May 11, 2009 12:00 PM

When Megan McAllister’s knight in shining armor finally popped the question, he even had the good taste to supply the horse. It was during a romantic carriage ride in Connecticut last May that Philip Markoff proposed to girlfriend McAllister, 25. She eagerly accepted, and months later it seemed the glow of the moment hadn’t dimmed at all. Standing in a friend’s backyard one day, Megan’s father, Jim McAllister, described how thrilled his daughter was about her impending nuptials. “Her dad had the nicest words to say about Phil,” says Kristy Greenwood, whose own father was a party to the conversation. “How Megan met a great guy and they’re engaged and happy and excited about it.”

That excitement officially ended April 20, when Boston police arrested Markoff, 23—a medical student at Boston University—on charges that he was the Craigslist Killer. But since then the portrait of Markoff—who is being held for the murder of Julissa Brisman, 25, and the assault of another woman, both of whom advertised themselves on the popular site’s erotic services area—has grown more disturbing by the day. On April 27 a young man appeared on NBC’s Today show, maintaining that Markoff had made contact with him on Craigslist, this time on a bulletin board catering to men seeking transsexuals. “I was scared like you wouldn’t believe,” said the man about noticing the resemblance between the man with whom he had been communicating—who had sent him sexually explicit photos—and post-arrest pictures of Markoff.

With his life unraveling around him, Markoff was initially put on suicide watch at the Nashua Street Jail after guards found evidence that he might have tried to hang himself with his shoelaces. According to the Boston Herald, which quoted a jailhouse source, the suspect told his family, “forget about me” and “move to California.” The Herald quoted Markoff as warning his brother and sister-in-law, “There is more coming out.”

His fiancée has yet to visit Markoff in jail. McAllister, who was due to start medical school at a university in the Caribbean in the fall, has been holed up at her parents’ home in Little Silver, N.J., struggling with each day’s revelations about the man she loved. The leader of the B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band booked to play at the couple’s August wedding, broke the news to PEOPLE that the event was off. “Megan is not doing so well,” her misty-eyed dad said on April 27. “It’s a very tense situation.” Nevertheless McAllister, in a statement to reporters that same day, offered what sounded like her unequivocal devotion. “I also love my fiancé and will continue to support him through this legal process,” she said through her lawyer. “What has been portrayed and leaked to the media is not the Philip Markoff that I know. To me and my family, he is a loving and caring person.”

According to friends who have known her over the years, McAllister is uncommonly loyal and sweet-natured—the sort of person who might find it hard to think the worst about anyone, let alone the man she was planning to marry. “She was always very polite and friendly,” says Ray Dweck, 26, who has known her since childhood. “She was never catty, always nice.” She grew up in Little Silver, one of four children. Throughout her school years she had a tight circle of friends to whom she was devoted. Indeed several in her wedding party have been her pals since grammar school. Hardly a party girl, McAllister doesn’t even seem to have had a serious boyfriend in high school. “She was very shy,” says Dweck. “Very sweet but very quiet.”

Although she looked forward to getting married someday, it didn’t seem to friends as if matrimony was her top priority. “She was not like how some girls are obsessed,” says Greenwood. “She wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to be married.'” She and Markoff, both of whom attended the State University of New York at Albany, met while doing volunteer work at a local hospital. The couple seemed to spend a good deal of time together. One of his medical school classmates recalls that Markoff would make frequent trips to New Jersey. But he evidently did not go out of his way to talk about his fiancée. “I didn’t know he had a girlfriend until he was really moody after a weekend he went to visit her and they had a fight,” says the classmate, who adds that Markoff seemed odd. “Nobody has said it, but other people knew,” says the classmate. “There are a lot of socially awkward people in the world. But he was socially awkward in a creepy way.”

Nonetheless a handful of Markoff’s friends have rallied to his defense. Andrew Hookway, who knew him in high school and has started a Facebook group called “Phil Markoff is Innocent Until Proven Guilty,” told PEOPLE, “[Phil was] a well-respected member of his circle of friends. What I knew about Phil then does not line up with the accusations placed against him now.” The problem for Markoff’s supporters, however, is that if even a fraction of the reported evidence against him turns out to be true, authorities would appear to have a strong case (see box). According to numerous reports, for instance, underwear from two of his alleged victims was found in Markoff’s apartment in Quincy, Mass. Even now police in Boston and elsewhere are searching for other women who might have had encounters with Markoff.

There are also potential clues turning up online. PEOPLE discovered that someone using a screen name sexaddict53885—almost identical to the one reported by the source on the Today show—had been trolling on gay and bondage Web sites. In court papers Markoff disclosed that he was $130,000 in debt as the result of student loans. As for the reports that he may have incurred gambling debts in March and April—which could provide a motive for attempting to rob the women he allegedly met on Craigslist—these remain speculation, supported by the fact that he and McAllister were on their way to Foxwoods casino when he was arrested. And in any case, points out District Attorney spokesman Jake Wark, the gambling angle may be a red herring even if true. “There are a lot of people who have gambling debts,” says Wark, “and very few of them choose to murder young women.”

Markoff was at first held in an isolation cell, swaddled in a special antisuicide smock—the fabric is difficult to tear into strips to fashion a ligature. “The transition from being free to being incarcerated is very difficult for him,” his lawyer John Salsberg told reporters. No Markoff friends contacted by PEOPLE said they had any inkling of a double life. But one person who has known Markoff for years, and who thought he knew him well, admits he’s stunned by the recent torrent of revelations. “I’m very shocked about it,” says the source. “There must be two Philips inside that body—one I knew, one I didn’t know.”

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