It’s no wonder Michael Mehas decided to go into law: He looks good in a suit. It shows off the height that made him a star shooting guard in high school better than his casual clothes do. At the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse on Jan. 10, however, the suit is wearing him. As a criminal defense attorney, Mehas is familiar with this scene, but not the view. He’s used to addressing the witness stand, not speaking from it, and he’s obviously nervous about the reversal: He’s clutching his bottle of water like a life preserver.
Seated about 10 feet in front of him, shackled and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, is the man who has been at the center of his existence for the last three years: Jesse James Hollywood, a handsome but weathered 26-year-old who, at the age of 19, became one of the youngest fugitives in history to find his name on the FBI’s Most-Wanted List. Mehas has never met Hollywood, but he knows practically everything about him: how he was catching pop-ups from his dad by the time he was 4; how his inability to develop into an athlete gave him a complex about his height. Most of all, Mehas knows, in meticulous detail, what transpired between Aug. 6 and 9, 2000 — three days that forever altered Hollywood’s life and the lives of everyone around him.
That knowledge is the reason Mehas is testifying today. Since 2003, the 46-year-old, who relocated from Los Angeles to Ventura in 1997, has collected more information about the Hollywood case than almost anybody else on the planet. He’s been researching it both for a book and for the screenplay of Alpha Dog, an upcoming film by director Nick Cassavetes starring Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Justin Timberlake. In the process, Mehas has amassed a mountain of folders, manila envelopes, 5-inch-thick binders and other ephemera regarding Hollywood, his family, his friends and his enemies, and his legal team wants access to it. Mehas has already been forced to give up some of it and is reluctant to relinquish more, citing concerns about protecting his “proprietary interest.”
“Where is the tape, sir?” asks co-counsel Alex Kessel, referring to an audio cassette of an interview Mehas conducted with Ben Markowitz, the half brother of the teenager Hollywood stands accused of plotting the kidnapping and murder of five years ago.
Seemingly flustered by the amount of annoyance in the attorney’s voice, Mehas mutters something about having handed the tape over to his own lawyer. He then takes a big gulp of water.
The questioning continues like this for what feels like an eternity. As sexy as this case is — full of drugs, guns, an international manhunt and characters with names ripped from a 1950s potboiler — this particular hearing is excruciatingly boring. It’s basically two hours of semantic hair-splitting, trying to figure out what Mehas means when he uses the word “inconsistencies,” what he discussed privately with prosecutor Ron Zonen, and where certain scraps of information ended up in his enormous cache of notes. It’s a tedious process and little is revealed. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. On the contrary: James Blatt, Hollywood’s attorney, says parts of what he previously received from Mehas could be considered “exculpatory.”
Mehas himself puts it more sharply. “I,” he says, “am the wedge to save Jesse’s life.”
“Hoyt takes the fucking tape, wraps it around all the way until it’s really tight, all the way to the end of the fingers. He starts to walk away. He comes back, he grabs the tape and wraps it right around Nick’s mouth, just like this. It’s so frightening because that’s how they find the body.”
Four days before appearing in court, Mehas is standing in his office, his hands mock-bound behind his back, giving a tremendous one-man reenactment of the murder of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz by convicted triggerman Ryan Hoyt, as illuminated in the testimony of witness Jesse Rugge. Out of the suit and into a blue jacket, jeans and a Che Guevara shirt, Mehas is unrestrained by courtroom etiquette. He describes the killing and the events that led up to and followed it with theatrical zeal, gesturing wildly, raising and lowering his voice to convey emotion, crisply enunciating every word. Not surprisingly, Mehas — on top of being an attorney, a writer and an ex-basketball player — is also a former actor.
“So Nick is sitting on a rock,” he continues. “Hoyt comes over, picks up a shovel and crashes it down on Nick’s skull. He hits him in the head with the shovel, grabs the body under the armpits, drags him over to the hole, gets the Tec-9 machine gun and shoots him. Bullets were ricocheting off rocks and in the sand.”
