INSIDE STORY: Who Is 'Craigslist Killer' Philip Markoff?

INSIDE STORY: Who Is 'Craigslist Killer' Philip Markoff?
Philip Markoff
Mark Garfinkel/AP

04/22/2009 AT 09:00 AM EDT

Who is the real Philip Markoff, the preppy Boston University medical student now also known as the "Craigslist Killer"?

Is he a "beautiful man inside and out" as his doting fiancée, Megan McAllister, who was with Markoff at the time of his arrest, claimed Tuesday in an email to PEOPLE proclaiming his innocence? Or is he a cold-hearted "predator," as Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley called him Monday night after announcing his arrest for the April 14 slaying of aspiring model Julissa Brisman, 26?

The answer depends on whom you ask. The only thing clear is that Markoff's arrest shocked those who knew him. "We never would have thought Phil was capable of this," said Kymberly Direnzo, 23, a friend of Markoff's from his Quincy, Mass., apartment building. "I'm almost praying that they caught the wrong guy, because I can't even imagine what his fiancée is going through at this time."

His fiancée, though, is standing by her man. "Philip has not been convicted," McAllister wrote in an email to PEOPLE. "A policeman who wished to make money off this story sold it to countless companies. Philip is a beautiful man inside and out and did not commit this crime. Unfortunately, somebody else did and needs to be penalized. Philip was set up and you are wrong to be asking me for stories."

Motive Unclear

At the time of Markoff''s arrest, he and McAllister were headed toward the Foxwoods casino. He had more than $1,000 cash on him, Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney's office tells PEOPLE – adding that a gambling motive is just one avenue investigators are exploring.

"It's far too early to ascribe any motive to this," Wark told PEOPLE Wednesday morning. Describing Markoff's alleged activities, Wark said, "The actions he took suggest a darker motive than a purely financial one. He chose vulnerable women who would be reluctant to speak out. His actions suggest a desire to dominate women, to control women and to visit violence upon women."

Markoff, 23, grew up in Sherill, N.Y., not far from Syracuse, and went to Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School, where he was on the bowling team, youth court and history club. He was also in the National Honor Society.

Smart, But Geeky

"Phil was smart," a high-school classmate who asked not to be identified, told PEOPLE. She added, "He worked hard and seemed to really enjoy school. He was not afraid to voice his opinions, which you could tell he believed strongly. He had a small, tight-knit group of friends he seemed happy with, but he was also the butt of a lot of jokes – I would say he was definitely geeky."

Markoff went on to attend the State University of New York at Albany, where he met McAllister in 2005 while both were volunteering at a local hospital, according to their now-defunct wedding Web site. They were to be married in an evening ceremony on the beach in Long Branch, N.J., on Aug. 14.

Jesse Brukman, 25, who met Markoff at SUNY-Albany through a mutual friend, told PEOPLE, "He was a bit awkward but perfectly pleasant. He had a real goofy smile and always wore tight polo shirts. He was a big, lanky guy with a sharp nose. Didn't talk much, but I definitely didn't see him killin' people in the future. But I guess everyone says that about murderers?"

With additional reporting by DIANE HERBST

For more on the Craigslist murder, including why, in her own words, the suspect's fianceée is sticking with him, pick up the next issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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