A Stolen Boy: The Real Story Behind the Film Alpha Dog

On a sunny August day in 2000, 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz was walking around his neighborhood, minding his own business, when a white van suddenly slowed down on the warm pavement beside him. Out came two unfamiliar faces – Jesse Rugge and William Skidmore. Realizing they were out to get him, Nick took two steps back, then three, then four, then ran from them as fast as he could.

Nicholas Markovitz / Anton Yelchin and Justin Timberlake / Susan Markowitz / Jesse James Hollywood.
Source: Getty Images

The two men chased the teen down, assaulted him, and forced him into the large vehicle. Sadly, Nick, who had nothing whatsoever to do with drugs, debt, or any fishy business, was kidnapped from his own neighborhood in broad daylight by a group of L.A. thugs.

“It was a moment, an opportunity, and they seized it,” journalist Jesse Katz stated.

He Was the Funniest Person on Earth

To the Markowitz’s family, Nick had grown up so fast, maybe even too fast, right before their eyes. He was raised in the West Hills section of L.A. in a comfortable setting; his household’s walls echoed with laughter, honest conversations, and lively energy.

Jeff Markovitz and his son, Nicholas, in a holiday photo.
Source: Instagram/@historic_imagery

Nick’s mom would later describe him as “the funniest person on earth,” adding that he was a handful – always energetic and upbeat. He loved sports and theater and “would do anything to make us laugh,” she told the press.

But his half-brother Ben? Ben was a different story.

Ben Kept Getting Into Trouble

For the record, Ben wasn’t a criminal by any means. He wasn’t intentionally mean, and he never intended on hurting anyone, nor did he get a kick out of messing around with the law. “Ben wasn’t really a troublemaker,” his dad Jeff noted, “but he was always there when there was trouble.”

Jeff Markowitz is standing outside the court.
Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Looking back, Jeff believes he made some very poor parenting choices with Ben. The two tried getting along, with Ben even working with him for a while, but they kept on clashing. Eventually, he got into trouble at home, at work, and gradually, with the law. Nick’s mom, Susan, was frightened that her young boy, who idolized his half-brother, would soon follow in his footsteps.

Obey the Rules or Move Out

When Ben was around the house, Susan found it extremely difficult to insulate Nick from his chaotic behavior. This ultimately led Jeff Markowitz to make a tough decision. He gave his older son an ultimatum – obey the house rules or move out. It’s an ultimatum he regrets to this day.

Family photo of Jeff, Susan, and Nicholas, outside a limousine.
Source: Instagram/@historic_imagery

“If I would have held onto Ben and kept him in my household, he wouldn’t have been on the street,” Jeff stated, “He wouldn’t have been involved in, maybe, some of the other things that he got involved in.”

Perhaps, Jeff believes, he wouldn’t have met Jesse James Hollywood – the story’s evil antagonist.

Little League on the Ball Fields of West Hill

Jesse James Hollywood was your average, all-American kid. He grew up playing baseball and was coached by his own dad, Jack Hollywood, on the ball fields of West Hills. Jack was a well-spoken, amiable man who knew how to spark a conversation with virtually anyone.

Press is following Jesse James, who is in handcuffs.
Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

But Jack wasn’t your ordinary suburban dad. He was a drug dealer.

His son, Jesse, on the other hand, was a spectacular athlete with a bright future ahead of him. It didn’t seem like he was destined for trouble. That is, until a back injury forced him to give up baseball. That’s when his life, which had seemed so full of promise until that point, morphed into a nefarious disaster.

Like Father, Like Son

Unlike many of his friends, Jesse Hollywood didn’t go to college. He didn’t want to waste his time or money on an institution he would likely be indebted to for the rest of his 20s. Instead, he preferred to join the family business, which was, in his case, a sketchy one.

