Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James Hollywood

Lizard's Mouth

A newcomer from Los Angeles had arrived at the scene — packing a TEC-9 automatic pistol. Ryan Hoyt, 21, owed Hollywood $1,000 for drugs. Hollywood called him with an offer: He'd erase the drug debt if Hoyt murdered Nick. Hoyt accepted the trade without flinching.

Ryan Hoyt
Ryan Hoyt

So late that night, after the guests retired, the pool closed, and silence spread through the carpeted hallways of the hotel, the stranger arrived. Lord knows how Hoyt was introduced to Nick, or what reason was given for his sudden presence. One imagines Nick looking searchingly at his kidnappers — who'd grown somewhat fond of the boy over the past couple of days, despite themselves — but that they turned away in burning shame. They knew why Hoyt was there: to take care of Jesse James' business.

When Rugge, Hoyt and Pressley accompanied Nick to the red Ford Escort parked in the inn's lot, he was heavily sedated with marijuana and Valium, according to testimony. He had a hard time sitting straight as the car drove 30 minutes up Highway 154, a scenic route that winds through a lush bucolic landscape of orchards, ranches and vineyards.  The car turned into Los Padres National Forest and stopped beside a trailhead.

Pressley knew the spot well — he frequently hiked there with friends, and earlier that day he'd been there with a shovel to dig a hole. While Pressley waited in the car, Rugge and Hoyt dragged Nick up a rugged dirt trail to a popular campsite called "Lizard's Mouth" that affords sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. There, under a clear starry sky, the two men used duct tape to cover Nick's mouth and to bind his hands behind his back. They guided him to the shallow grave that Pressley had dug beneath a large manzanita bush.

Los Padres National Forest sign
Los Padres National Forest sign

Only his executioners know if Nick was lucid enough during his final moments to comprehend what was happening to him. He didn't have much time to contemplate it. One of the men hit Nick over the head with a shovel, according to media accounts, and then Hoyt took out the semiautomatic and stood over him. He squeezed the trigger, drilling nine bullets into Nick's abdomen and chest, before the gun jammed. The two men dumped Nick's body and the gun into the grave, threw dirt and leaves over it, then ran back to the car. Police would later paint an eight-foot boulder that loomed over the spot with a large orange X to mark the scene of the crime.

Rugge got physically ill after the shooting, but Hoyt marveled at how easy it was.

"That's the first time I ever did anybody. I didn't know he would go that quick," Hoyt said when he climbed back into the car, according to a detective who interviewed the suspects.

At the time his followers were killing Nick, Hollywood was in Los Angeles, celebrating his girlfriend's birthday at an Outback Steakhouse, investigators later learned.

Four days later, hikers noticed a stench beside the trail in Los Padres National Forest, as well as pieces of clothing poking out of the forest litter. They called the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department, which identified the body as Nick's.

It took more than a week before anyone familiar with the "stolen boy" contacted authorities. Finally, one of the teenage girls who saw Nick alive at Rugge's house saw a news report about the murder and talked to an attorney, who in turn notified the police.

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