He sits back down in his chair, hanging a beat on the brutal scene he just painted. Behind him, a glass door reveals the large valley that serves as his backyard. It’s still charred from a brushfire that nearly consumed his house last year. Appropriately, he recalls, with great cinematic flair, how firefighters narrowly saved his gorgeous hillside home from being swallowed by flames. But even that tale, drawn from his own experience, lacks the kind of vivid narration he reserves for the Markowitz slaying. After all, it’s one thing to recount an incident you actually saw happen; it’s another to talk about something you’ve pieced together in your mind and have been living with every day. And Mehas has been eating, breathing and sleeping this crime from the moment his longtime friend, Nick Cassavetes, told him he wanted to make a movie about it.
If there was ever a true-life drama tailor-made for a celluloid adaptation, it’s this one. According to various testimony, it all began when Hollywood, an alleged marijuana dealer from the San Fernando Valley, had a falling-out with Ben Markowitz, a particularly volatile member of his entourage, over a $1,200 debt Markowitz had absorbed from one of Hollywood’s other customers. When Markowitz refused to pay, he and Hollywood got into what Mehas calls a “pissing match.” According to authorities, this tete-a-tete of intimidation culminated in Hollywood and a van full of lackeys abducting Markowitz’s brother and taking him, against his will, to Santa Barbara. They kept him at different locations for two days until prosecutors say Hollywood convinced Hoyt to take him up to a remote hiking trail and execute him. Following the discovery of the body, Hollywood disappeared. Investigators eventually caught up with him in Brazil in March 2005 and shipped him back to the United States. His trial is scheduled to begin in July.
Mehas knows this chronology by heart. He should — he’s written two versions of it, one as an outline for his book, another as a base for Cassavetes to script his film. But he says it doesn’t tell the whole story. As he goes over the hard facts of the case, Mehas takes several detours into the background of each participant: his family history, the nature of his relationship with the others, his psychological makeup. “It’s the totality of all those together,” he says, “which creates a very different picture than what the prosecutor has created.” From the work he’s done, Mehas has concluded that the general interpretation of the case — that Hollywood had Nick Markowitz killed to settle his debt with Ben — is false. This wasn’t about a debt, he says. “This case is really about Jesse acting upon a fear,” that fear being Ben Markowitz. It’s not a minor discrepancy. If the jury finds that Hollywood ordered the murder as a means of extracting money from the victim’s brother, he could face the death penalty. Should the defense adopt Mehas’ theory that he acted, however irrationally, out of an entrenched fear of a man he believed capable of doing harm to him and his family, and the jury accepts it, the sentence may be far less severe. He’d still spend the rest of his life in prison, but he’d be alive. And that’s what Mehas is hoping for.
“I don’t want Jesse to die,” he says bluntly.
When he speaks about Hollywood, Mehas does sound as if he’s pleading his fate before a dozen of his peers. It’s hard to tell whether his empathy is genuine or if he’s simply viewing the case through the lens of an experienced defense attorney, skewing the charges at an angle that benefits the accused. Either way, his detached relationship with Hollywood has taken on a lawyer-client dynamic — and as in any high-profile trial, that relationship is mutually beneficial. Because if Mehas is the wedge to save Hollywood’s life, then Hollywood could be the springboard to catapult Mehas out of law and into the career he’s been chasing for years: full-time screenwriter.
Growing up in the Hollywood Hills, the son of a professional croquet player (“the bad boy of croquet,” aficionados call him) who also starred in a handful of cheap biker flicks in the 1960s, Mehas dreamed of working in the entertainment industry. He started out as an actor in the early 1980s but struggled to find jobs. “I was one of those guys who’d get called back two or three times and just didn’t get it,” he says; the most noteworthy role he was able to land was as an extra in the infamous Pepsi commercial where Michael Jackson’s hair lit on fire. After two years of rejections, Mehas opted to go with his Plan B. “I had a lot of friends who were digging ditches and laying bricks and waiting tables later on in their life because they tried to act and didn’t make it,” he says. “So I decided to go to law school.”
