by lyle e davis
He had it all, Gator did. He was 17 years old and was earning more than $100,000 a year.
He was handsome, talented, athletic, personable. When he traveled he traveled by limousine, and then first class on aircraft. He had money, lots of it, women, lots of them, celebrity, lots of it, and cocaine. Lots of it. He had other drugs as well, including alcohol.
And then he blew it all.
He murdered a young girl while in a drug/alcohol rage. He disposed of her body and it would have become an unsolved crime had it not been for the influence of a lay-pastor who heard the story and told him he had to confess to authorities.
He is now serving 25 years to life in Donovan State Prison near San Diego.
My family knew Mark “Gator” Rogowski. He had been in our home. I don’t recall him then, but my ex-wife and two sons recall him quite well. He would come over to the house, munch on pizza, swim in our pool, and yak with the kids.
I met him years later, after he had become an inmate at Donovan State Prison.
My associate publisher, Evelyn Madison, also knew Mark Rogowski. He wasn’t called ‘Gator’ until he became famous as a skateboarder. Rogowski had played baseball on Evelyn’s late husband’s Gene’s Little League baseball team.
“He was just an ordinary kid,” she said. “Full of laughter, good looking, athletic . . . no one would ever dream of the direction his life would take.”
“He was cool,” said my youngest son, Ken. “I knew he’d smoked some pot (marijuana) when he was at the beach, but I never knew he got so strung out on heavy duty stuff. He hadn’t become a Jesus freak yet. Nor had he become famous. He was well known as a skateboarder and surfer. I went surfing with him many times.”
To understand the end game, we have to start at the beginning.
Born Mark Anthony Rogowski in Brooklyn, he moved with his mother and older brother to San Diego at age three, following his parents' divorce. They ended up here in Escondido, our little sun baked, middle-class suburb in northern San Diego County. Classic Reagan country, with surfers, malls, churches, and loads of disaffected middle-class youth, it was here that Gator, at age seven, discovered skating.
"I grew up without a father from day one," Gator told Thrasher magazine interviewer M.Fo in 1987, "and my brother kinda filled that gap. He was a bitchin' influence on me. He made me a good baseball player and an athlete in general. What was cool was that he was stoked that I was skating, too. Skating was somewhat deviant."
By 1977, Gator, ten, was skating regularly, but because he didn't have as much money as his friends he didn't quite fit in. "I was a social outcast back then," he told Thrasher. "My fellow skater friends were all hyped on the surf thing - who had what board, the newest O.P.'s, and who had a Hang Ten shirt. Then there I was, running around in Toughskins, y'know ...”
Gator developed his skills at a local skatepark. He found a new set of skating friends. "These guys were so into it, having such a good time, sweatin' and laughin' and crackin' jokes and just snakin' each other. When they went into the bowl, their expressions changed to a 'going into battle' expression, going for it, no holds barred. When they popped out of the bowl, they'd get a smile on their faces and yelp and chime. It was hot."
An obvious talent, young Gator was picked up by the skate- park team and began winning local contests. Bigger sponsors followed, and in 1982 he won the Canadian Amateur Skate-boarding Championships in Vancouver, British Columbia, his first major title. With his green eyes and dark, lean good looks, charming personality, and aggressively physical skating style, he rose to the top rank of the sport.
One of his fellow skating stars, Tony Hawk:
"That was a great time for us," says Hawk, who has been called the Wayne Gretzky of skating. "We were making a ton of money, we flew all over the world, there were skating groupies at every stop. It was pretty cool to see a bunch of guys from San Diego County at the center of this huge thing. No doubt, we were stoked."
Money flowed freely. Gator would get royalties of $2 for every skate board bearing his name that was sold. Monthly sales would often hit seven thousand, netting Gator $14,000. He also had his contest winnings and endorsed a number of products made by Vision Sport, a skateboard merchandising company. There were Gator shirts, berets, hip packs, videos, stickers, posters -- it seemed kids couldn't get enough of him.
On one of those many wild tour dates, in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1987, Gator, then twenty-one, met two beautiful seventeen-year old blondes from rich families, Jessica Bergsten and Brandi McClain. Brandi and Gator partied that entire weekend, which wasn't unusual considering the groupies who awaited him in every town. Brandi and Gator became a couple and she moved in with him in Carlsbad, one block away from the beach.
They went and did everything together. "We would get high every night," says Brandi. "We wouldn't do coke every night, but we’d do bong hits, we'd go to the Sand Bar at the end of his street, and get screwed up. Then we'd hang out in his Jacuzzi, get drunk on our asses, and go in and have wild sex all night."
Gator would fly Brandi to Brazil and Europe while he was on tour.
In Carlsbad, the unofficial skateboarding capital of the world, Gator had become a megastar. Surfboard shops would just give him all the equipment he wanted, skaters would ask for his autograph or Gator stickers to put on their boards.
