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Murder on the internet


KILLER AND VICTIM: Super-intelligent Philip Markoff lured Julissa Brisman — a model whom he had chatted to on the website Craigslist to a hotel room where he murdered her. Markoff was suspected of other killings. While in custody he reportedly warned his brother 'there is more coming out'

KILLER AND VICTIM: Super-intelligent Philip Markoff lured Julissa Brisman — a model whom he had chatted to on the website Craigslist to a hotel room where he murdered her. Markoff was suspected of other killings. While in custody he reportedly warned his brother 'there is more coming out'

KILLER AND VICTIM: Super-intelligent Philip Markoff lured Julissa Brisman — a model whom he had chatted to on the website Craigslist to a hotel room where he murdered her. Markoff was suspected of other killings. While in custody he reportedly warned his brother 'there is more coming out'

Online he was "Andy". Tall, blond, handsome. She came up with "Morgan". Her pictures spoke for themselves -- she had been a fairly successful model and an actress before things had come to this.

They chatted for hours on Craigslist, an American buy-and-sell-style classifieds ads site with a strangely impersonal personals section. She told him she had a room at a nearby hotel in the Boston area. Using a newly bought ready-to-go phone he fine-tuned the details of their meeting. She was to give him a massage in the room. He was unfailingly polite and she was not worried. She'd done this before. She had an arrangement with her boss at the beauty salon where she worked; the boss would check up on her and make sure everything had gone OK with this strange man. It had never failed.

Some five hours after the meeting was due to take place the boss called the hotel room where Morgan -- real name Julissa Brisman -- was staying. There was no answer. She tried again and again. By the next morning, she was frantic and tried one last time. This time the phone was answered by a hotel attendant who patched her directly through to Boston's police department. Julissa was dead, they told her. The young model's name was all over the papers. Her boss was needed for questioning.

When "Andy" stole away from the hotel that fateful morning he slipped off his coat, stained with the crimes of the night before, and slipped back on his old identity. With the coat gone and the phone dumped, "Andy" once again became Philip Markoff, the shy but highly intelligent son of divorced parents. As a young man, he excelled at academia and had been accepted to one of the best medical schools in Massachusetts. He was engaged to be married to a beautiful and intelligent second-generation Irish-American girl.

He had, in short, everything going for him. And yet his laptop was a Pandora's Box of damaging secrets. If you had one of his passwords you might have seen him beaming with his wife-to-be on his "engagement website" (only a particularly preppy kind of American could come up with such a thing); if you had another you would have seen blurry pictures of his semi-naked body and a litany of messages from transvestites and prostitutes.

In the end, one of these worlds overtook and destroyed the other. Markoff began his story by tapping his screen name -- sexaddict53885 -- a thousand times a day into his computer. He ended it by scrawling his fiancee's name on a prison cell wall in his own blood.

Megan McAllister, whose family is Irish-American through and through, was deeply in love with Markoff. They were to be married last year in the New Jersey town she came from. Online they had gushed about their meeting as volunteers at a Massachusetts hospital and his swooningly romantic marriage proposal on a beach in Maine. A Bruce Springsteen cover band was to play at their wedding reception. She had already bought her Vera Wang wedding dress and the bridesmaids had been fitted for theirs. She was besotted with this socially awkward New Yorker, who was a couple of years younger than her. They had been accepted by different medical schools but wanted to make sure they were man and wife before college began. Her parents more than approved. Her father sells and installs equipment for children's playgrounds and welcomed Philip into the family as a son.

When police pulled Megan and Philip over as they drove from Massachusetts to Connecticut, she felt sure they must have been speeding. Unbeknownst to her, investigators were already combing through the home she shared with her fiance, finding a gun hidden inside a hollowed-out book, women's underwear concealed inside a sock and thousands of dollars under the mattress. They also seized duct tape, wrist restraints and his computer. Markoff was hauled away for questioning and Megan was left to confront journalists who, in the days to come, would camp outside her parents' home until her father emerged and tearfully asked to be left alone. The New York Daily News described McAllister as a "sweet Irish girl" who had been "taken in" by Markoff. She was, her lawyer would later say, the only person who had ever loved him.

