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Say this for Mark Hacking: When it came to playing the role of loyal husband and earnest medical student, he truly had an actor's gift—including the right props. At a family gathering in Salt Lake City in June, for instance, he showed off a new stethoscope that he said he would be taking along when he started medical school at the University of North Carolina in the fall. "He said he was excited to have his name etched on the back," recalls his sister-in-law Stephanie Hacking. Weeks later, while sorting through some college texts with another family member, he described in detail how much he loved one of the classes he'd supposedly taken—abnormal psychology.

Someday, for criminologists, Hacking himself may be considered a textbook case. In the days after his wife, Lori, 27, was reported missing on July 19, it quickly became clear that Mark, 28, had spent years spinning one breath-taking lie after another: Not only wasn't he headed to medical school in North Carolina, he hadn't even graduated from the University of Utah. As for Lori, whom he claimed had disappeared while jogging—that turned out to be another, far more serious, lie. On Aug. 2 Salt Lake police arrested Hacking on a charge of aggravated murder, which carries with it a possible death sentence. Though at press time investigators were still searching the county landfill for Lori's body, Police Chief Rick Dinse declared, "We believe this case is strong enough that we could prosecute without it." According to a police document, investigators have a "reliable citizen witness" who says Mark admitted to killing Lori while she slept and then throwing her body in a trash bin.

Mark's arrest didn't come as much of a shock, even to the couple's families, who as the deceptions tumbled forth could see which way the investigation was heading. "We just have to turn the situation over to the legal system to do what they can do," Mark's father, Douglas, told PEOPLE the day before the arrest. But the question still lingered: How could someone have fooled so many people for so long? "I've been a cop for seven years, and he didn't arouse a single suspicion in me," says Mark's close friend Ross Williams, who has known him since preschool and is now a state probation and parole officer. "He had me 100 percent."

The amazing part is that Hacking worked nearly as hard in carrying out his deception as he would have if he had actually done what he claimed. Though he dropped out of the University of Utah in 2002, he continued to show up on campus with his backpack full of books. At his night job as a psychiatric technician at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute in Salt Lake, coworkers marveled at his dedication to academics. "He'd study, do his homework, write papers," says one colleague. Not only that, he went so far as to pass along some of the bogus term papers to his mother-in-law Thelma Soares for review before he supposedly turned them in.

For years Mark had made no secret of his goal of going to medical school. His father is a respected pediatrician in Orem, Utah, and he had an uncle, now deceased, who was a prominent plastic surgeon. "He said he was interested in becoming a doctor because his dad was," recalls Scott Simpson, who accompanied Hacking on their Mormon mission to Canada in 1996. He considered it a special treat when he was able to visit his uncle and watch him operate. "Mark thought it would be helpful for his future in medicine," says Lori's brother Paul Soares. As for his ultimate specialty, Mark told Soares he was considering oncology.

Hacking also made a show of heading off for the grueling round of interviews that medical schools generally require and begged off social events, saying he was studying for the medical boards. He disappeared for stretches and said he had visited Columbia University in New York City, as well as schools in Chicago, Wisconsin, Vermont, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. "I specifically remember Lori saying it was hard to pay for the trips," says a member of the University Eighth Ward, their Mormon congregation. "But she said even though it was a financial sacrifice, it would pay off in the end."

It is still not clear whether Mark ever left town—or what happened to the money he was spending. His family can only guess why Mark would have constructed such an elaborate alternate reality. His mother, Janet, speculates that a head injury he suffered in his early 20s when he fell off a roof may have made it tough for him to perform as he would have liked in his studies. "He told us only recently that since the head injury he has had a hard time concentrating," she says. "He had to read things four or five times and felt overwhelmed."

His brother Lance, 34, a computer engineer, wonders if there is an even more mundane explanation. "It could be something really small—that he missed the deadline for registering, then kind of missed a semester, but told people he was still going to school," he says. "And maybe it went on from there." In any event, he adds, his brother's failure to finish school wasn't something that would have been a big deal to his family. "It would have been a blip," says Lance. "I've been trying to figure out why he felt bad about his current station in life—if that was how he felt."

Certainly in his upbringing Mark seemed to have considerable advantages. The fifth of seven children, he grew up in a comfortable home in Orem, where his mother was the PTA president and where his father still practices. As a youngster he performed with his sisters in a singing and dancing group called the Sunshine Generation and later fell one badge short of becoming an Eagle Scout. According to his mother, that setback did gnaw at him. "It was an early disappointment," says Janet, "a piece of the puzzle that hurt Mark deeply."

Not that anyone else saw a problem. "All the mothers in the neighborhood loved him," says a longtime family friend. "He always told them they looked good. He was fun, darling and gregarious." Yet, more generally, his mother noticed a troubling part of Mark's personality—he seemed to have difficulty opening up emotionally. "He was outgoing with other people, yet inward with his own feelings," she says. "It seemed easy for him to establish a pattern of not explaining himself or revealing where he was."

