save him, and by all accounts, more than 30 people could have done something, a fact that still angers Mrs. Markowitz.
A parent must take some responsibility for the way his or her kids turn out, and Susan Markowitz is no different.
“There’s a time when Ben, my stepson, had been getting into some really deep trouble, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’ve gotta get (Nick) out of this.’ But I didn’t want to put him in the same situation that Ben and Leah (Ben’s sister) were in, and that was a divorced household,” she said.
“I loved my husband and I still love him 26 years later, but there isn’t anything you could do worse to a child than to break up the unit, and I didn’t want to put him through the same situation.”
Ben ultimately got some help and Mrs. Markowitz hoped it would rub off on Nicholas.
“But around that time there was a gut instinct that I should have done something, or gotten out,” she added. “Then again, who knows what trouble Nick would have gotten into because he would have been rebellious because he was in a divorced household.”
As the cases against the various participants worked their way through court, along came Nick Cassavetes, the man behind what ultimately became the 2006 movie “Alpha Dog.” It stars Emile Hirsch as the character based on Mr. Hollywood and Anton Yelchin as the boy who forgets he’s been kidnapped.
Mrs. Markowitz finds it a bit too “Hollywoodized” — as in the place, not the man — but says she found in it messages for parents and teens.
Others apparently are similarly moved.
“I receive letters from all over the world from people who say that after they saw that movie, and then found out it was real, they have changed the direction they were going,” she said.
In 2009, the man whose grudge gave way to Nicholas’ killing, was found guilty of kidnapping and first-degree murder with special circumstances that could have resulted in the death penalty.
Instead, he will never again walk free.
“I was very relived that the jury was able to convict Jesse James Hollywood without parole,” said Mrs. Markowitz. “Going to an extra parole hearing every two to three years would be very stressful.”
Asked what she’d say if she were to sit across from him now, Mrs. Markowitz took a deep, thoughtful breath.
“He was almost like a robot during the trial. He was trained for so many years prior to the actual trial what to say, so I don’t know that I could believe anything he was saying.”
From 2000 to 2005, Mr. Hollywood was on the lam, ultimately being captured in Brazil.
“That day was the biggest relief for me,” Mrs. Markowitz said. “I drove around in a red Navigator with those magnetic billboard signs, ‘$50,000 reward,’ ‘$20,000 reward,’ whatever it was at the time. But when he was captured, I didn’t have to pass out fliers anymore, I didn’t have to look in my rear-view mirror at a fast-food restaurant and think, ‘Is that him?’ “
“All of a sudden I just collapsed, I just started crying at the actual realization.”
With the death of her son weighing on her — it still does — Mrs. Markowitz flirted with suicide.
“He was my life. I lived for him,” she said. “All I ever wanted was a baby. There are some women that just have to have a baby, and some that just don’t have that feeling.
“I didn’t feel complete without one. I was so depressed before having one.”
Her husband, Jeff Markowitz, has been a rock during the worst times, not to mention the numerous hospitalizations, she added.
“I couldn’t do this without him.”
Writing the book, with help from Jenna Glatzer, has also helped.
“It made me feel like it was going to help me make it to the next day. It kind of gave me hope.”
When people ask, “Why not just move on with your life,” she added, “I say, ‘Well, I am moving on. I’m happy to be here.’ What makes me feel happy is feeling like I’m doing something out of something so yucky, something so tragic.”
“He was a good kid,” said Mrs. Markowitz. “He deserves to be honored properly.”
This isn’t about money.
“It’s about getting the story out there, and that’s why the book is in the form that it is, mass paperback, $7.99, as cheap as you can get,” she said.
“I want the story to never die. This can’t happen again. People have to step up and listen to that gift of fear.”
While writing keeps her in touch with the memory of her son, Mrs. Markowitz admits there are times when it seems like he’s there with her — and in a most unusual form.
“On the day we found out that Nick was murdered, a praying mantis came,” she recalled. “It stayed with us the whole week until the day we buried him and it died that day. Now every year, without fail, on the anniversary of his death or around his birthday, a praying mantis comes, and not to just me (but) family throughout the states.”
Loss being such a personal journey, everyone chooses his or her own way to deal with it, to make it livable. For Susan Markowitz, it’s seeing in a praying mantis something more.
“I choose to believe that bug is him,” she said. “I used to, like, cry, but now it’s, like, ‘Hi, Nick. There you are.’ “
“It’s silly. I never saw a praying mantis, except for one time, when Nick was about 7 years old, in the backyard with him,” she added. “So, for a praying mantis to be in my life several times a year since he died, just makes me believe.”
“The more I believe, the more I see.” Copyright © 2010 Santa Barbara News-Press
This article in the Santa Barbara News-Press had a profound effect on me, and caused me to reprint the above story published on Friday, September 10, 2010.
In a previous Blog EXTRA! EXTRA! Hollywood Given life: Connections (#4) I spoke a little bit about my involvement with the motion picture “Alpha Dog,” directed by Nick Cassavetes.