What had so inflamed the media was the nature of the crimes of which Markoff was accused. A woman had been murdered in Boston and two more had been assaulted and robbed. The crimes bore the hallmarks of having been committed by the same person: In a short time frame -- a few days -- all had met their alleged attacker using Craigslist, a labyrinthine free-to-use website which has gained a large number of Irish users in recent years. It was the most popular of first--generation contact websites, where anonymity is preserved at all costs. For years, there had been murmurings about the dark side of Craigslist, and some lawmakers had complained that the website provided a forum for prostitution. Now here, for the first time, was a murder in which the internet seemingly enabled the crime. It was mere days before the press had coined the term, "the Craigslist Killer".

And it wasn't long before the media began to explore the possibility that a serial killer was on the loose. It emerged that only four days before Markoff met and murdered Julissa Brisman, police in Boston had received another call from a masseuse, Trisha Leffler. She had been staying at a similarly swanky hotel -- the Westin Copley Place. She reported that on April 10, 2008, she had met a tall blond man in his early 20s, who had answered an ad of hers on Craigslist. She met him outside the room, she told police, and shortly after they walked inside he produced a gun and ordered her to lie on the floor where he bound her with the same kind of wrist restraints that would be found on Julissa Brisman's body. He rummaged through her suitcase and stole $800 from her. He then donned rubber gloves and used them to delete his number from her phone.

Two days after Brisman's murder, Cynthia Melton, a married waitress who stripped on occasion to make ends meet, began to chat through Craigslist with a young man who wrote that he wanted to have her give him a lap dance. She made an arrangement to meet him at the Holiday Inn hotel in Warwick, Rhode Island, about 40 miles from Boston, at 11pm. Once they were inside the room, the baseball-cap-wearing student pulled a gun on her and made her lie face-down on the floor and bound her wrists with the same kind of plastic restraints which had been used on Leffler and Brisman. Into her gasping mouth he forced a plastic ball of the kind used in sado-masochistic sex games. According to Melton the young man seemed nervous and told her that he did not want to kill her, only to steal her money.

Melton's husband, Keith, whom she had told of the meeting, came to the hotel to check on her at that point. When he saw the young man with the gun Keith staggered backwards in fear and surprise and tripped, at which point his wife's attacker seemed to panic and fled down a nearby stairs. Police would later find his image on CCTV tapes of the activity in the hotel lobby and they would also locate footage of him buying the baseball cap he wore at a local Walmart store.

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We can't know Markoff's state of mind as he stumbled from the hotel that night, but he seemed to underestimate the trail of cyber-footprints that is left behind after almost every online transaction. Most email providers -- Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo -- keep detailed records of every message that is sent back and forth between account holders -- they can access every message you send. And like most websites Craigslist captures the IP (internet protocol address), which can identify the individual computer or network of computers that was used to correspond through the site. In Ireland the IP address of a computer has been used to solve many child porn-related offences.

In America, it's not uncommon for hotels to use software to monitor the usage of Craigslist in their building, thereby giving them an idea of the volume of illicit vice activity going on under their nose. Craigslist management are notoriously slow to cooperate with members of the public whose images are illegally used on their site, however, investigators in this case came armed with subpoenas and court orders, forcing the website to hand over all documentation. The IP address, which was obtained from Craigslist, led police to an internet provider in the Boston area, which had assigned the particular IP address. This in turn lead them to a physical address -- 8 Highpoint Circle in Quincy, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. However, the IP was associated with a router, which meant that anyone who could pick up its signal in the building could have been connected with it. So the police didn't have their man exactly. But they were close enough. And the CCTV footage from the hotel was enough to bring them ever closer.

When Markoff was arrested, police say, he was carrying a driver's licence belonging to another man, Andrew Miller, who had nothing to do with any of the crimes. They found Markoff's fingerprints on the certificate of ownership for the gun he had bought using Miller's licence the previous year. The young medical student's fingerprints were also found on the wall of the hotel room where he had imprisoned Cynthia Melton and on the roll of duct tape recovered from the room in which Trisha Leffler was assaulted. The evidence against him was overwhelming, however, Markoff maintained his innocence. When he was arraigned on April 21, 2008, not a single member of the young New Yorker's family was present. Within his first 24 hours in custody shoelace marks were found on his neck and he was placed on suicide watch. The next day his brother Jonathan visited him in custody and Markoff was reported to have said to him: "Forget about me ... move to California ... there is more coming out."