Lance recalls his brother as someone who had always been "slow to anger." At his Mormon congregation, where he sometimes taught Sunday school, Mark charmed kids and parents alike with his sunny disposition and evident faith. "When he taught class, you could tell he knew a lot about gospel doctrine," says one congregant. "He was real insightful and enthusiastic too."

In fact, though, Mark's involvement with his church was not always untroubled. During what was supposed to be his traditional Mormon mission, in his case to Canada, he was apparently sent home early for disciplinary reasons. By several accounts it was because he developed a sexual relationship with a local girl he had helped convert to Mormonism. Says one knowledgeable source: "Basically, [he] had an intimate relationship with a girlfriend." "That's definitely against the rules," says Scott Simpson, one of his missionary companions. His mother says that upon his return from Canada, Mark seemed to be suffering from depression and went to see a counselor about it. "He told the counselor he was feeling down on himself because of mistakes," she says. "But he probably didn't stick with it long enough."

The fallout from the mission seemed to have a serious effect on his relationship with Lori, whom he had then been dating for about three years. "Lori was pretty upset about it," says one of her closest friends, Heidi Gregory. "Mark told her his [church partner] had done something wrong and he got sent home too." The strain was such that for a while the two stopped seeing each other. "I'm not sure if he cleared it up for her," says Gregory, "or she just decided to let it go."

Which raises the question of exactly how much—if anything—Lori knew about Mark's academic deceptions. Many of the couple's friends and coworkers have a hard time imagining that the feisty and confident young woman, a sales assistant in the brokerage department at Wells Fargo bank, would have played along with his charade. "She was not a shy, weak person," says Williams. "She wouldn't be afraid to speak her mind." Indeed she had put off marrying Mark at one point because she wanted to take advantage of an internship. "She said she didn't want to get married until she was absolutely ready," says her mother, Thelma. She and Mark were wed in 1999, and she told friends that she wanted to wait on having children until Mark had been accepted to medical school. Shortly before her disappearance, she was telling people that she was five weeks pregnant, although that had not been confirmed by a test at her doctor's.

It now appears that Mark went to considerable lengths to keep Lori in the dark about other things as well. Friends say, for example, that he drank alcohol, which is prohibited by his religion, but never in Lori's presence. On July 18, the night before she was reported missing, Lori and Mark went into the Maverick convenience store in Salt Lake, where Mark stopped several times a week to buy cigarettes, also a taboo for Mormons. The clerk, Eric Holleman, who knew Mark by name, started to strike up a conversation, only to have Mark signal him when Lori's back was turned. "He made the motion of smoking a cigarette and waved his hand to say, 'Don't let her know,' " says Holleman.

Three days before she was reported missing, supposedly while out for an early morning run, Lori got a phone call at work that reduced her to tears, suggesting that she may have suddenly learned the truth about her husband. There is reason to believe that in the days after her disappearance, Mark himself was having a hard time holding everything in. On July 31 he met with his parents in the psychiatric ward of the University of Utah Hospital, where he was being held after showing up naked and disoriented at a hotel parking lot. He told his parents something, and less than two hours later the Hacking and Soares families released a statement saying that any further search for Lori by volunteers was "unnecessary." From that point on, police focused the hunt for Lori's body exclusively on the main landfill in Salt Lake. In his press conference, Chief Dinse said authorities believe that she was killed at the couple's apartment and that her remains are somewhere mixed in with the 3,000 tons of trash strewn over two acres.

It is still uncertain what happened in Lori's last hours. One of the Hackings' neighbors, Devan Hite, says that on the evening she disappeared, he returned home to find his garbage pail, which had been left out front from the night before, containing a foul brownish liquid that was already being fed upon by maggots. "The smell was so disgusting," says Hite, "I thought I was going to faint." He later called the police, who came and took a sample where he had poured the liquid out. According to a police document, cops recovered a knife with human blood on it from the Hackings' apartment and had also discovered blood on the headboard and siderail of the couple's bed. That blood matched samples found in Lori's car. Chief Dinse did say that investigators had a motive for the crime but declined to reveal it. Which left friends and loved ones on both sides of the family wondering how such a ghastly fate had befallen such a luminous young woman. "Our lives will never be the same," said her mother, Thelma, in a statement after the arrest, "and we will grieve for her and miss her until the day we die."

Bill Hewitt. Champ Clark, Carolyn Campbell and Cathy Free in Salt Lake City, Barbara Sandler in Chicago, Lori Rozsa in Miami and Hope Hamashige in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Carolyn Campbell,
  • Cathy Free,
  • Barbara Sandler,
  • Lori Rozsa,
  • Hope Hamashige.