Change was in the air, however. By the late eighties, a new form of skateboarding had taken over as the top level of the sport. It was called street skating, where skaters opted for urban obstacles like curbs, garbage cans, and stairways over the traditional skate board parks.
Vertical ramp skating techniques, of which Gator was the master, were rapidly becoming obsolete. Vision, the company that sponsored Gator and dozens of other top skaters, had come upon hard times and was about to file Chapter Eleven.
Then, in October 1989, after a competition in West Germany, the party animal in Gator reared up and bit him. In a drunken stupor he fell, or jumped, or flew, accounts vary, out of a second story window. Following recovery from this ‘accident’ Gator claims a religious conversion.
When Gator's wounds healed, he joined a friend who was known locally as a ‘Jesus freak,’ Augie Constantino. He started covering his boards with religious symbols and preaching to skaters, surfers, and anyone else who would listen about his "secret friend," Jesus. Witt Rowlett, owner of Witt's Carlsbad Pipelines, the premier surf shop in Carlsbad, says that everyone was amazed. "I believe in the Lord, don't get me wrong," says Rowlett. "But Mark was just fanatic. Everything he said was 'Jesus this, the Bible that.' He was way into it."
Others, however, dismissed it as typical behavior from Gator. "Yeah, he was fanatic, but that's just it, he was fanatic about every thing," says another friend. "That was just Gator."
But Brandi would have none of it. Gator dragged her along to Calvary Chapel a few times, but she wasn't ready for the party to end. "We literally had sex five times a day, we were so in love," says Brandi. "Then he met Augie and started saying, 'We can't have sex anymore unless we get married.' And I'm like, 'Wait a minute. We've been going out for four years, having mad sex for four years, and we can't have sex anymore? I can't deal with this. Later.'
Brandi moved in with her mother and stepfather, who had recently moved to San Diego.
Following the breakup with Brandi, "Everything that I hated about Brandi, I hated about Jessica," (Brandi’s girlfriend) Gator would later tell the police. "She was of the same mold that Brandi was made of."
He told the police that he blamed Jessica for his breakup. Jessica, of course, had no idea about any of this. Like Brandi, Jessica was tall, blond, and beautiful, and her friends remember her as tough, savvy, and adventurous.
On Wednesday, March 20, Jessica and Gator returned to his condo with some movies and a few bottles of wine. After gorging themselves with the wine, Gator wound up hitting her two or three times in the head and face with a metal steering-wheel lock from a skateboard. Her blood soaked through the carpet . . . but she was still barely conscious. He handcuffed her and carried her upstairs to his bedroom. There, he shackled her onto the bed, cut her clothes off with scissors, and raped her for two or three hours, eventually strangling her. He would stuff her body into a surf board bag, carry her to the trunk of his car, and head for the desert, some two hours away.
At a desolate place called Shell Canyon, he buried her naked body in a shallow grave. Upon returning home he cleaned out every spot of blood he could find with a rented carpet steamer. When police came to question him about her disappearance a couple of weeks later, there was no evidence to be found.
Posters describing the missing Jessica were spread around Carlsbad and other North County surfing spots.
Gator continued to surf, to skateboard, to party . . . and to preach on street corners with his friend, Constantino.
Then one day he broke down and confided in Constantino:
"'Remember that girl in the poster? She was the one I killed!'"
Constantino remembers what he told Gator as he drove him to the police department in the early morning of May 5- "I said to him, 'Mark, you don't need a lawyer. You don't need innocent until-proven-guilty. What do you need a lawyer for, if you answer to a higher power? If a person is accountable to God, then he's accountable to society - the Bible says that.'
The police didn’t even know a murder had been committed. Yet here was someone turning himself in. It normally doesn’t work that way in police work. Jessica's body had been found in the desert by some campers on April 10, but the body was so badly decomposed that it could not be identified.
After turning himself in, Gator took detectives the next morning to the site.
The media had a field day when the police announced Gator's confession. Local, regional, national and world media all covered the story.
The skateboarding community was also in shock. They knew since Gator had become a ‘Jesus freak’ that he was something of a fanatic . . . that he was always a little bit ‘out there,’ but they never dreamed he’d do something like this.
Gator was charged with "special circumstances," committing a murder during rape, which under California law can warrant the death penalty or life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
His public defender lawyer, John Jimenez, immediately challenged the validity of the confession, saying that Gator's minister had no right to turn him in. Jimenez appealed the rape charge, insisting that the decomposed body could show no signs of forcible rape. Although he never denied that Gator had killed Jessica, he did all he could to tarnish her reputation, as though, somehow, it was her fault that Gator had killed her.