Mehas graduated from Pepperdine in 1988 and began practicing out of Palm Springs as a public defender. His third case ever was a capital murder trial in Indio, representing a man charged with raping, sodomizing and shooting two 13-year-old girls under a freeway overpass. One of the victims survived the assault and was able to identify him in court. He was given life without the possibility of parole — a victory, from Mehas’ perspective. “A win or loss as a defense attorney isn’t necessarily judged by an acquittal versus a conviction,” he explains. “It’s judged by where the case is and what you do with it. So if you have an overwhelming case, this guy’s going to get the death penalty, and you get him life in prison without parole, that’s a win.”
Over the next decade, Mehas split his energy between earning a reputation as a skilled attorney and reviving his push to make a name for himself in show business, this time as a writer. When Cassavetes approached him to help with the research for Alpha Dog, it gave Mehas the opportunity to do both simultaneously. The two had teamed together before, on the set of 1997’s She’s So Lovely. Even earlier, Cassavetes and Mehas were literally teammates, leading the East Valley Trojans basketball squad to the national championships when they were 14. Before college sent them in separate directions, Mehas was so close to the Cassavetes he considered them his second family. He refers to John Cassavetes, Nick’s legendary filmmaker father, as his “mentor.” “I had a long talk with him one time about making movies,” he says. “He told me to go out and get experience in life. You don’t make it up; you write from what you’ve lived and what you’ve experienced. That was probably the biggest influence in giving me the freedom of thinking I wasn’t missing something by going to law school.”
Cassavetes asked Mehas to construct a timeline of everything that happened from the Sunday of the kidnapping to the arrests of Hoyt and fellow Hollywood associates Jesse Rugge, Graham Pressley and William Skidmore a week after the murder. Mehas dove into the project with a university-trained rabidity. He obtained police reports, photographs, transcripts of grand jury testimony, even videotape of the defendants’ strip searches. He spoke at length with seven principal witnesses, including Jesse’s father, John “Jack” Hollywood, who’s currently serving 18 months in an Arizona penitentiary for drug smuggling. He also received several documents from Ron Zonen, including his complete trial notebook, a feat that impressed as well as angered the defense.
“Frankly, I’m not aware of any case in the country where a prosecutor has given his entire file to a motion picture company,” says Blatt, who attempted to have Zonen removed from the trial on the grounds that his involvement with the movie constituted a conflict of interest. (The motion was denied.) “I’m not aware of any journalist doing what [Mehas] has done in this matter — and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way.”
As the pages piled up, Mehas became more and more immersed in the world of Jesse James Hollywood and the universe of people that revolved around him. He began to get a sense of Hollywood’s personality. “Jesse is a sharp, smart-ass, tough little alpha dog,” Mehas says. “He’s quick-witted, he’s sharp, he’s got a funny sense of humor, and he’s got bucks.” Barely out of high school, Hollywood had made a small fortune, either by working laying hardwood floors, as his father claims, or, as Ben Markowitz told the grand jury, by distributing high-grade marijuana throughout the Valley. He bought a house before he was old enough to buy alcohol, drove three expensive cars, and had a hot girlfriend. And he didn’t mind sharing the wealth. “He was generous in a controlling kind of way,” Mehas says. “He would give you what he wanted you to have and kind of bring you in, and it was kind of a controlling mechanism.” Naturally, Hollywood attracted a group of kids who wanted a piece of his lifestyle. “These guys had nothing better in their lives to do. They didn’t have ambition, they weren’t incredibly intelligent, so they just hung around Jesse.”
