BOSTON – Gary Zerola's dark, brooding looks and his work on behalf of foster children helped earn him a spot on People magazine's list of America's "Most Eligible Bachelors" and a tryout for the TV reality show "The Bachelor."
But authorities now say Zerola had another, darker sideline — as a rapist who preys on young women.
He awaits back-to-back trials beginning Tuesday in Boston on charges he attacked two 19-year-olds in 2004 and 2006. He also faces charges in Florida, where authorities say he force-fed drugs to an 18-year-old woman, then raped her in a Miami Beach hotel in October while free on bail in the Massachusetts assaults.
Prosecutors say Zerola met all three women in bars, charmed them, then attacked them when they refused to have sex. In the 2006 case, he allegedly took the woman shopping at Neiman Marcus, where he bought her a $700 dress and $250 shoes before trying to rape her in his Boston apartment.
"He spent some time grooming these girls," prosecutor Suzanne Kontz said during a hearing in November.
Zerola is free on $100,000 bail. He and his attorney, Janice Bassil, did not return calls seeking comment.
The Gary Zerola described by prosecutors is far different from the man friends say dedicated himself to helping children.
The youngest of seven children, Zerola was placed in foster care at age 3 after his parents split up and his mother became ill. Over the next decade, he was shuffled among a dozen foster families until he was placed permanently with a suburban Boston lawyer and his wife.
Zerola, 36, attended Suffolk University, where he earned degrees in law and public administration. He delivered his law school commencement address.
"He was bright and articulate," said John E. Fenton Jr., one of Zerola's law professors. "I don't remember what he spoke about, but I can tell you he gave an excellent speech."
He worked as a state prosecutor on child abuse and domestic violence cases and became well-known in philanthropic circles as an advocate for foster children. He started a volunteer group that raised money to buy clothing and gifts for foster kids.
He was regularly mentioned in newspaper gossip columns and fetched an $800 bid in a charity dating auction. In 2001, at age 29, Zerola was named one of People's 50 most eligible bachelors.
In his People profile, Zerola spoke of his troubled childhood. "Statistically speaking, I should be in debt or in jail because of the upbringing I had," he said.
In 2000, Zerola opened his own law practice as a criminal defense attorney. His clients included drug dealers and rape defendants. In court, he was known for his well-tailored suits, flashy style and the frequent compliments he paid female court employees.
"It's a rare instance that you see a kid who has been through as many foster family situations as Gary who was able to rise above all of that, not to get into trouble as a kid, not to turn to substance abuse, but to go to college and then to go on and become a lawyer," said Michael Natola, a Boston defense attorney who is a close friend.
"He never, ever forgot his experiences as a child and as a young man, and he always wanted to make it easier for kids who were in similar situations as he was."
In the 2004 case, Zerola stands accused of repeatedly raping a woman in his apartment.
In 2006, a woman told police that after the two went out on their first date, she went back to his apartment to use the bathroom. She said that after she turned down Zerola's sexual advances, he ripped off her dress and underwear, slammed her head against the wall and refused to let her leave.
The woman dialed 911 on her cell phone and police tracked the call to Zerola's apartment using a GPS system.
While awaiting trial in those two attacks, Zerola violated the conditions of his bail and flew to Florida this past fall to see the New England Patriots play the Miami Dolphins.
A woman told police she had several drinks with Zerola at a club, then went to his hotel room, where Zerola stuffed pills down her throat. The woman, who told police she was a virgin, said she awoke naked and bleeding in bed beside Zerola.
Zerola told police, "I never had sex with her." He would not submit to a DNA test, prosecutors said.
Zerola's law license has been suspended. On his Web site, where he is described as a "highly regarded speaker" and legal commentator who has appeared on TV's "Power of Attorney" and "Judge Hatchett," there is now a message noting that he is not accepting new clients or practicing law.