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Authors: Linda Fairstein

Killer Charm

Killer Charm:
The Double Lives of Psychopaths
From the Files of Linda Fairstein
Linda Fairstein

Introduction

During my thirty-year prosecutorial career, many of the cases my colleagues and I took to trial involved sexual predators who disarmed their victims simply by virtue of the “mask of sanity” that psychopaths present to the world.

My first high-profile trial, in 1977, involved a well-respected dentist who sedated patients so that he could molest them while they were semi-conscious. “Not possible!” the media and general public responded when he was arrested. Dr. Marvin Teicher was distinguished-looking, married, and had a great reputation as a dental practitioner. When I wrote
Killer Charm
in 2009, the country was shocked by the murder of a twenty-five-year-old masseuse in a hotel room in Boston—a victim of the mysterious “Craigslist Killer.” As other attacks occurred in the area, people were shocked to find that videotapes revealed a handsome young man who casually walked away from the scenes of the crimes. Philip Markoff, the twenty-three-year-old medical student soon charged with the murder and other attacks, was a poster boy for this kind of unexpected psychopathic killer. The superficial charm exhibited by an astounding number of dangerous psychopaths is one of their best weapons to overcome potential victims.

Almost a year after I wrote this piece, on the anniversary of the date Markoff had planned to marry his fiancée, he wrote her name—Megan—in blood on the wall of his jail cell. The unlikely killer had slashed his arteries with a pen that he carved into the shape of a razor. He then covered his head with a plastic bag and stuffed toilet paper in his throat, killing himself before his cases could go to trial.

This horrific end to the predator’s life only provoked more questions: Had anyone known that Markoff was a psychopath before his crimes came to light? Was life not worth living to him, now that the world knew his sane demeanor was only a façade? The extent of Markoff’s spree, like those of Teicher and infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, forces us to think about how easy it is to deny that a seemingly “normal” person living among us could be capable of inhuman crimes.

Killer Charm

A
T 10:15 ON THE EVENING
of April 14, 2009, Boston detectives responded to emergency calls from the posh Marriott Copley Place hotel. A young woman, later identified as 25-year-old Julissa Brisman, had been found lying in the doorway of her hotel room on the 20th floor. She had been hit over the head and shot three times. One bullet entered her heart and killed her almost instantly.

Brisman was an aspiring actress and model from New York City, a petite and striking woman who had also worked on and off as an erotic masseuse, advertising her services on Craigslist. It soon emerged that she’d planned to meet an online client that night in Boston. When police uncovered the Craigslist connection, they were instantly reminded of another case: Just four days earlier, in a room at Boston’s nearby Westin Copley Place hotel, a 29-year-old woman who’d listed herself in the erotic-services section on Craigslist had also been attacked by her client. In that case, the assailant pulled out a gun, bound her hands behind her back, and robbed her before vanishing.

As investigators struggled to pull together leads in the two cases, another hotel attack occurred just over the state line in Rhode Island. Two days after Brisman’s murder, another woman who had advertised erotic services on Craigslist was tied up by her client in a room at the Holiday Inn Express, but the assault was interrupted and the attacker escaped.

In the press, the Craigslist Killer case began to take on a psycho-on-the-loose,
Silence of the Lambs
kind of sordidness: The guy appeared smart and brazen, yet it was hard to picture him as anything other than a lowlife—perhaps an ex-con with a history of robbery or murder, someone who’d give you the creeps if you shared a hotel elevator with him.

But when the cops arrested a suspect within the week, the public was in for a shock. Security-video footage showed a good-looking guy strolling away from two of the crime scenes while casually checking his cell phone. Investigators tracked him through e-mail forensics and other evidence and, on April 20, arrested the man identified as the alleged Craigslist Killer as he drove on the interstate with his fiancée. He was later charged with murder and multiple other crimes.

In all other ways, though, the alleged killer defied most people’s assumptions of what evil looks like. Philip Markoff, 23, was a medical student at Boston University. Tall, handsome, from a solid family, and with no criminal record, he was living with his fiancée, 25-year-old Megan McAllister, a fellow med student he had met in college while both were volunteering at a local hospital. They were reportedly planning a beach wedding in August.

Friends of Markoff spoke out immediately, backing McAllister’s statements to the press that “he wouldn’t hurt a fly” and describing him as personable and highly intelligent. News articles mentioned his good looks, as though his physical appearance was an indicator of good behavior. The mainstream media repeatedly used expressions like
clean-cut
and
all-American
in describing him.

But as Boston police continued to amass critical evidence, the picture darkened. Investigators found a stash of women’s underwear—which they characterized as souvenirs from victims—in the springs of the bed Markoff shared with McAllister. Detectives also found zip ties (the kind used to bind the two robbery victims) and a semiautomatic gun in a hollowed-out copy of every med student’s bible,
Gray’s Anatomy
.

You can’t help but wonder: Is it possible that Megan McAllister had no clue that there was something not quite right about the man she planned to marry? All my investigative experience causes me to doubt that. But that is just one of many mysteries that surround the psychopathic personality and the people he deceives.

