A Savage Killing, Startling Suspects

updated 12/10/2007 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/2007 01:00AM

Back home in Seattle, few college students seemed more fun-loving than Amanda Knox. On her MySpace page, she talked about how much she enjoyed yoga, rock climbing and soccer, as well as "dressing like a dork"—though she did call herself "Foxy Knoxy." Her musical tastes ran toward classic British rock, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, while her reading habits revolved around the textbooks she pored over as an Italian language major at the University of Washington. Expanding her horizons, she decided to take her junior year abroad, moving last September into a quaint, two-story apartment house overlooking a beautiful valley in Perugia, Italy. There she also landed a part-time job at a popular bar and found herself a handsome catch of a boyfriend: a doctor's son. "She's outgoing, kind to people," says Jeff Tripoli, a friend and news editor for the UW paper. "She is not a villain."

Italian law-enforcement authorities see a much different picture. They accuse the seemingly clean-cut, athletic prep-school grad of being a central player in a bizarre sex- and drugs-saturated murder that has made headlines worldwide. They've named Knox, 20; her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 23, a student at the University of Perugia; and Rudy Hermann Guede, 20, a reported drug dealer, as suspects in the brutal killing of Knox's roommate Meredith Kercher, 21, a British exchange student. Police, answering a routine call about missing cell phones placed by a neighbor, found Kercher's body Nov. 2 after forcing the locked door to her room. Blood was everywhere. Kercher, lifeless on the floor under a duvet cover, had been raped, and her throat had been cut—possibly, theorize police, resisting an "extreme" sex game.

Knox's family insists she is innocent of any wrongdoing, but at the very least she has much to explain. For one, police say they found traces of DNA from both Knox and Kercher on a knife in Sollecito's home, as well as Knox's bloody fingerprint on a bathroom tap in the flat. And, according to a 19-page judge's report, Knox and her boyfriend have changed their alibis several times. Knox denied she was even in the house on the night of Nov. 1. Then she claimed that a local bar owner had a crush on Kercher and that she saw him go into the bedroom with her. Knox told police that she then heard screams so loud that she covered her ears. "After that I don't remember everything," she said. "My head is very confused." (Knox blamed the discrepancies on smoking hashish.)

The bar owner Diya "Patrick" Lumumba, who had hired Knox to work the late shift in his club Le Chic, was taken into custody but was released 13 days later. So why did Knox accuse him? "Amanda was angry with me because I wanted to fire her," Lumumba, 37, tells PEOPLE. "She just kept flirting and chatting up my clients at the bar, and I thought that it was not appropriate." In fact he says he told her he intended to hire Kercher, who was quite popular with fellow students, in her place. "Meredith was sparkly; she lifted your spirits," says Lumumba. "Amanda wanted to be queen bee, and it became clear she wasn't."

Police have yet to reveal precisely what role Knox or her boyfriend, Sollecito, might have played in the crime. But it is clear that Sollecito—described in the Italian press by his aunt as "very sensitive"—was captivated by Knox. In a letter from jail released by his father, Franco, a noted urologist, Sollecito complains that Knox had "an almost nonexistent contact with reality" and that "her only goal was to search for pleasure at all times." Yet, he admits, "I thought she was out of this world." On the day after Kercher's body was found, both he and Knox were captured on a store's security camera shopping for lingerie and kissing passionately.

In recent days police have paid particular attention to another suspect, Guede, who admits he was in the students' apartment and claims that he had consensual sex with Kercher. Guede, a drifter who has been around Perugia since he was 5, fled to Germany after the murder and was not arrested until Nov. 20. Police say he left behind DNA in Kercher's room. Guede is expected to be extradited to Italy by early December, when police hope to question him more thoroughly. But his attorney says he has nothing to hide. Despite the evidence against Guede—his bloody thumbprint was found in Kercher's bedroom, and his DNA was found on her body—"Rudy is eager to return to Italy to proclaim his innocence," says his attorney Walter Biscotti. Through his lawyers Guede not only denies guilt, he claims he tried to save Kercher. He says that after having sex with her, he was in the bathroom listening to his iPod. When he came out, he claims, he found a man assaulting Kercher and then battled the man until he escaped. He claims he did not go to the authorities for fear of being framed.

As the investigation continues and new, sometimes conflicting, details emerge on an almost daily basis, Knox's parents have flown to Italy to stand by their daughter, who remains in an Italian jail. "Amanda is very tired by the whole incident," her lawyer Luciano Ghirga told PEOPLE. "But she is holding up well and is determined to fight this through until the truth emerges." A prison chaplain who briefly visited Knox later told reporters she had started a diary, adding, perhaps unnecessarily, that she had a lot in her heart to think about.

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