Jesse James is sitting in the courtroom next to his defense attorneys James Blatt and Alex Kessel.
Photo by Jordan Lerum

So, while his buddies were cranking out academic papers, Hollywood was out there hustling and buying houses with his dirty money. At just 19, he owned his own villa. His friends were blinded by his achievements and soon begged to join the party themselves. One of them was Ben Markowitz.

Hollywood Saw Ben Markowitz as a Threat

Jesse and Ben first bonded over their love of baseball. They hit it off at the junior baseball league and later attended the same Malibu, California gym. The two boys were on relatively good terms until their relationship was tainted by money and greed.

Attorney Andrew R. Flier with his client Benjamin Markovitz at court.
Photo by Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The story of the debt goes something like this – Ben owed Jesse money. The sum depends on the source you believe. Some say he racked up a $1,200 debt, and others stated it as high as $30,000. Either way, Ben owed money, and Jesse wasn’t about to let him off the hook.

A Complicated Relationship

Ben Markowitz’s relationship with Jesse James Hollywood was complicated. Some sources say that despite Hollywood’s tough and rough front, in front of Ben, he would soften. Likely out of fear. Apparently, Jesse saw Ben as a threat.

Portrait of Ben Markowitz.
Source: Pinterest

“Ben was dangerous to Jesse James Hollywood. None of the others would stand up to him. None of them wanted to fall out of Hollywood’s favor. Ben Markowitz just didn’t seem to care,” Jesse Katz (an L.A. journalist) explained. When Hollywood would remind Markowitz that he owed money, Ben would answer, “screw you.”

When It Came to Business, Hollywood Was Dead Serious

But Jesse James Hollywood wasn’t one to let things slide. He took his work and the posse who worked with him seriously. He would give his workers a certain amount to sell, and they would bring him back whatever money they earned. Those who came up short became his servants and were tied to him until they were able to pay him back.

Views of Jesse James Hollywood is leaving the Santa Barbara courthouse circa 2009.
Photo by Paul Wellman

Hollywood went from a friendly, fun-loving baseball player to a cold-hearted drug dealer. He would force his indebted servants to clean up after his dogs, tidy his house, and buy goods for house parties. For his posse, Hollywood was the center of the universe.

He Was Determined to Teach Ben a Lesson

Ben wasn’t willing to become one of Jesse’s little helpers. Not only that, but he even teased him for being a so-called tough guy. He broke one of Hollywood’s mansion windows and yelled at him in front of everyone. Gradually, it went from innocent trash-talking to menacing threats.

Photo of Nicholas Markowitz at his bar mitzvah.
Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Humiliated and infuriated, Jesse wanted to teach him a lesson, So, one lazy Sunday, he set out cruising with his posse in his white van, scanning West Hills for Ben Markowitz to settle the deal once and for all. Tragically, they found another Markowitz instead – Nicholas.

No One Knew He Was Being Held Hostage

Jeff and Susan Markowitz had no idea their youngest son had been abducted. For the first couple of hours, they thought he might have gone to a friend’s house. But as the day came to an end, panic struck. “Something was definitely wrong. He couldn’t call me back. That’s when I knew,” His mom, Susan, recalled.

Jeff and Susan Markowitz are attending a press conference at the Santa Barbara Sheriff station.
Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The reason Nick couldn’t call his mom back was because he was being held captive by Hollywood and his shameful crew. The van headed north from West Hills. Their destination – Santa Barbara. At some point in the ride, Nick was told that he had his brother Ben to thank for his sudden kidnapping.

The Kidnapping Turned Into a Joyride

Panicky and fussy, Nicholas begged them to let him go. In response, the crew gave him drugs and alcohol. That was the only way they knew how to silence him. And their tactic worked like magic because before Nick knew it, he was at a house party having the time of his life.

Santa Barbara home of Jesse Taylor Rugge on Casiano Street where Nicholas Markowitz, 15, was allegedly taken before being killed.
Photo by Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The partygoers he met during the three days of his captivity had no idea anything was wrong. Even those who found out about the devious abduction plan did nothing to stop it. And who could blame them? Nick was high, drunk, and — on the surface – happy as a clam.

