David Lewis Rice received messages from "friends" in outer space. Not the kind that come in audible words like radio communications. The messages arrived inside his head as ideas and instructions. He had been hearing more of them lately, and they warned him about Jews and communists. They told him he was a soldier and had a job to do. For his country.

And so it was that this 27-year-old itinerant, a veteran of that murky urban world of wandering souls with vacant faces, a more recent recruit to the world of political extremism where rumors of international Jewish banking conspiracies merge with stories of Asian troops poised over the Canadian border -- so it was that David Lewis Rice found himself a mission. And a target.

Shortly before 7 p.m. last Christmas Eve he followed the messages to a quiet street in the affluent Seattle neighborhood of Madrona, an area of older $200,000 homes tucked into a hill sloping sharply to the shores of Lake Washington. He knocked at a holiday-wreathed door and a boy answered. Inwardly, Rice cursed. This was a combat mission and he had not been told about children. But he recovered quickly, displaying a white package under his arm.

"Charles Goldmark, please," he said.

In full light Rice presented a haunting figure -- rawbone thin at 6 feet 2 and 155 pounds, bushy black beard, straight black hair splaying out in a dozen unwashed cowlicks, dark eyes that reflected nothing. "Those death eyes," an acquaintance would describe them later.

In the half-light the youngster may have missed the haunting eyes, focusing instead on the lure of the Christmas Eve package. He called upstairs to his father.

Today, when David Lewis Rice is taken from the suicide cell of the King County Jail and placed on trial on four counts of aggravated first-degree murder to which he has confessed, the jury will begin to wrestle not only with his fate, but with unsettling moral questions of responsibility. The events of last Christmas Eve have stunned this Pacific Northwest city because of their ominous echoes of events two decades in the past and because of the shocking manner in which they were discovered.

Shortly after Rice's exit from the house overlooking the lake, guests arrived for a traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Inside, on the first floor, they found stockings hung by the fireplace, a holiday table set for 10, a Christmas ham baking in the oven -- an entire Christmas scene intact and untouched.

Upstairs, in the master bedroom, they found the Goldmark family -- Chuck, a 41-year-old Seattle attorney; his wife, Annie, 43; and their two sons, Derek, 12, and Colin, 10 -- face down on the floor, bound, chloroformed, bludgeoned and knifed. Annie Goldmark was dead, stabbed in the heart. Chuck Goldmark and his sons, hopelessly maimed with head injuries, would die one by one over the next 37 days at Seattle's Harborview Hospital.

"Your imagination is the only limit to what might have happened here," said Dan Fordice, a Seattle police officer.

News moves slowly on Christmas Day. Most people heard the first telegraphic reports on the radio, pigeoned in among carols and hymns. Imaginations did run rampant -- grim thoughts about America's penchant for random violence, the kind that could have left anyone's holiday table unused that day.

At Harborview Hospital, where the Goldmarks' friends and relatives had begun their long vigil, emotions ran a gamut of fear, grief and rage. They knew immediately that this was no random killing. What they saw was a classic, multigenerational American saga bludgeoned now into an American tragedy, a warped and senseless ending to a family story that spanned a half-century of American life.

The story began during the Great Depression amid the bread lines of Brooklyn when Chuck Goldmark's mother, Sally Ringe -- young, idealistic, forced out of medical school by the bankruptcy of her German-immigrant family -- joined the Communist Party. Like thousands of other Americans, she was seeking some answer to the social ills she saw around her. Shortly after she met her husband John, however, she became disenchanted with the ideology and quit.

Later she would tell her story to both the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which sent her a thank-you letter for her cooperation. John Goldmark told the same story to naval intelligence and was cleared for top security.

A product of the Eastern Establishment, John Goldmark attended Quaker schools, graduated at the top of his class from Haverford College and then went on to Harvard Law School, where he served on the Law Review and graduated with top honors in 1941.

After Pearl Harbor he became a wartime naval officer. A conventional life of politics and government in Washington, D.C., where both he and Sally had settled before the war, seemed etched in his future. But Goldmark was restless.

As the war neared an end he wrote his wife from the Pacific, suggesting they throw over the certainties of the East and move west, where people are "less twisted up in tradition, class and inhibitions." Shortly after his return, the Goldmarks packed up 2-year-old Chuck and headed west to become ranchers.

Considerably to the east of Seattle, beyond the granite barrier of the Cascade range, lies the Okanogan plateau, a barren and isolated land that measures its inhabitants at six per square mile. Twenty-five miles up a rutted mountain road from the nearest tiny community the Goldmarks found their ranch, a 5,000-acre spread strewn with volcanic rock that had to be heaved aside before wheat would thrive.

Years later, Chuck Goldmark would say his parents had given him a life in which he could "learn things that few people ever learn. How a cow reacts to a cutting horse. What the grass is like in the spring. What the wind sounds like in a blizzard. We were in a place where your life was what you made it. No one else was in control. No one else was able to decide whether you could make it through the next day."

By John Goldmark's own measure, it took most of a decade to get his ranch established. Only then was he able to take part-time to an old love -- politics.

In 1956 he ran for the state legislature as a Democrat and surprised everyone by winning in Republican Okanogan. He won two more terms and rose to a powerful position, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But when Goldmark announced his reelection campaign in 1962, the local Tonasket Tribune added a few embellishments. It brought up Sally's past, the first public mention of it. It identified John as a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, which it called a communist front. It said the Goldmarks had sent their son Chuck, now 17 years old, off to Reed College, "where Gus Hall, secretary of the Communist Party, was invited to speak."

