April 30, 2003
Holding on to Nick
A mother struggles to immortalize the life of her murdered son.
She once filled her days with projects at home: gardening, decorating and caring for her son and two stepchildren. All that changed for Susan Markowitz on an August day in 2000, when a knock on her door brought news of the unthinkable: Her son, who had been missing for a week, was found shot to death and hastily buried in a shallow grave in the foothills of Santa Barbara.
"All I wanted was to be a mother," Markowitz said. "I lost my job the day Nick died."
For the next two and a half years, her new job became the pursuit of justice and the immortalization of her 15-year-old son's memory. Out of hundreds of hearings, motions and courtroom proceedings, Markowitz missed only one day -- to attend what would have been Nick's graduation at El Camino High School and pass out "In Memory of Nick" keychains.
As a reporter covering her son's murder trials for several papers, I was consistently impressed with the West Hills woman's stamina, having to endure five trials -- many times sitting alone -- and her dignity. She always appeared calm, even in the face of difficult testimony, which not only attacked Nick's character, but detailed the brutality of his death. At one point, the stress was so severe, that she experienced excruciating back pain and had to go to the emergency hospital.
When I asked the 44-year-old woman how she dealt with the pressure, she responded, "Many times I disconnected myself. I got through Hoyt's sentencing by picturing myself in Nick's nursery."
Ryan Hoyt, 22, was the first to go on trial. He was convicted of shooting Nick in the head and torso nine times with a semiautomatic weapon. That day, while she was picturing herself with Nick as a baby, Hoyt received the death penalty.
Markowitz often carried Nick's leather bomber jacket into the courtroom. It was her way of honoring her son and ensuring everyone remembered that an innocent life was senselessly lost.
She received thousands of messages and prayers from people she knew and also from complete strangers. Many of these she hopes to include in a book some day.
Markowitz credits victim's advocate Joan Fairfield, who works for the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office, with helping her through tough spots during the trials. There were times Markowitz said she wanted to stand up and shout out in Nick's defense, but Fairfield warned her not to stoop to their level.
"For someone who's never been a victim herself, she knows exactly how it feels," Markowitz said. "She's such a comforter."
I had a chance to visit with Markowitz again in late March, after the trials had concluded. We talked about what her life's been like since Nick's death and what's in store for her now.
Her remarks are brutally honest, at times shocking. She balances that with a sense of humor that's both stabbing and hilariously funny at the same time. Despite gaining some 65 pounds during the ordeal, she is still a strikingly attractive, blue-eyed blonde.
"There are days I can't get out of bed," she admitted, and days when she has "spurts of energy that'll blow you away."
She has printed dozens of wanted posters on Jesse James Hollywood, a 25-year-old suspect in Nick's murder, who has never been caught. Recently, she made hundreds of care packages for her nephew's Navy unit currently deployed in Iraq.
Most days, Markowitz finds it hard to focus, hard to make commitments that might fulfill a deep urge to help others, like starting a fundraising organization to help families of other missing children raise reward money or writing a book on her struggle with the death of her only child.
One thing is for certain: It's a good day when she can talk about Nick.
"Nick had a beautiful respect for his faith. He was proud to be Jewish," his mother said. "He was a teenager going through some stuff here and there, but he had, without a doubt, a real good, solid inner being." In a journal he kept with his mother, he often signed his name "Rabbi Nick."
"Who knows," Markowitz said. "Maybe he could have become a rabbi."
Markowitz recently completed a writing course at UCLA and said it was very therapeutic, despite her first assignment.
"I was asked to write my own obituary," she said. "Actually having attempted suicide twice and them not knowing who I was and what I'd been through, I had my first real severe anxiety attack."
Markowitz said her hands were dripping wet and her heart racing. She wanted to cry, but she didn't. Instead, she got her feelings under control and stuck it out, eventually writing an obituary that began: "Susan A. Markowitz died of a broken heart on Aug. 15, 2000."
Markowitz has sought the advice of professionals. Her mother, Arleen Benner, moved in with her. But she no longer gardens, no longer creates the porcelain dolls that adorn her bedroom. Her living room walls remain half-painted. Her house, which she once loved so well, no longer feels like a home.
"I see Nick everywhere -- standing there, sitting here, playing outside with his dog, Zack," she said.
It's not that she minds seeing him, but she wonders how healthy it is.
"This house is a shrine to Nick," she admitted.
The evidence of that is overwhelming. There are poster-sized pictures of her son in every room. Every inch of furniture is cluttered with his personal belongings and bar mitzvah gifts. His room stands just as it was before his death, except for the baby things that came out of storage and are now displayed on bookcases.
As details of Nick's death surfaced, one of the hardest elements for Markowitz to come to terms with was learning about her stepson's involvement.
Nick was abducted only blocks away from his West Hills home by the friends of Benjamin, his older half-brother. These "friends" beat Nick, threw him into their van and drove him to Santa Barbara, because Ben owed one of them $1,200 for drugs. Even though the drug debt had nothing to do with Nick, his captors killed him two days later to avoid retribution for his kidnapping.
"Nick died for his brother Ben," Markowitz said. "He did nothing to escape, because he felt his brother would come and save him. In my opinion, Ben has done nothing in memory of that."
It's a sore point for Markowitz, and one that she said may come between her and Jeff, her husband of 18 years and Ben's father.
"Jeff wants to be part of Ben's life," Markowitz said. "He deserves to be the father and grandfather that he is. He's awesome, and he's a great husband, too."
However, she added, "I don't want to have anything to do with him [Ben], and it's difficult to share a life with someone [Jeff] who has different strings."
Ben, now 24, lives with his fiancée, who is expecting their first child. His older sister, Leah, Nick's half-sister, is married with two young children.
The other three young men arrested in Nick's kidnapping and murder, along with Hoyt, have been convicted and sentenced. Jesse Rugge, 22, found guilty of kidnapping for ransom, received life in prison with the possibility of parole. William Skidmore, 22, pleaded guilty to felony kidnapping and robbery and is serving nine years in prison. Graham Pressley, 19, must serve time in a juvenile facility until his 25th birthday for second-degree murder.
Hollywood, the alleged ringleader, led police on a weeklong chase across state lines and remains a fugitive.
Ironically, a videotape of Nick discussing the justice system of ancient Israel during his bar mitzvah was played at Pressley's sentencing hearing in the murder case.
In the wake of Nick's murder and the trials that followed, everything is different now for Markowitz. Songs that she once loved, make her bitter. It's hard to enjoy anything, because she knows her son can't.
"You listen to everything. You smell things differently. There's nothing that isn't affected by Nick's death," admitted Markowitz.
Even talking about Nick can be difficult for Markowitz. "I'll be talking, and then all of a sudden I panic, remembering who I am. I don't want to be me."
Marianne McCarthy is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara. She covered the Markowitz case for the Daily News of Los Angeles.