Parents Wandered Around Like Ghosts

Nick went to three house parties in Santa Barbara. Parties full of booze, loud music, and teeny tiny bikinis jumping into pools. Incredibly, several parents were present during the parties, and none of them thought to raise the question, “what is going on in here?”

Susan Markowitz is standing outside the courthouse ten years after her son was kidnapped and killed.
Photo by Paul Wellman

Even the posse themselves didn’t really know what they were doing with Nick anymore. Hollywood wasn’t with them at all those parties. He was back in West Hills trying to get a hold of Ben to let him know that they had his brother.

“They didn’t really know what to do with Nick, that’s why he really wasn’t being held captive in the traditional sense,” Jesse Katz explained.

“We Got a Real Problem”

Back home, Nick’s parents were going crazy. They were desperately phoning people and struggling to make sense of what could have happened. After nearly two days, they contacted Ben. When they discovered that Ben hadn’t heard from Nick either, that’s when they realized, “Okay, we got a real problem.”

Susan Markovitz is holding a photo of her missing son, Nicholas.
Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

They phoned the police, but by then, Nick was already 70 miles away.

“I shouldn’t have waited at all,” Jeff Markowitz said. He told NBC News that he tried not to overreact, but, in retrospect, he should have acted the second he felt something was wrong. “I’m telling you—as a parent, right now—overreact. Don’t wait a second,” he advised.

“A Story I Can Tell My Grandchildren”

One of the pool parties Nick was forced to go to was located at a motel. “It would have been so easy to signal for help,” Jesse Katz explained. But it seems that Nick genuinely believed he wasn’t really in danger. He had a feeling the guys would let him off the hook soon. All he needed was to wait for his brother Ben to sort things out with Hollywood.

Photo of the Lemon Tree Inn on State Street, where the three suspects in the Nicholas Markowitz murder allegedly kidnapped the 15-year-old.
Photo by Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Nick was so certain things would turn out fine that he was even quoted saying, “This will be a story I can tell my grandchildren.”

Completely oblivious to the severity of the situation, Nick sat still during those parties. Sadly, he didn’t approach anyone for help.

The Plot Began to Thicken

The original plan was to return Nick home, safe and sound. But back in L.A., Hollywood began realizing that his playful kidnapping might land him behind bars for good. He slowly became aware of how much trouble he could get into for keeping a kid hostage like that.

Susan Markowitz is holding a wanted poster for Jesse James Hollywood, wanted for her son's kidnapping.
Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

About a day and a half after the kidnapping, Jesse reportedly phoned one of the posse members, a man named Ryan Hoyt, who was deeply in debt to him. He told Hoyt that if he wanted to wipe clean the debt, all he needed to do was kill Nicholas.

An Amateurish Abduction Became Murderous

The following day, Hoyt, Rugge, and another partygoer named Graham Pressley took Nicholas to the mountains above Santa Barbara. They led him to a grave they dug the night before in preparation. Rugge then duct-taped Nick’s mouth and tied his hands behind his back.

Photo of the empty grave in Los Padres National Forest, where Nicholas was allegedly shot.
Photo by Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Hoyt picked up the shovel and swung it at Nick, hitting him hard on the back of his head. He shot him nine times before he collapsed into the grave. The cold-blooded murderers placed the gun between his legs and covered him up with sticks and dirt.

Ben Immediately Blamed Himself

A shallow grave just off a popular hiking trail isn’t the best place to bury something you don’t want to be found. And in less than a week, Nick’s body was discovered. After a few additional days, there was a positive identification, and Nick’s parents were informed that their son had been found.

Jeff Markowitz is looking on as his wife Susan is embraced by their daughter Leah Goyanes outside the Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
Photo by Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

“I remember sitting down, feeling like I was going to be sick,” Susan recalled, “And I think I was thinking of crying but wouldn’t allow myself… And then it’s like I went into shock.” Ben Markowitz, who had been searching frantically for his brother, was a wreck. He instantly blamed himself for Nick’s death.

