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A pretty young model sits in the dark, watching David Copperfield work his magic. As audience members around her are plucked from their seats and put onstage to be a part of the illusionist's world-famous show, she says to her friend, "I'm sure all the people who go up there are actors." But then, suddenly, Copperfield touches her shoulder and says, "Come with me." "He asked me to do a trick with him, and after the show he asked for my phone number," says Belgian model-turned-photographer Ambre Frisque, 29, who met Copperfield at a 2000 show in Brussels and went on to date him for more than three years. "Later on he showed me a tape of the show where he saw me and said, 'Oh my God, she's pretty, I want to meet her.'"

Now another woman who met the magician the same way is accusing him of raping her on his private island in the Bahamas this July. According to the Seattle Times, the unnamed woman, an aspiring model from Washington, told authorities that Copperfield, 51, had an assistant approach her at a Jan. 25 show in Kennewick, Wa., and escort her and her family to special seats before picking her to help him with a trick. The woman claims she later agreed to accompany Copperfield to Musha Cay—his secluded, 150-acre retreat 85 miles southeast of Nassau—but was shocked to discover she was his only guest. During her two-day stay, she told Seattle police and FBI agents, Copperfield assaulted and raped her; a Seattle grand jury is investigating the charges. Copperfield denied any wrongdoing through his attorney, David Chesnoff, who says his client "has never struck, forced himself or threatened any woman." Copperfield himself "is horrified" by the allegations, says friend and art-gallery owner Helly Nahmad. "Nothing here fits; there is no past history. This is out of the blue."

Several of Copperfield's friends and colleagues who spoke with PEOPLE say they are stunned by the charges. "He's a fantastic guy, very caring, and he would never hurt anybody," says Frisque, who split with Copperfield in 2003. The rape charge "is so not him, I'm sure it's impossible." Restaurateur Paul Sevigny has known Copperfield for 10 years and says "he treats women beautifully. And the chicks this guy is with—it's unreal. Five years ago everyone was saying he was gay, and now he's a rapist? Not for a second did I think this could be true."

Yet the Seattle Times reported that investigators have a rape kit assembled shortly after the accuser returned to the U.S. from Musha Cay. On Oct. 17 FBI agents raided Copperfield's rarely seen magic museum and warehouse in Las Vegas. In the wake of leaks to the media by federal officials, the FBI—brought in because the alleged victim travelled in and out of the U.S.—is no longer commenting on the case.

Now the man who walked through China's Great Wall and made the Statue of Liberty vanish must face perhaps his stickiest predicament. Raised in middle-class Metuchen, N.J.—his father owned a clothing store, and his mother was an insurance adjuster—David Seth Kotkin discovered his destiny the day his mom took him to a magic store when he was 10. At 14, he invented a trick mind-reading pen; at 16, he was teaching a college magic course. He went on to host a series of CBS specials on his way to becoming, according to most experts, the premier illusionist of his time.

Along with his reputation for perfectionism and tireless work ethic—he routinely performs as many as 500 shows a year—Copperfield was known to date women he met during his shows. In 1993 he invited model Claudia Schiffer onstage for a trick; just months later they were engaged. The couple stayed together for six years before splitting in 1999, amid rumors their relationship was simply a business arrangement. "Why would Claudia give up all those years of her life for a fake relationship?" Copperfield told PEOPLE in 2001, shooting down the charge. (He also denied rumors about his sexuality, saying, "If I was gay, I'd be proud of it. But God didn't make me that way.")

Friends and colleagues say Copperfield keeps such a hectic schedule that meeting women any other way is difficult. "It's not like David can walk into a bar and mingle," says a female former assistant who helped Copperfield select audience members for tricks. "David never once told me to get pretty girls to join him; his directions were more like, 'Get people who will be energetic.' But other assistants told me he likes young, blonde women, so I sort of gravitated towards them." After his split from Schiffer, says the ex-assistant, he "got more flirty with women in the audience, but even then it wasn't weird. I figured it was just his way of meeting girls."

Not much is known about Copperfield's encounter with his accuser. Apparently she did agree to go with him to Musha Cay, a cluster of four islands that Copperfield bought for $45.5 million in 2006 and that is only accessible by boat and charter plane. Was she, as she claims, the only guest? Possibly, but people familiar with the resort say there are normally at least 10 staffers there. "There were often beautiful women with him," says one ex-employee, "but I never saw anyone there against their will." Austrian model Barbara Duerrer says she accompanied Copperfield to Musha Cay in April 2006, and that after she rejected his romantic attention, he was courteous about it. "We laughed a lot; we had nice dinners," says Duerrer. "It was sweet."

While the grand jury decides whether or not to recommend formal rape and assault charges against Copperfield—who has yet to be interviewed by authorities—his friends have been reaching out and offering support. "He's a perfect gentleman who has always treated his girlfriends with respect and care," says one female friend who has known him for several years. "He's always so sweet; that's why this doesn't make sense. I just don't think David has a dark side."

  • Contributors:
  • Jeffrey Slonim/New York,
  • Molly Lopez/New York,
  • Steve Helling/Orlando,
  • Mark Gray/Las Vegas,
  • Howard Breuer/Los Angeles.