Markowitz entered Hollywood’s orbit for a slightly different reason: He’d been blacklisted by every other dealer in town. He was notorious for getting fronted drugs and boldly refusing to pay anyone back; in an interview with detectives, Markowitz admitted to being in the red with one dealer for $17,000. Covered in tattoos and sporting a deep criminal history, he also had a reputation as a tough guy. In a lengthy conversation with Mehas in 2004, and in previous grand jury testimony, Markowitz owned up to his troubled past, detailing an adolescence spent dealing drugs, fighting and getting high. But, according to Mehas, Markowitz, who is now 26 and married with two children, regrets his past. However, at the time he met Hollywood, “he was dangerous and violent,” says Mehas
And that, Mehas believes, is precisely why Hollywood wanted him around. Hollywood had gotten into altercations with local gang members, and he figured Markowitz could provide him with some “great heat.” Markowitz, according to his own testimony, practically moved in with Hollywood, and the pair wasted their days lifting weights, drinking and selling pot. But things quickly deteriorated. Jack Hollywood felt Markowitz was taking advantage of his son. “Everybody else that knew Jesse thought [Ben Markowitz] was a scumbag and that he was a leech,” he said in his grand jury testimony. “My son didn’t want to tell me much about what was going on with him and that kid, because as soon as I saw the kid I said, ‘Why is this guy always hanging around your house?’” The friendship completely fell apart after Markowitz went down to San Diego to collect $2,000 from an acquaintance who owed Jesse money. He returned with a few hundred hits of fake Ecstasy the guy had given him in lieu of cash and $600 he managed to raise by selling the stuff at a rave. When Jesse demanded the rest, Markowitz tossed him the remaining pills and an additional $200.
“He told me to go fuck myself and pay [him] the money,” Markowitz testified. “And I said, ‘All right, you know, whatever,’ and just kind of walked away.”
That’s when the “pissing match” began. Markowitz testified that William Skidmore, who Mehas claims essentially replaced Markowitz as the enforcer in Hollywood’s inner circle, started calling him in the middle of the night, harassing him about the debt. Then Hollywood went to the restaurant where Markowitz’s fiance worked, ran up a tab and, instead of paying, left a note telling her to deduct it from her boyfriend’s debt. In turn, Markowitz reported Hollywood for an insurance scam he had supposedly perpetrated months earlier. According to Jack Hollywood, Jesse also suspected Markowitz of poisoning his dog and breaking out the windows of his house. The coup de grace, according to Rugge’s testimony, was a voicemail from someone identified as “Little Shooter,” promising “this is just the beginning” and referring to the 5-foot-4-inch Jesse Hollywood as a “little midget.”
It was then, Mehas thinks, that Hollywood realized he was “in over his head.” “Ben was generally terrorizing Jesse,” he says. “Whether he was going to come through and hurt Jesse, nobody knows for sure, but Jesse believed his family was in danger.” Yet, to Mehas’s knowledge, Hollywood never articulated his fear of Ben Markowitz to anyone. “Jesse Hollywood is a little too macho to say, ‘This motherfucker scares me. I’m a little afraid of this guy.’ So he’s going around with his chest out, sitting there telling everybody, ‘I’m gonna fucking take care of him because he owes me money. Nobody gets away with this. It’s about paying me my money and showing me my respect.’ ”
Still, Mehas insists that by the time of the kidnapping, the $1,200 had, in reality, become relatively insignificant. Indeed, Jesse Rugge, who was behind the wheel of the van the morning of the abduction, testified that the debt was only one of a litany of issues related to Ben Markowitz that Hollywood berated Nick Markowitz about after picking him up on Aug. 6, 2000, and even then, he didn’t mention it until they were halfway to Santa Barbara. “First thing out of his mouth, he said, ‘Your brother is a piece of shit. Your brother is going to break my fucking windows, he’s going to threaten my fucking family,’” Rugge recalled. “Pretty much that’s the way it went from there on.”
Rugge also testified that there was no premeditated plan to find either Markowitz when he, Hollywood and Skidmore left Hollywood’s home in West Hills that morning; he thought they were simply heading north to party later that night. But when Hollywood spotted Ben’s little brother, Nick, walking around his neighborhood, he commanded Rugge to pull over. Hollywood and Skidmore, according to Rugge, forced Nick into the van, slammed the door, and took off to Santa Barbara.
