October 01, 2007 12:00 PM

She was a nurse, a single mother, struggling to get by. He was the wealthy chief financial officer of a big corporation—hardly dashing, to be sure, but oh so romantic. There were lavish dinners, breathless text messages (“I want a baby with you!”), offers to send her son to private school and endless declarations of love. “I was falling hard for him,” says Beverly McCarthy, 53. “He made me feel like I had a man who loved me.”

Just one hitch: He may have made at least 15 other women feel that way too. In what sounds like some twisted version of The Bachelor—Prince Charming sleeps with all the contestants and isn’t even a bachelor to boot—several women have come forward to accuse David Colby, 45, former CFO of managed health care giant WellPoint, Inc., of being a sexual predator who ruined their lives with false promises. One of the women, Sarah Waugh, 29, a former secretary at WellPoint, is suing Colby for sexual battery, a form of sexual harassment that includes, according to her suit, “the intentional infliction of emotional distress” and exposing her to high-risk unprotected sex. Another woman is suing him for control of the $4.4 million mansion she claims he promised to give her. Many of the women may be called as witnesses should the lawsuits go to trial. “This is one of the more severe cases I’ve seen,” says attorney Randall Gold, an employment law expert. “It appears to involve a man with a serious problem controlling his sexual impulses.”

Colby—whom Institutional Investor magazine named the country’s best managed health care CFO four years in a row before WellPoint forced him to retire this May—declined to comment for this article, as did his attorney. A spokeswoman for Indianapolis-based WellPoint would only say that Colby “violated the company’s code of conduct” but did nothing “illegal.” Twelve of his accusers interviewed by PEOPLE, though, paint a portrait of a man uncannily adept at finding vulnerable women and exploiting their white-knight fantasies. “He would be whatever you wanted him to be,” says McCarthy, who dated him for four months in 2005. Sarah Waugh, who claims she discovered Colby was sleeping with her and her sister at the same time, says, “I was naive; he made me feel special. He made so many promises and left us high and dry.”

Now in the process of divorcing from his second wife (who declined to comment), Colby, say his accusers, used a similar strategy to snare most of his victims: They would answer his online personal ad, receive flirty text messages, meet for coffee at Starbucks and be treated to fancy dinners. Invariably he convinced the women he was Mr. Commitment, asking them to pick out wedding dresses and pledging to marry some of them on Valentine’s Day. “He was smooth,” says Marguerite Cravatt, a TV producer who dated Colby once before deciding “he’s either the sweetest guy on the planet or the biggest player ever.”

Colby, say several of the women, knew how to close a deal. Even his first wife, Diane Colby-Honerkamp, remembers that “he asked me to marry him 100 times. He was tenacious.” It didn’t matter that he apparently shuttled women in and out of hotels, and that some of the women rarely got to spend more than a day or two with him at a time. “He was just very convincing,” says Rita DiCarlo, 44, who moved into Colby’s 7,500-sq.-ft. mansion in Lake Sherwood, an upscale Los Angeles suburb, and is living there while suing to keep it based on Colby’s promises (“Sherwood is for you!” he wrote in one text message). DiCarlo grew suspicious when she found another woman’s wedding gown in a closet in the house. Later she finally caught him in a lie. “We were on the phone, and I heard a woman’s voice saying, ‘I’ll be right back, honey,'” she says. “He was busted.”

DiCarlo filed her lawsuit, which lists 14 other women Colby allegedly bedded, on May 25; the story went public and WellPoint forced out Colby on May 30. His countersuit against DiCarlo accuses her of “fabricating a claim to the property” and demands she leave. Winning their cases won’t be easy for DiCarlo and Waugh since “these were relationships between consenting adults,” says family-law expert Mark Vincent Kaplan. And romances that start online? Says Kaplan: “It’s sort of buyer beware.”

As for Colby, the man who apparently managed to juggle more than a dozen relationships, he “isn’t depressed or crying” about the lawsuits, says Cravatt, who has kept in contact with him since their one date. Some of his accusers say Colby has even continued to send them romantic text messages. “It’s all about the chase for him; it’s an extension of his business success,” says Cravatt. “And it certainly shows he knows how to multitask.”

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