Easy prey drew suspect, DA says

Officials think gambling may factor into case

Philip Markoff faced charges of murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping yesterday in Boston Municipal Court. Philip Markoff faced charges of murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping yesterday in Boston Municipal Court. (Mark Garfinkel/ Associated Press/ Pool)
By Maria Cramer, John R. Ellement, and Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009

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This story was reported by Maria Cramer, John R. Ellement, and Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff and was written by Saltzman.

A Boston University medical student who allegedly trolled Craigslist for women he could rob in hotels may have been motivated by a gambling problem and a desire to dominate his victims, authorities said yesterday as Philip Markoff was arraigned on charges of murder, kidnapping, and armed robbery.

Speaking after the 23-year-old Quincy man appeared in a packed Boston Municipal Court room, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said Markoff wanted easy targets. He found them, Conley said, in a masseuse he is accused of killing at the Boston Marriott Copley Place hotel April 14 and a prostitute he is charged with robbing at the Westin Copley Place April 10.

"He chose women, and he chose women who were living somewhat on life's margins, so that he could dominate them, abuse them," Conley said. "He seems to have no problem physically hurting women and dominating them."

Markoff's lawyer, John Salsberg, declared that his client is not the man some have nicknamed the Craigslist killer.

"Philip Markoff is not guilty of the charges," Salsberg told reporters. "He has family support. Philip is bearing up. It's obviously a difficult time, for anybody under these circumstances, for the charges that have been brought against him . . . He pleaded not guilty. He is not guilty."

Prosecutors contend that Markoff shot 26-year-old Julissa Brisman three times with a handgun after they struggled fiercely in the doorway of her room on the 20th floor of the luxury Marriott Copley. The fatal shot pierced her heart, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer J. Hickman said at the arraignment. He also bashed her head in, Hickman said.

Four days earlier, Hickman said, he tied up Trisha Leffler, a 29-year-old prostitute from Las Vegas, at gunpoint at the Westin Copley Place and stole her debit card, $800 in cash, and $250 in American Express gift cards.

Hotel security photographs of a tall man believed to have attacked the women in the upscale Back Bay hotels were widely released afterward. But another crucial break in the case, authorities said yesterday, came when a friend of Brisman's pointed investigators to e-mail messages her killer had sent before her fatal liaison. Investigators homed in on Markoff after examining and discarding more than 150 other tips and leads, according to a law enforcment official.

Markoff, an athletic-looking man who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs more than 200 pounds, was in the courtroom for his arraignment, his face betraying little emotion. His shoulders hunched, he seated himself next to his lawyer, folded his cuffed hands on his lap, and stared at Judge Paul K. Leary.

Markoff's face remained impassive as a prosecutor described the crimes. No one from his family seemed to be in the courtroom, which was packed with reporters, court employees, and curious prosecutors and defense lawyers with no connection to the case.

A plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf, and Markoff was ordered held without bail on the murder charge until his next court appearance on May 21.

Brisman's father, Hector, sat in the front row during the arraignment, next to a victim's advocate from the district attorney's office. He glanced at Markoff occasionally but appeared composed. After the arraignment, as police tried to steer him from reporters, he put his hand to his face and rubbed his eyes.

As reporters from across the country descended on Boston yesterday, fresh details began to emerge about Markoff's arrest Monday in Walpole as he drove south on Interstate 95. He was traveling, Conley said, with his fiancee, Megan McAllister, whom he had met at the State University of New York at Albany.

The couple had packed bags, Conley said, and Markoff told police they were heading to Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. They agreed to be questioned by Boston police and were driven back to the city in separate cars. McAllister was later released.

"He was en route to Foxwoods to spend the night there," Conley said. "The question on the nature and the extent of his gambling - whether he is a casual, periodic gambler or a regular gambler - I don't know the answer to that question. . . . As we explore various motives for the robberies, gambling is certainly a motive that we will look at."

Investigators believe Markoff was a gambler based on their interviews with witnesses and are trying to retrace his steps to find out whether he had been visiting casinos in the last week, according to a law enforcement official who asked for anonymity because of restrictions on public disclosures about the case.

When asked to respond to reports that Markoff had visited Foxwoods recently, perhaps even after Brisman's killing, a casino spokeswoman issued a statement: "We do not release information publicly concerning individual patrons; however, we are aware of this situation and are cooperating with the appropriate law enforcement authorities."

The arrest followed a frantic effort by federal, state and Boston law enforcement officials to find whoever had attacked two women in Boston who had advertised on Craigslist. Investigators believe the man may be the culprit in a third attack, on a prostitute who also used the online classified service, on April 17 at the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites in Rhode Island.

Police have not charged anyone in the third attack, but Warwick Police Chief Stephen M. McCartney said yesterday, "We remain confident that there is a strong connection here with the Boston incidents."

A break in the case came when a close friend and former roommate of Brisman's found e-mail messages Brisman had exchanged with the client she was to meet at the hotel, according to authorities. Investigators say Markoff had opened a new e-mail account the day before Brisman's death. The woman forwarded the e-mail messages to the police, who allegedly traced them to Markoff's apartment in Quincy.

Armed with the computer evidence and hotel surveillance photographs, which depicted a tall man who strongly resembled Markoff, police put the second-year medical student under surveillance over the weekend, said two law enforcement sources. But officers did not make an arrest right away, because they were sifting through scores of other tips. By Monday, the law enforcement sources said, police had ruled out other suspects and made their move.

A search of Markoff's apartment in a high-rise luxury tower in Quincy yielded a firearm, restraints, duct tape, and other items that authorities declined to disclose, Conley said. Leffler, the first woman attacked, was bound and gagged with duct tape; Brisman's attacker tried to tie her up, but she put up a struggle and was ultimately killed. A sport utility vehicle registered to a James McAllister of New Jersey was also taken from the Quincy property and impounded.

Conley has urged other women to come forward if they had been assaulted after advertising erotic services on Craigslist.

Salsberg said his client had "nothing to hide" and characterized the allegations as "just words that are spoken in a courtroom, rather than documents, or results of scientific tests, or statements of witnesses." He also said he was unaware of his client having gambling problems.

Yesterday morning, Markoff's fiancee defended him in an e-mail message she sent to ABC News, according to the website of "Good Morning America."

"Unfortunately, you were given wrong information, as was the public," McAllister wrote. "All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly! 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."

Maria Cramer can be reached at John Ellement can be reached at Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at

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