They were bound to draw stares when they ventured out in public, she the gorgeous supermodel, he the world-renowned track star with no legs. Yet if a man’s gaze lingered too long on blonde beauty Reeva Steenkamp, boyfriend Oscar Pistorius would grow jealous. While dining out recently in their native South Africa with Steenkamp’s girlfriends, “a man was staring at her,” says pal Maddie Sims. “Oscar stared him down with a very angry look on his face.” Often during the couple’s four-month courtship, Sims had seen Pistorius grow agitated if free-spirited Steenkamp was late to meet him; if she wore her hair in a ponytail or was dressed too casually; if she asked a waiter too many questions. “Many things that made Oscar a great athlete made him difficult to live with,” she says. “He was very focused, very intense, very assertive.” But, she adds, “he was loving 95 percent of the time, so that’s what we thought the majority of their relationship was.”
Now the famed Blade Runner, who thrilled audiences worldwide last summer with his explosive performance on J-shaped prostheses at the London Olympics, is behind bars, grimly dubbed Blade Gunner in the wake of Steenkamp’s brutal slaying. One day after the Valentine’s Day killing, Pistorius, 26, wept in a Pretoria courtroom as prosecutors announced plans to pursue a charge of premeditated murder, a crime that carries a mandatory life sentence (with possibility of parole after 25 years). After Pistorius was led off to a police station to await his Feb. 19 bail hearing, his management team responded, “The alleged murder is disputed in the strongest terms.” Whatever the truth, the runner’s inspirational image is in tatters, shredded by police and press reports that Pistorius has a trigger temper, a love of guns and a history of domestic incidents at his house-including a disturbance reported earlier that night. “There are two sides to this tragedy,” says Reeva’s brother Adam Steenkamp, 36. “But the most important thing at the moment is dealing with our grief. Reeva’s not here anymore.”
The details are gruesome. Pistorius claimed that he’d mistaken Steenkamp, 29, for a late-night intruder and, after shouting a warning, fired his 9-mm handgun four times. A lawyer friend who rushed to Pistorius’s house after receiving a frantic call from him told police that she found him carrying Steenkamp down a flight of stairs; together they tried to stanch her profuse bleeding. Meanwhile neighbors in Pistorius’s gated complex told reporters they’d heard shots. By this account a guard arrived in time to witness Pistorius performing mouth-to-mouth on Steenkamp and to hear her last breath.
The Sunday City Press added fuel to the blaze with a report that Steenkamp’s skull had been “crushed” and that police had recovered a bloodied cricket bat. While uncertain when and how the cricket bat had been used, police clarified that Steenkamp had been shot in the head, hip, arm and hand. Other news reports claimed a search of Pistorius’s home had turned up banned steroids. In anticipation of a “‘roid rage” defense, police said the suspect’s blood would be tested for steroids and other drugs.
All of this left Pistorius’s legion of admirers shocked. His manager, Peet van Zyl, told PEOPLE, “We have had overwhelming support for Oscar on a global scale.” Among them is U.S. Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, who says Pistorius is a “genuine, nice guy.”
An alternate portrait suggests a reckless man quick to anger. U.S. journalist Michael Sokolove, who spent time with Pistorius before the Olympics, recalls that he had a “frenetic aspect about him” and enjoyed “driving fast fearlessly, riding his dirt bike, driving his speedboat.” He says Pistorius, who earns well over $1 million a year, was involved in “exotic” businesses (among them owning race horses and white tigers). After the Games, Reuters reported that upon returning home to discover that his then-girlfriend allegedly had cheated on him, Pistorius threatened to break the man’s legs. Now investigators are looking into unconfirmed reports that a late-night text sent to Steenkamp by Springbok rugby star Francois Hougaard may have played a role in her death. Hougaard maintains that the “heartbreaking drama” has nothing to do with him.
Heartbreaking it is. Pistorius, whose legs lacked fibulae at birth and were amputated when he was 11 months old, has spent his whole life battling to make the world see the man, not the disability. In recent months, says his uncle Arnold Pistorius, he’d been “happier in his private life than he had been for a long time.” Down-to-earth and approachable, Steenkamp seemed happy too. Valentine’s Day, she tweeted, “should be a day of love for everyone.” “She seemed like she was really in love,” says Johannesburg blogger Mika Stefano. Her celebrity turn on a popular South African reality show left her poised to become a leading TV personality. Now, says her uncle Mike Steenkamp, “all her visions will never materialize. Everything that she was doing has come to an abrupt end. It’s tragic.”