After the higher court refused to toss out the rape charge, on Jimenez's advice, Gator pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape, thus avoiding the death penalty or life without chance of parole. At his January 1992 hearing in which he entered his plea, Gator submitted a four-page written statement which accepted responsibility for the murder but professing his true remorse. He tried to explain and express his sorrow and regret over what had happened. He then proceeded to claim the three things that led him into this horrible situation and the loss of Jessica’s life was first, his having sex outside of marriage, his promiscuity; secondly, pornography, and third, disobeying and ignoring the Bible. Gator's sentencing took place on March 6. Five uniformed bailiffs used a hand-held metal detector to screen each observer. They had received information that Stephen Bergsten, who would attend the hearing with his wife, Kay, was going to try to harm Gator. Eight months earlier Bergsten had been indicted, along with forty four others, as part of a nationwide drug ring. With his property in two states seized by the government and his daughter brutally murdered, there was speculation that he had nothing left to lose by killing Gator.
With the bailiffs standing between Bergsten and Gator, the skater offered a solemn apology to Jessica's family, asking them to forgive him. "God has changed me, and it was no typical jail house conversion," pleaded Gator. "I sincerely hope that they can accept my apology for my carelessness."
"Carelessness?" Bergsten shouted. "He is a child-murderer and child-rapist. He is evil incarnate." Gator, along with many others in the courtroom, cried as Bergsten continued in an angry twenty-minute monologue. "Cowards die a thousand times and he will die a thousand deaths," Bergsten shouted, his voice breaking. "He raped her and raped her and raped her and then thought, 'Let's kill her.' We couldn't say goodbye to Jessica because that filth left her with nothing but a piece of skin, left her for the coyotes and the goddamned birds to eat her." He glared directly at Gator and said in a firm voice. "I told you - and you remember, Rogowski - what would happen if anyone hurt my daughter. He says he's undergone a religious conversion. Judge, you must have heard that same story one hundred times. If he underwent a religious conversion, it was to evil, degradation, filth, and Satanism."
Gator was sentenced to consecutive terms of six years for forcible rape and twenty-five years to life for first-degree murder. Gator will not be eligible for parole until 2010 at the earliest. He is serving his time at Donovan State Prison, on Otay Mesa, just south of San Diego.
This is where I met Gator.
For six years I headed up a group known as “Los Caballeros de Aventura,” (The Gentlemen of Adventure). Primarily aimed at diverting Latino kids from joining gangs, we would take the kids hiking on the first Saturday of every month, flying airplanes (the real ones, not models) on the second Saturday, and other times we’d go camping . . . or other adventures. The idea was that the kids had so much fun discovering and enjoying life’s adventures that they had neither the time nor inclination to join gangs.
It was a tremendous success. I still see ‘kids’ today who have grown, married, and now have children of their own and I know that Caballeros played an important part in keeping those kids out of gangs.
One of the adventures we took kids on was the visit to Donovan State Prison. Here, a group of dedicated inmates, formed an organization known as CROP (Convicts Reaching Out to People). Their mission was to tell their story to young kids, and other interested parties, so youngsters wouldn’t make the same mistakes they had made.
Most of these inmates were lifers . . . most were in for murder. A great many of them were, surprisingly, rather pleasant people. One by one they would speak to the group, introducing themselves, telling what they were in for, under what circumstances, and how they got there. It never failed to make an impression on the kids.
One of the inmates who had initially joined this group was Gator. He had tried to surround himself with other born-again Christians in prison (though some of the inmates are of other faiths, including Islam).
I met Gator and asked him if he remembered my ex-wife, Mary, my eldest son, Scott, and youngest son, Kenny. He had a vacant look in his eyes and then said, unconvincingly, “Oh, yeah. How are they?”
He had not remembered them - he just pretended to. This was a lad who had been to our home, munched on pizza, swam in our pool . . . and now his brain was so fried he couldn’t remember someone who had been fairly close friends.
In time, I learned that Gator had been ‘excused’ from the CROP group. The other inmates told me, privately, that they didn’t trust him, they thought him to be a phony, and that for him to be telling his story to the kids smacked of artificiality and they would have none of it.
I have no sympathy for Gator. He is exactly where he should be. There are other inmates I have met who I think would benefit by being released, and do no further harm to society . . . but Gator is not one of them.
As to the other players in this rather sad story, Augie Constantino is continuing his studies to be a minister, while cleaning up the Calvary Chapel. He still preaches to surfers and skaters in the San Diego area working with a group called Skaters for Christ.
Brandi lives in a penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side, in New York, working as a flower arranger.
Jessica's remains were buried in a family plot in Georgia.
Editor’s Note: In preparing this story we relied upon a combination of personal and family memories, interviews with other local parties who knew Gator, from court records, from a 1987 edition of Thrasher magazine author/interviewer M.Fo, and from The Village Voice, December 8, 1992, Cory Johnson, author.
There is also a recent documentary, called: Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator.
It stars Mark “Gator” Rogowski and looks at both him and the skateboarding phenomenon of the 1980’s. Directed by Helen Stickler, it has been rated as a “must see” by critics nationwide.