By Jill Smolowe Howard Breuer
February 18, 2013 12:00 PM

Their chemistry was high-octane from the moment motivational speaker Travis Alexander and photographer Jodi Arias met at a 2006 conference. Before they parted, Alexander, 30, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, urged Arias, 27, to read The Book of Mormon. Within months Arias converted to Mormonism, and the pair embarked on a romance that Alexander’s friends thought toxic. When Alexander broke off with Arias five months later, he told them he felt guilty about breaking his vow of premarital celibacy. He also said that after he began seeing other women, Arias slashed his tires, hacked into his Facebook account, stalked him on dates and sent vicious anonymous e-mails to those women. In a lighthearted blog entry, Alexander wondered if some date might have “an axe murderer penned up inside her.” More soberly, he told LDS pals, “Don’t be surprised if you find me dead one day.”

On June 9, 2008, that is precisely how police found Alexander in his Mesa, Ariz., home, his body, five days decomposed, brutalized by 27 stab wounds, an ear-to-ear slash across the throat and a bullet to the head. Now Arias is fighting for her own life, as she stands trial in Phoenix on a capital charge of first-degree murder. Facing a witness who spoke of being stalked by her, and prosecutors armed with sensational photos of Arias and Alexander nude together just before-and during-his murder, Arias, now 32, is arguing self-defense. “Sadly,” her attorney Jennifer Willmott told jurors when the trial opened on Jan. 2, “Travis left Jodi no other option but to defend herself.”

From the start, friends of Alexander’s alleged a “fatal attraction”; one, Dave Hall, told police, “You need to look at Jodi Arias.” Initially she told police that after their breakup, she and Alexander continued a sexual affair but that she hadn’t seen him in two months. A trove of evidence soon left no doubt that Arias had been with him the day of his slaying. From a basement washing machine, investigators retrieved a camera with images of the pair-stamped June 4, the murder date-nude in his bed and shower. More damning, lab technicians recovered deleted photos of Alexander lifeless in the shower and an image, perhaps accidentally snapped by Arias’s foot, that the prosecution described as Arias dragging his bloody body. Even after a bloody wall handprint turned up traces of both Alexander’s and Arias’s DNA, and the murder weapon proved the same caliber as the handgun stolen weeks earlier from Arias’s grandparents in the Yreka, Calif., home she shared with them, Arias stuck to her story, saying, “If I killed Travis, I would beg for the death penalty.”

When that began to look like a real possibility, Arias offered Inside Edition a new scenario: Two masked intruders had broken into Alexander’s home, killed him and nearly killed her. After three years behind bars, Arias changed her story again: She’d killed in self-defense after an abusive Alexander blew up at her for dropping his camera. On Facebook her sister Angela Arias wrote, “She was so in love with that man she did not want people to know what a monster he really was.”

That portrait bears no resemblance to the Alexander friends remember, a successful man who overcame a harsh upbringing by impoverished, meth-addicted parents. “Travis spent his life overcoming stumbling blocks and turning them into stepping stones,” says his pal Taylor Searle. “Jodi was a stumbling block to him.” Now 12 jurors will decide if Arias has stumbled her way into a death sentence.