Six days later, hikers found Nick’s body in a 2-by-7-foot grave, tape around his wrists and across his mouth.
“What prompted the ultimate killing,” Mehas believes, “was when Jesse talked to his attorney.” By Aug. 8, Nick Markowitz had been moved from Rugge’s father’s house — where he was introduced as a “friend” — to the Lemon Tree Inn on State Street. Rugge’s depiction of the days preceding the murder resembles an extended vacation more than a hostage situation: smoking weed, guzzling liquor, hanging out with girls, swimming in the hotel pool. Nick participated in the festivities as if he were just a regular part of their group. “To me, he started having a good time, it looked like it to me,” Rugge said. Meanwhile, Hollywood, according to the grand jury testimony of Chas Saulsbury, an old acquaintance whom Hollywood contacted shortly after the murder, had gone to his family lawyer, Steven Hogg, who informed him that the penalty for kidnapping is life in prison.
At about 8:30 that evening, Rugge claims he received a call from Hollywood that gave him the impression he was finally coming to transport Nick back to West Hills. Rugge was surprised, then, to see Ryan Hoyt standing in the doorway of his hotel room two hours later — and even more surprised to see him carrying the blue Dodger bag that, Rugge claims, usually contained Hollywood’s Tec-9. Hoyt, whom Mehas calls “the slave boy of Jesse James Hollywood,” came from an abusive household, and seemed to idolize Hollywood. But Hollywood treated him as a second-class citizen, mainly because Hoyt, too, owed him money. In Mehas’ opinion, Hoyt saw killing Nick Markowitz as an opportunity to absolve his debt and “to quit being on the bottom of Jesse’s totem pole.”
Hoyt corralled Rugge, Graham Pressley and Nick out of the Lemon Tree Inn, into a car and up to Lizard’s Mouth, an isolated area off West Camino Cielo Road in Santa Barbara. Although he admitted to being frightened “beyond belief” from that point on, Rugge said he didn’t think Hoyt was actually going to hurt Nick — until he heard the thud of the shovel hitting his head.
Hoyt confessed to pulling the trigger shortly after being arrested but has since recanted. In 2001, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and later sentenced to death. (He’s currently appealing the conviction.) Rugge was acquitted on murder charges but convicted of aggravated kidnapping. He’s serving seven years to life at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga. Pressley, who dug the grave but was absent during the actual shooting, was convicted of second-degree murder. Because he was 17 years old when the crime took place, he was tried as an adult but sentenced as a juvenile. He will be released from a California Youth Authority facility near Chino in three years, on his 25th birthday. For taking part in the initial kidnapping, Skidmore received nine years. He’s eligible for parole in 2008.
As everyone else went down for his involvement, the case against Hollywood, the purported ringleader, was being built up by the district attorney’s office and spread through the media: This crime, they contended, stemmed directly from the unpaid drug debt between Hollywood and Ben Markowitz. That explanation, however, did not gel with the one Mehas had developed through years of extensive research. “The main differences that I saw were the characterization of the nature of the relationship between Jesse and Ben … and the nature of the kidnapping itself.”
“None of it justifies murder,” he adds. “But it may justify something in sentencing. It may justify something in giving these kids a break. It doesn’t do any of us any good to see those kids get beat up in prison and rot in hell. Nobody advances, society doesn’t get any better.”
Mehas made his opinion known to the court when he was called to testify during a hearing regarding the defense’s motion to have Ron Zonen recused from the Hollywood case last November. He mentioned that he saw Zonen’s presentation of the motive as inconsistent with information gleaned from discussions he had with several witnesses. Of course, that piqued the interest of Hollywood’s attorneys, who requested that Mehas turn over his research. Initially, he refused, but faced with jail time — and, he claims, angry phone calls from Hollywood supporters — Mehas relented. Blatt refused to comment on how he plans to use that material, but did say that his case is handicapped by the fact that Alpha Dog will hit theaters before the start of Hollywood’s trial.
