Believing in Markoff: Loyalty or lunacy?

By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin  |  April 24, 2009

IT IS AN all-too-familiar story, though one that continues to bewilder us. Reminiscent of Charles Stuart and Neil Entwistle, local "nice guys" with a dark side, the suspect in the Craigslist murder case turns out to be a handsome 23-year-old medical student, engaged to his college sweetheart.

Those closest to Philip Markoff, the once-promising high achiever, remain incredulous. Despite a pile of incriminating evidence - despite the gun and plastic ties that police say they found during a search of his Quincy apartment, and despite what investigators believe is a collection of women's underwear that belonged to the Craigslist victims - Megan McAllister, Markoff's devoted fiancée, has insisted on his innocence. "Philip is a beautiful person inside and out, and could not hurt a fly!" she wrote in an e-mail to ABC's "Good Morning America."

McAllister's "stand by her man" posture stems not from denial, but from loyalty. The Philip she knows would surely not be capable of perpetrating a crime spree, but that is the very nature of a secreted dark side. While the rest of us profess the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" but always with a wink, to Markoff's fiancée and family the mantra of American jurisprudence is more than just words.

Although she is suspected of nothing more than devotion, local media pundits have had a field day, accusing McAllister of being incredibly naive, if not downright stupid. Why did she not see through his mask of morality? Why did she not turn him into the police long before he had murdered anyone? Are women just so easily blinded by love?

If the criminal charges are true, Markoff fooled nearly everyone in his life, male and female alike - his high school teachers and boyhood friends, the medical school admissions committee, most of his classmates, as well as his family members back home. Almost universally, they viewed him as intelligent but not immoral; they saw him as a normal and decent human being, not a monster.

The suspected Craigslist killer would not be the first to have led two lives. The wife of Ken Bianchi, a man convicted of killing numerous women and girls in California and Washington state, once said that "the Ken I knew couldn't have harmed anyone." Dr. Harold Shipman poisoned to death as many as 500 of his elderly patients; he was considered an effective and caring medical practitioner who was even willing to make house calls to care for his needy patients.

In the Craigslist case, the reaction of the suspect's fiancée says more about him than about her. If Markoff proves to be the killer, then he is also an all-American sociopath, a manipulative and crafty assailant who also happens to be a master at impression management. The sociopathic element was indicated by the fact that the perpetrator was back attacking a woman, this time in Rhode Island, just 48 hours after murdering his victim at the Copley Marriott. Rather than take a holiday from crime, he appears to have extended his string of robberies without any pangs of conscience or remorse.

A trustworthy appearance may have done more than just fool those closest to the killer. It is precisely the veneer of respectability that may have allowed him to victimize young women selling in-call "massage" services out of prestigious Boston hotel rooms. If he looked more like the crazed monster that we might otherwise expect of such a predator, Markoff would not have been able to get past the peep-hole test.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, millions of men are sociopaths - lacking in empathy, they can offend with moral impunity. Fortunately, most do not kill. They might cheat, lie, or womanize, but killing is not their passion - unless you threaten them or become an obstacle to their success.

Charles Stuart, who was employed as the manager of a posh Newbury Street furrier, fatally shot his pregnant wife, Carol, in the head because fatherhood would have cramped his style.

So, rather than criticizing Philip Markoff's fiancée for her allegiance, perhaps we should be thankful: If he turns out to be guilty, at least she was spared.

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are professors at Northeastern University and co-authors of "The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder."