Interview with Michele McPhee
Michele McPhee is a veteran crime journalist and the author of "A Date with Death: The Secret Life of the Accused Craigslist Killer." McPhee documented the shocking story of Philip Markoff and his alleged crimes in the book, and her reporting contributed to the story in "The Craigslist Killer" Lifetime Original Movie. Read on for an interview with Michele McPhee that includes details about the disturbing crimes and the chilling end to Markoff's life.
Let’s start by talking about Philip Markoff. The case surrounding his alleged crimes is fascinating. He was leading a complex double life. When you were covering the case, what did you find to be the most surprising development about Markoff?
I think the most surprising thing was his ability to be the doting boyfriend and the apparently crazy killer at the very same time. The other thing that shocked me was how brazen he was. He hid the underpants under his bed, which he shared with his fiancée; the underpants that prosecutors said he stole from his victims. He hollowed out a copy of “Gray’s Anatomy” and put the alleged murder weapon in the book. Before she started planning her wedding, Megan McCallister [his fiancée] was also a medical student, so how did he know that she wasn’t going to open the book. It was kept in the home that they shared together.
Markoff was reportedly very smart, graduating from college summa cum laude in three years, yet a lot of his actions, on the surface, don’t really indicate common sense. He knew his face was visible on hotel security cameras; why do you think he did that? Was it arrogance, or was he just unaware?
I think there is something to be said about his arrogance. He had gone through life as the good-looking college frat boy; he always got his way. He got the gorgeous girlfriend; he got into BU medical school. He had gotten away with a lot and I think he thought he would just blend in because he always had, especially in a college town like Boston. He was so nondescript that he didn’t even give it a second thought that people would look at him and say, “That could be the killer.” Also, he wasn’t exactly a criminal mastermind. He left fingerprints at the scene, physical evidence at the scene. He wasn’t smart enough to realize that the cops could trace the IP address from his emails. He didn’t get rid of the dump phones he used; he kept them at his house. The evidence against him is overwhelming. I’ve covered crime for 20 years and I’ve never seen a criminal as dopey as this guy.
What was the mood like in Boston around the time of the crimes in April 2009? Initially the police didn’t have a lead on the killer, so how were people reacting?
I think people were very nervous. In fact, Megan McAllister’s mother called her and told her to be careful because there was a guy stalking women. While the Boston police made it clear that these women were not chosen at random, that they had orchestrated the meeting and invited the attacker to meet them as part of a service on Craigslist, I still think that people were nervous. Once a Boston University medical student was charged, that was almost more appalling than the fact that these women had been robbed and that one had been killed.
Did any other victims come forward to the police as the case developed?
How did Markoff use the Internet to express the dark side of his personality?
He wasn’t aware that people would be able to track [his online activity], but he was soliciting relationships with transvestites. He was going onto fetish websites, and he absolutely had a dark side that didn’t jibe with the country club lifestyle he was living with his fiancée. It also didn’t jibe with his country upbringing in upstate New York and with his reputation as an aspiring doctor and Boston University medical student.
You mentioned his upbringing. What was his relationship like with his family?
I think growing up it was a fractured family. His brother lived with his dad and he lived with his mom, and it seems they weren’t all that close. When he moved away to go to school, contact with his family became less and less. He did maintain contact with an uncle after his arrest. He may have been closer to his dad’s brother than to his dad.
Has his family made any statements?
Not a word, no. I’ve tried to interview them. I’ve met them in court, but they just had nothing to say.
Is it true that he didn’t have the funds for an attorney and needed one appointed to him?
Yes. That angered a lot of taxpayers in Massachusetts, because here is a kid who was able to come up with the means to go to med school — even though he did take out $130,000 in loans that now taxpayers are on the hook for — but this is the way of life in Massachusetts. Even the state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who was arrested on bribery charges, we had to pay for her lawyer, too. It’s very easy to get a public defender here in Massachusetts. The only difference is that in Massachusetts, a public defender can often be an expensive white-shoe attorney. That’s who Philip Markoff got, an expensive white-shoe attorney named John Salsberg.
In August 2010, Markoff committed suicide in his jail cell while awaiting trail. You’ve covered this case closely, so what was your reaction when you found out that he took his own life?
Good. The first word that flashed into my mind was “good,” because I know all too well from covering crime that a lot of defendants get off. Massachusetts is notoriously liberal when it comes to criminals, and I’m glad that Philip Markoff is not going to be one of these people who is coddled by the Massachusetts justice system. And I was grateful for the family of Julissa Brisman. This poor woman died and I think the last thing her parents want to hear are the gruesome details of that death and, more horrifying, what she was doing that led to her death. His suicide spared the taxpayers a lot of money for a trial, spared the family of Julissa Brisman the pain of having to relive their daughter’s death and, more important, talking about why she was supporting herself in this way.
Many people may have felt disappointed that he wasn’t brought to justice with a sentence, but that’s assuming that he would be brought to justice.
Exactly, and that’s a big assumption. Even though the evidence against Markoff was overwhelming, it would be easy for a jury to get snowed by the good-looking frat boy.
Julissa Brisman wasn’t the only victim, but she was the one who was killed.
I think Julissa Brisman was murdered because she was a fighter. She was someone who clearly was not going to be taken advantaged of and Philip Markoff was startled by that. I don’t think he went in there planning to kill her; he went in to rob her and tie her up, but she fought back. By all accounts, Julissa Brisman was somebody who went through a tough time and was pulling her life together. The massage business she had, while it was dangerous, provided her a lifestyle she had become accustomed to, but I do think she was someone trying to get her life together. It’s very tragic for her.