“He’s Dead; They Lied to Me”

A young girl who had grown close to Nick during one of the pool parties in Santa Barbara had found out that he was being held against his will. But Nick assured her, “Don’t worry, you know, everything’s going to work out.” So, she let it go.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff, Jim Thomas, is holding a press conference to announce details in the slaying of Nicholas Markowitz.
Photo by Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

But her mind grew fuzzy, and the atmosphere turned surreal when she heard the news about his death. She thought to herself, “Here’s this sweet, funny kid that I hung out with for three days a couple of weeks ago. Now he’s dead. They lied to me.”

She rushed to the Santa Barbara police and provided all the information she had.

The Ringleader Vanished

Within hours, officers were making arrests, and among them, the man who pulled the trigger – Ryan Hoyt. But the real mastermind was missing, the malicious ringleader who believed that with the pull of a trigger he could brush off his worries. Jesse James Hollywood was nowhere to be found.

SWAT members are looking for Ryan Hoyt.
Photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

As it turns out, the moment Jesse’s dad, Jack, found out about the murder, he smuggled his son out of America and flew him to Canada under a fake identity. Jesse’s name was now Michael Costa Giroux.

Shamelessly, Jack Hollywood was covering up his son’s cold-blooded murder.

On the Shores of Saquerema

Jesse was able to get away with his crime for a few years until, finally, police got a tip that he was no longer in Canada and that he had headed south to Brazil. He was apparently spending his days on a beach resort on the eastern coast of Brazil called Saquerema.

Aerial view of Saquarema.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He learned the Portuguese language to blend in and earned money teaching English, walking dogs, and putting up ads for local nightclubs. He also received $1,200 each month from his dad.

One of his neighbors mentioned, “He was always wearing a cap and kept his face down, hidden away—even inside his home.”

Marcia Reis

While in Brazil, Jesse “Mike Giroux” Hollywood met a woman named Marcia Reis at a bar in Rio de Janeiro. He figured that by getting her pregnant, he would lower his chances of being sent out of the country and back to the U.S., So he worked his magic, day by day, and treated her with such kindness that she fell head over heels for him in a matter of days.

Bars at the beach sidewalk in Rio.
Photo by Flavio Veloso/Brazil Photos/LightRocket/Getty Images

“With me he was wonderful. He was very sweet, tender. He was very caring, attentive. Everything I wanted he would get,” Marcia told police. He seemed to her like a decent, kind-hearted man who wanted nothing but to start a life with her.

America’s Most Wanted

While Jesse was doing everything he could to escape his past, his face was being plastered all across the States, and his name was featured in America’s Most Wanted multiple times. In addition, U.S. authorities were working with Brazilian officers to track him down.

Jesse’s headshot after being arrested as he heads to court.
Photo by Paul Wellman

Finally, one March day in 2005, “Mike” got a phone call from a cousin he hadn’t seen in years who told him she was coming to meet him in Brazil. They settled to meet in the mall for a coffee, but unbeknownst to Jesse, the meeting was a setup.

Under Arrest

As he and Marcia sat down and ordered some coffee at the mall, a woman approached their table – federal agent Kelly Bernardo. “He was surprised as I approached him, and as the authorities told him he was under arrest, he kept saying he was someone else, Michael Giroux,” she recalled.

Jesse is escorted by security guards at the Santa Barbara Superior Court.
Photo by Paul Wellman

After nearly five years on the run, Jesse was finally under arrest for the kidnapping and murder of Nick Markowitz.

Marcia Reis stared in disbelief as the sweet, loving man she thought she knew was being carried away in handcuffs. She pleaded with the cops, “No, this is not possible, we have a child together! This can’t be!”

What Happened to Hollywood and His Posse?

