Alexander von Auersperg returned to the stand in his stepfather's attempted-murder case today, and told the court of his search for the skeletons -- or, to be precise, the incriminating evidence -- in the family closet.

Testifying at a pretrial hearing, von Auersperg, 22, said that he had gone to the closet of his stepfather, Claus von Bu low, "two or three days" after his mother went into a coma and had "just looked around."

He said he had returned to that closet a second time, and had found the door locked.

And he testified that he had returned to that closet a third time, with a locksmith, and with his aid opened the door and found the incriminating material -- a little black bag containing a used syringe.

Not that it was the first time, the young man said, that he had gone into his stepfather's closet -- he had been in and out many times before, as 22-year-old men normally go into their fathers' closets; not to pat down their jackets and look for evidence, as Alexander did, but simply to borrow their clothes.

Normalcy is, however, a state that will be denied for some time to the von Bu low family. Claus von Bu low has been charged with twice attempting to murder Alexander's mother, Sunny, by injecting her with insulin; Sunny is in a coma from which she is not expected to recover; and Alexander and his sister and grandmother have joined forces against von Bu low, originally hiring a private attorney to investigate. The privacy the family sought when they hired their attorney, and forbade him to give their names to even his private detectives, is long gone; this past July, Sunny and Claus were featured in People magazine--and not under "Couples."

Two things are at issue in the pretrial hearings. The defense is seeking to throw out as evidence the used hypodermic needle with traces of insulin, found by Alexander in von Bu low's closet in Newport, on the grounds that it was seized improperly, without a search warrant. (Defense attorneys are also arguing that while Alexander was a family member, he had no right to search von Bu low's property.) They are further attempting to have suppressed two statements that von Bu low made to the police -- though von Bu low, according to both the prosecution and a transcript of one interview, waived his rights.

This morning, with the jury absent, Alexander von Auersperg, whose natural father was an impoverished Austrian prince, testified about his trip to Newport to search for the bag. He also said, under questioning from defense attorney Herald Fahringer, that he had seen the bag at least once before -- after the first time his mother had gone into a coma and recovered, but before the second attack.

From Fahringer's telling, it appeared that Auersperg had been alerted to the bag and its contents by his mother's longtime German maid, Maria Schrallhammer.

"Didn't you see the bottle with Maria Schrallhammer?" Fahringer demanded. "Didn't she point to the bottle and say, 'What for insulin?' "

"She didn't point to the bottle," said Alexander.

Fahringer attempted to prove that the closet was von Bu low's property. Alexander acknowledged, under questioning, that he knew certain areas of the house to be "private." Under cross-examination by the prosecution, however, Alexander said that he had often gone in and out of von Bu low's closet "to borrow something." Had his stepfather ever objected, the prosecutor asked? "No," said Alexander, "he had not."

Other witnesses included Lt. John F. Reise, of the State Police, who testified about von Bu low's stammering responses as he learned he was a suspect in the case ("I, I, I . . ." and "I had no idea . . ." and "That is taking me aback . . ." and "This is a very considerable surprise to me."). He mentioned von Bu low's gracious comment when the police officer arrived to question the man a second time: "How very nice to see you again." He testified as well that von Bu low said that he had made an attempt to find the officer -- through the offices of Sen. Claiborne Pell. The senator's office, according to Reise, told von Bu low there was no one on the Rhode Island police force named John Reise.

Reise also read the first four pages of a transcript from his interview with von Bu low -- in which von Bu low repeatedly waived his right to an attorney.

A ruling on the admissibility of the contents of the little black bag -- and the von Bu low statements to police -- is expected tomorrow.