Friends of Markoff, as well as his teachers, reacted with incredulity to the news that he was the man behind what the Boston Globe called "the city's seven-day reign of terror". One friend set up a Facebook page entitled "Philip Markoff Is Innocent Until Proven Guilty," which soon attracted thousands of supporters. Perhaps the most poignant response, however, came from Megan McAllister. In an email to reporters she described Markoff as "beautiful, inside and out" and added that he "couldn't hurt a fly". In another email to ABC News she wrote: "A police officer in Boston (or many) is trying to make big bucks by selling this false story to the TV stations. What else is new?? Philip is an intelligent man who is just trying to live his life, so if you could leave us alone we would greatly appreciate it. We expect to marry in August and share a wonderful, meaningful life together."

A day after sending this email McAllister, dressed all in black, travelled to Nashau Street Jail in Massachusetts, where she met her fiance for about half an hour. The next day her family's lawyer appeared on TV, describing their meeting as "emotional" and saying, "The wedding that's been planned is obviously off." He added, however, "There's been no break-off of the engagement ... Yes, she believes he's innocent."

During the time when Markoff was carrying out his crimes McAllister had been at home, nursing a bad back, for which she was receiving medical treatment. Unable to move much, she spent her days meticulously planning every aspect of her wedding. Although she had been with Markoff for nearly five years their families did not know each other well, and none of the bridesmaids had even met him. According to those who knew her, she regarded him as a genius and had little doubt that he would pass his exams with flying colours (she had tried to get into the same medical school as him but had failed to make the grade). In a sad irony, her mother had warned her of a man who was said to be preying on young women in the Boston area. Megan wasn't frightened; she had Philip by her side.

By midsummer, she was called to give evidence before a grand jury -- an American legal device which decides if cases will go on for a full trial. Given that she was already in Boston, near to where Markoff was in custody, she took the opportunity to visit him. It was an emotional reunion. According to her lawyer, she told Markoff that she did not expect him to return to medical school. It was reported that she had dumped him during that meeting but the lawyer clarified that by saying that they had not broken up and that she was "the only person who had ever loved him".

The first time Markoff was seen in public after his arrest was at his arraignment. On June 22, 2009, he and his family came face to face with the distraught family of Julissa Brisman -- the woman he had murdered. They had travelled from the Dominican Republic, where they were living at the time (although Julissa was raised mostly on Manhattan's Upper West Side). They denied reports that the young bartender and sometime actress had turned to prostitution. In court Markoff stared straight ahead, refusing to meet their furious gaze. The judge eventually delayed his trial until March 2011, after his lawyer argued that he had already been tried in the media.

Despite this brief reprieve Markoff's mental state was now more precarious. After a visit with McAllister, in which she was again reported to have broken up with him, he was found trying to slice open his wrists using a spoon which he had sharpened to a point using the concrete wall in his cell. He was placed on suicide watch but a few days later, on the evening his wedding was due to take place, Markoff was found to have stockpiled medication he was taking, with a view to taking his own life. He was taken to hospital and evaluated by a psychologist.

He was eventually returned to his cell at Nashua Street Jail and on August 15 last, exactly one year and one day after he was due to be married, Markoff was found dead. The former medical student evidently used a sharpened object to slash major arteries in his ankles, legs and neck. He wrapped his wounds in plastic, covered his head with a plastic bag and stuffed toilet paper down his throat so jail authorities could not resuscitate him, then covered himself head-to-toe with a blanket, sources added. On the wall he had scrawled the word "Megan" as well as what looked like "Pocket" -- a pet name they had for each other.

There were no public outpourings of grief, and Markoff's funeral was held in private. His death denied Julissa Brisman's family of the chance to confront him and hear the details of their loved one's final moments, said Djuna Perkins, an attorney for Brisman's mother, Carmen Guzman. "First, he took their daughter from them, then he denied that opportunity for them," Perkins said. "Many people who deal with homicide never get over it, but the criminal trial allows them to confront the suspect, hear the evidence and reach some resolution in the case."

If justice was denied, the media continued to feast on Markoff's carcass. A television movie about his life premiered this month to enormous viewing figures.

It is thought that he may have been involved on more assaults on young women -- particularly given his reported conversation with his brother.

His crimes left more than just a sensational storyline behind though. They seemed to mark the end point of the first generation of the internet, a place where anonymity was valued above all else. Since Markoff went on his rampage, Craigslist has been left behind by more "open" social networking sites, particularly Facebook. AOL, which once set the standard in America for anonymous communication, was recently valued at $3bn. Facebook by contrast is worth more than $50bn at last estimate. A future generation of criminals may still try to lead double lives online but, unlike Philip Markoff, they won't necessarily be able to hide behind pseudonyms and screen names.

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