A Psychopath’s Mask

Many of the details that have emerged about Markoff’s personality fit the criteria for a psychopath: someone (usually male) who almost entirely lacks empathy but can appear normal, even charming and brilliant. Psychopaths apply their intelligence to mimicking conventional behavior; they are both great actors and heartless predators. There are about 1 million in the United States, or about 1 percent of the adult male population (but as much as 25 percent of the prison population). In other words, they can be anywhere. And since their danger flies under the radar, it’s important to understand how they operate.

In my 26 years supervising the sex-crimes unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, my colleagues and I prosecuted many people who fit the psychopath criteria: dentists and doctors, teachers and lawyers, accountants and professors, college students and the wealthy heirs of prominent parents.

I got my first exposure to the type when, as the newly designated chief of the bureau, I was assigned to the trial of Marvin Teicher, a distinguished-looking and highly respected dentist. A brilliant police investigation, in which a female detective went undercover as a patient, revealed his true character: Teicher was captured on film molesting the sedated woman.

I was as astonished as the rest of the public to discover that a prominent health-care professional—a man whose hobby was starring in musical comedies in an amateur theatrical group—was also a repeat sexual predator. Teicher was my introduction to the elaborate double lives led by psychopaths and to the disguising power of their outward appearance of respectability: their college degrees, their breeding, and often their good looks.

Many psychologists call this power the mask of sanity, a phrase most famously applied to the charming, handsome serial killer Ted Bundy, who was executed in Florida in 1989. Bundy was a law student during part of his killing spree. By the time he was captured, he was estimated to have murdered at least 30 young women in a four-year cross-country rampage. And just like Philip Markoff and Marvin Teicher, he compelled, and traded on, women’s trust.

The mask of sanity is the element that makes women like Trisha Leffler, Markoff’s first known robbery victim, tell reporters, “He was a tall, good-looking guy. When I first laid eyes on him, I was comfortable.” Moments later, he was pointing a gun at her. One of Bundy’s methods was to put his arm in a sling and approach a woman to ask for help in lifting a small sailboat onto his car.

Bundy’s “mask” was so convincing to women that when he was on trial for the horrific murder of a 12-year-old girl in Florida, he asked his then-girlfriend on the stand if she would still marry him, despite all she knew about him. She answered
yes
. And although Markoff’s fiancée reportedly called off the wedding, her first response to his arrest was to e-mail news outlets protesting that “Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and did not commit this crime.”

Often, the women involved with men like Markoff, Bundy, and Teicher are not only blinded by the men’s charm but also deeply in denial. Their friends and family, usually equally blinded, support their choice of such a successful man, and tearing down the illusion becomes increasingly difficult. How could they have gotten so involved with someone so bad?

What the Women Know

But sometimes the spell does get broken and the people in a psychopath’s life realize the signs were always there. In Bundy’s case, an ex-fiancée, Liz Kloepfer, saw the truth and reportedly called police in Utah after he moved there from Seattle, where a number of young women had disappeared and later been found dead. Kloepfer told authorities that Bundy was not at home on the dates some of the women had gone missing, that his sex drive had dwindled when the rape-murders began, that he owned a fake cast, and that he had once tied her up and attempted to choke her. He was eventually arrested during a routine traffic stop, when police found suspicious items, such as handcuffs, in his car.

Once a psychopath is arrested, stories often leak out about earlier crimes. Take the case of Eric Lewenstein, which I supervised several years ago. In 1997, Lewenstein was 22, wealthy, handsome, and living in New York, the son of a high-profile physician and grandson of a financier. One night, he allegedly attacked a young aspiring actress he met at a trendy nightspot, forcing her into the restroom and beating her when she resisted his advances. Despite her injuries, the victim declined to press charges, fearing that she wouldn’t be believed.

She didn’t testify until five years later, when Lewenstein was charged with a similar attempted sexual assault, in which the victim described how the perp smashed her head against the tiles in a restaurant restroom. Both women told their stories in court, and Lewenstein pleaded guilty.

One week after Markoff’s arrest, I got an e-mail from a woman who’d gone to high school with Lewenstein. “Stories will start to come out about Markoff,” she wrote. “We all knew about Eric. His nickname was Frankenstein.”

That’s why when I trained young lawyers investigating sex offenders and killers, I told them to talk to ex-wives and girlfriends. They often have information they’ve been too embarrassed to reveal or they feared no one would believe. Once the mask is ripped off, people who’ve glimpsed behind it come out of the woodwork.

Several days after Markoff’s arrest, a friend of his from undergrad days told the press about a night when the pre-med student overpowered her on their way home from a night out, pinning her against a wall as he came on to her until a classmate pulled him away. “There are other people who have seen glimpses” of Markoff’s dark side, the young woman said. I assume police and prosecutors will be hearing from many of them. We usually do … after the unmasking.

-Additional research by Amanda Tust

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