The (Craigslist) killer next door


Either it’s a classic case of a psychopath, or it’s the worst possible case of mistaken identity.

Medical student Philip Markoff was arrested yesterday in the death of Julissa Brisman. The case had captured nationwide attention because Brisman was found dead in the hallway of a upscale Boston hotel, and her killer was thought to be connected to an armed robbery of a woman at another high end Boston hotel and the attempted armed robbery of an exotic dancer in nearby Rhode Island. Like Brisman, the other two women had also advertised their services on Craigslist.

This case challenges everything we know, or think we know, about people who kill. Yet it bears a striking similarity to classic descriptions of a psychopath. According to MSNBC, friends of Markoff, a 6 ft tall, “strapping,” blond medical student, easily recognized him from surveillance photos, but also expressed stunned disbelief:

James Kehoe, one of Markoff’s best friends … described the suspect as “a great guy.”

“He was one of my best friends in my dorm … I felt like he was smart, an intellectual, nice, friendly guy…”

Kehoe said when he saw images of the suspect in the attacks taken by hotel security cameras, there was no doubt in his mind that Markoff was the man pictured…

“I can’t even put it into words, the disbelief I’m feeling right now,” [a] neighbor … said. “This is a great guy, I met him a few times, saw him in the hall everyday, (he) always said, ‘Hey, how you doing Jon, what’s going on.’ Just a total disconnect from what we’re hearing in the news.”

One of the hallmarks of a psychopath is how easily and completely they can fool other people. Only a few days before, MSNBC explored the issue of pyschopathy in connection with the Columbine killings, in light of the tenth anniversary of the massacre:

Lack of conscience is the hallmark of psychopathy, which is estimated to occur in about 1 percent of the adult population, says psychopathy expert Robert Hare, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.” Unlike psychosis, in which a person is out of touch with reality and experiencing delusions or hallucinations, for example, psychopaths know what they are doing. They just don’t care — and can’t really comprehend — how their actions hurt others. Psychopaths lack empathy, guilt and remorse, explains Hare.

Dave Cullen, in his new book about Columbine, offers an illuminating portrait of Eric Harris, the psychopath behind the killings:

Cullen walks us carefully through the definition of psychopathy, and how it differs from insanity, noting how perfectly Harris met the profile — particularly in his egomania, outsize contempt for humanity and talent for manipulation. (Just months before the attack, a teacher wrote on one of his essays, “I would trust you in a heartbeat.”)

It is a great irony and advantage of psychopathy that psychopaths are often the last people to be suspected as killers. The Boston Globe ran the above photo of Markoff captured at his “white coat” ceremony two years before, when the medical students in his class received their white coats in anticipation of venturing into the hospital for the first time. In an accompanying article, the Globe reporter points out that the charges conflict with portrait of clean cut student:

… He was engaged to be married in August to … a fellow SUNY student whom he met while volunteering in an emergency room in Albany in September 2005, according to the couple’s wedding website…

One Boston University medical school colleague yesterday recalled meeting Markoff at orientation in 2007 and studying anatomy with him more recently. She said “he seemed like a nice guy, and he was a helpful, smart kid.”

“I would assume they have the wrong person; that’s how shocked I am,” said the student … “He seemed to kind of get things… I kind of had him pegged as a surgeon because he was good at anatomy.”

The images of Markoff as a medical student and doting fiancé contrasted sharply with the grainy police surveillance photos released since the April 14 slaying of Julissa Brisman, allegedly showing a man walking calmly from the scene of the attacks, apparently sending a text message.

Markoff’s guilt remains to be determined, but his arrest has already challenged everything we think we know about people who kill.