“It is not in the defense’s best interest that a motion picture comes out depicting the defendant in an extremely negative light,” says Blatt, who has seen the film and believes it shows Hollywood — played by Emile Hirsch under the alias “Johnny Truelove” — as having “no redeeming social value.” Because of the movie, which premiered in the coveted closing slot of the Sundance Film Festival in January and is slated for a national release in spring, Blatt says it will be difficult to find an impartial jury to try Hollywood come July. “I’m not aware of a situation happening in this country before, where in a capital death penalty case, a movie is made with the assistance of the prosecutor, and film will be distributed prior to trial.”
Although he is steadfast in his desire to keep Hollywood off death row, Mehas acknowledges that some of the scenes, if taken at face value, are damaging to him. And he agrees that it will be hard for Hollywood to receive a fair trial in the wake of the publicity for both the movie and his book, also tentatively titled Alpha Dog. That’s partially the reason why he decided to comply with the defense: to free himself of guilt.
“Nick Cassavetes and I feel a heavy pathos for our involvement,” Mehas says. “I’ve had a tremendous amount of it. I tried to be as truthful as I could in my book. I dramatized a couple things, but I tried to bring the truth of what happened, so we can present this story in as full as we could, so if it teaches somebody a lesson about how to take care of their kid and not let their kid get in this kind of situation, then at least we’ve benefited that one person. But in this process, I’m going to tell a lot of stuff that’s probably going to create a negative impression on Jesse James Hollywood in front of his day in court. It was through that feeling that I felt I could help save his life by at least enlightening the defense on these issues. That’s why I did it.”
“I don’t want him to die,” he repeats.
“Mr. Mehas, you’re dismissed.”
It’s the words Mehas has been waiting two hours to hear. In the end, Judge Brian Hill decries that Mehas doesn’t have to surrender any more of his work. He’s ordered to review his chronology and try to remember what pieces of information came from his interview with Christina Pressley, Graham’s mother, then get back to the court in a month. Mehas wastes no time exiting the courtroom. As he crosses the narrow aisle separating the sides of the public viewing section, he passes Susan Markowitz and Laurie Hollywood, the mothers of the victim and the defendant, respectively. Moments later, he’s out of the building.
Three days after the hearing, as he navigates his black BMW down from the hills of Ventura, Mehas is reflecting on the role he now finds himself playing in the Hollywood case. In a matter of months, he’s gone from being on the perimeter to right in the thick of it, and he’s not entirely comfortable with the transition. “What’s happened is I’ve become the story at this stage rather than just an outside observer of it,” he says. “I need to get back out of that end of it.” But with a pair of books — one covering the circumstances of the murder itself, the other the aftermath — and a movie (on which he has an associate producer credit) coming out in the next year, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. There’s even an idea about a possible autobiography centering around his own investigation into the Nick Markowitz murder. He also has a couple of screenplays he’s written sitting on his shelf, which he hopes will eventually see the light of day as a result of potential success of Alpha Dog.
Back in his kitchen, the Pacific Ocean over his shoulder, Mehas still seems a bit rattled by his time on the witness stand. He says he felt nothing but hostility on every side, from the defense attorneys upset by his hesitation to cooperate, to the prosecutors displeased with his efforts to weaken their case.
“Let me tell you the strangest part of it. I’m sitting up there. I meet the appellate attorney, I met with Zonen briefly, I met with Jim Blatt briefly — I have these relationships with them. But the one man who I probably have the greatest relationship with there, and I’ve never met or spoken to him in my life, is Jesse James Hollywood. I make eye contact with him, and that eye contact was so powerful to me. He smiled to me, I smiled back at him, and it just reminded me that this young kid is out there with a heart, and he probably knows whatever he did are mistakes, and he’s battling for his life. When I caught that smile, I wanted more than ever to do whatever I could do to support that he doesn’t die.”
“That meeting of the eyes,” he says, “was more powerful than anything I’ve read.”