The murder trial began on May 15th, 2009. Jesse’s defense attorneys pointed to the fact that he wasn’t present at the time of the crime. But that didn’t help much. Jesse faced the death penalty for the charges of kidnapping and first-degree murder, but a few months later, by recommendation of the jury, his sentence was switched to life in prison.

Jesse James Hollywood’s defense team is entering the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse to hear the jury’s verdict.
Photo by Paul Wellman

The man responsible for the actual shooting, Ryan Hoyte, is currently on death row. Graham Pressley was released in 2007. Jesse Rugge was granted parole in 2013, and William Skidmore received nine years in prison for the kidnapping. He was released in 2009.

It Was Difficult Facing the Man Who Pulled the Trigger

Nick and Ben’s father, Jeff Markowitz, shared how terrible it was standing in the same courtroom with somebody who killed your child. “It’s a bad, bad feeling,” he shook his head during the interview with NBC news.

Jesse Hollywood is arriving in handcuffs at the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s station.
Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Nick’s mom, Susan, said she almost collapsed after hearing how indifferently Hoyt reacted to the case. “All I did was shoot him,” he shrugged it off in front of the jury.

Susan contemplated taking her own life several times. Pills, drinking, cutting her wrists… she thought of it all. Thankfully, she remained strong and decided it was better to stay alive. That’s what Nick would have wanted.

Alpha Dog

Nicholas Markowitz’s murder case became the basis for a new Hollywood movie titled “Alpha Dog” (2006). The film features an all-star cast, including Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis, Ben Foster, and Amanda Seyfried.

Alpha Dog wallpaper featuring Anton Yelchin and Justin Timberlake.
Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Universal Pictures

The movie was (and probably still is) extremely controversial. Production started while Hollywood was still on the run. The film changed the names and places, but still, many felt it was disrespectful to release such a thing when the case was still wide open.

Jeff and Susan Weren’t Pleased With the Film

Jeff Markowitz feared that the movie would glamorize the villain. “You know when anybody does a movie it’s usually sensationalizing the bad guy. And in this case, it’d probably be Jesse Hollywood,” he told the media, adding, “I’d like to see a movie about our son. And I don’t think we’re gonna see that.”

Susan Markovitz and actor Anton Yelchin are attending the after-party following the premiere of Universal Pictures ‘Alpha Dog’.
Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

But despite their many doubts, Jeff and Susan Markowitz ended up cooperating with the film’s director Nick Cassavettes.

Once Jesse Hollywood was captured, his attorney, James Blatt, expressed his concerns, fearing that the movie would prevent Jesse from getting a “fair trial.”

John Paul Hollywood Reis

Nowadays, Jesse James Hollywood is serving life without parole at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. And back in Brazil, there’s a little boy growing up without a dad. A boy named John Paul Hollywood-Reis. He’s Jesse and Marcia’s son.

Susan Markowitz is hugging her father-in-law Sam Markowitz after the sentencing of Jesse Hollywood.
Photo by Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Marcia said she named him John Paul after Pope John Paul the second. She wanted to give him a holy name, one of a man who had done pure deeds, unlike his outlaw dad.

“John Paul is a baby, I don’t know what I’ll tell him when he grows up,” Marcia told the press a few months after giving birth.

They Repaired Their Relationship With Ben

Since the death of his son, Jeff has repaired his relationship with his other son, Ben, who now has a steady job and a healthy family. “If [Ben] had the opportunity to have made things different, I know he would have,” Susan noted, adding, “It was a little strange at first seeing him so often around the house. But the more I saw him, the more I realized that I did miss him.”

Jeff, Susan, and Ben Markowitz outside the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse.
Photo by Paul Wellman

The Markowitzs hope that Nicholas’ death has some meaning. They want this case to teach the young that partying, easy cash, and a drug-fueled lifestyle is a slippery slope… one that might lead to death.

“Lifestyle changes all the time. What’s in today may be out tomorrow,” Susan stated, “Fads go in and out but life it doesn’t come back once it’s gone.”