Some of it was silly, some vicious. But it worked. Toward the end of the campaign a Spokane smear sheet called The Vigilante all but accused Goldmark of being a member of a communist conspiracy designed to overthrow the U.S. government. Goldmark lost the Democratic primary 3 to 1.

He later sued the editors of The Vigilante and the Tonasket Tribune for libel, and the case, tried in an old western courtroom with swinging plywood doors, commanded national attention -- especially when Goldmark won a $40,000 judgment. Months later the judgment was thrown out. But he took it as a moral victory.

Still, that part of the saga was over. John Goldmark never ran for political office again. Two years later, on a wintry day on a distant part of the ranch, he was thrown from his horse. Over the next years he was never out of pain and underwent five hip operations. He died of cancer in 1979.

Sally lived until early last year. Even in her final months, suffering from emphysema and immersed in oxygen equipment, she regaled friends with family stories.

One of her favorites was about her son Chuck. After Reed, he had gone on to Yale Law School. From there he joined the Army, which assigned him to intelligence work in the Pentagon. Family scuttlebutt had it, although Chuck would just smile at the suggestion, that Army intelligence assigned him to the CIA.

"Can you see those old right-wingers now?" Sally would ask. "My son working for the CIA?" Then she would laugh and laugh at the wonderful irony of it.

At age 41, Chuck Goldmark had an ideal job, a multitude of friends and a storybook family. He worked hard and played hard, taking his family on regular outings to the Northwest's high Alpine meadows and quiet driftwood beaches.

He met his French-born wife, Annie, at a student conference in Europe, he the student, she the interpreter. The marriage yielded two sons whom Annie taught to be as fluent in French as in English. Colin sang in the school choir. Derek had an artistic bent. His artwork hung on display at Seattle's Pacific Art Center throughout the 37 days that he held on, unmoving, at Harborview Hospital.

Like his father, Chuck made a late, if quieter, move into politics. In the 1970s he served as the attorney for the Democratic state committee. In 1984 he attended the Democratic National Convention as a Gary Hart delegate.

He took to climbing mountains the way he had taken to the outdoors as a teen-ager. With his law partner, James Wickwire, a world-class climber, he conquered the peaks of the Northwest and later Mount Aconcagua, where he gazed out over South America's Andes from 22,834 feet.

It was clear to Chuck Goldmark's friends that he had drawn immense inner strength from his parents. Even the ordeal of the smear and the libel trial had hardened him. As a teen-ager he testified at the trial, telling his father's lawyer, William L. Dwyer, that his dad would beat man's perversities just as he had beaten nature's adversities.

Nothing had ever gone right in David Lewis Rice's life. Born into a construction worker's family in Durango, Colo., he spent his childhood following his father from job to job throughout the Southwest.

At age 4 he ran through a sliding-glass door, deeply scarring his forehead and losing most of the vision in his right eye. Much later the other eye was flash-burned in a welding accident, partly accounting for his haunted look.

At about age 10 he got into a scrap with an older brother, Randy. He retreated to his bedroom, locked the door behind him and shouted that he was going to kill himself. By the time the family broke down the door, David was hanging by the neck from the ceiling, a dresser pushed over beneath him.

By age 12 David had sprouted to almost six feet, the tallest, skinniest kid in school. A school friend and now his sister-in-law, Mary Rice, remembered him as always alone -- walking alone, eating alone and letting "smaller people hit on him, without doing anything about it."

He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, got married a while later in Arizona, fathered a son and got divorced. He joined the Navy and was honorably discharged before he finished boot camp. After moving to Seattle in 1982 he wandered in and out of shelters and part-time jobs.

About a year ago Rice found motivation in a different kind of shadow world. He began attending meetings of a group called the Duck Club and began talking about "joining the mercenaries" and "getting the commies before they get us." He once donned jungle fatigues and brandished a weapon to guard a downtown Seattle installation. The installation was the lobby of an acquaintance's apartment.

Later, as the story of David Lewis Rice began to unfold, some would begin to ask whether all the messages he heard came from outer space.

When Chuck Goldmark appeared at the door on Christmas Eve, both sons at his side now, David Rice arched the white package up, pushed a pistol forward and thrust his way in. The gun turned out to be a toy, but it served its purpose.

Rice prodded Goldmark and his sons upstairs, where he could hear Annie's shower running.

"Do you need money?" Goldmark asked.

"Sure could use some," Rice replied, and Goldmark emptied his pockets of $14 and change. Entering the bedroom, Goldmark called out to his wife, "Honey, put on a robe and come out."

Rice now had all four Goldmarks in one room. He forced them face down on the floor, handcuffing Chuck and Annie, binding the two boys with sweaters. He rifled Goldmark's wallet for his bank card. Goldmark gave him the four-digit code and urged him to hurry before the guests arrived.

Rice withdrew the chloroform from the white package. He had already tested it. On himself. It would keep an adult out for at least 20 minutes, long enough for a round-trip hit on the nearest automated cash machine. Then he would revive this top communist agent, pry the names of his colleagues out of him and finish the job.

But now everything had changed, and Rice cursed his "friends" for their incomplete messages. He had to get in and out fast. Without a word, he leaned over and chloroformed the Goldmarks one by one. He moved quickly down to the kitchen, collecting one of Annie's carving knives and her steam iron for good measure. Then he headed back upstairs.

For several months before Christmas, Seattle had been preoccupied with a federal antiracketeering trial of 23 members of the anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi group known as The Order, 22 of whom were convicted.

But that trial was only one reminder of the rise of the violently ultraright in the '80s, particularly in the West. Other groups, with names like the Aryan Nations and Posse Comitatus, had sprouted like winter wheat out of western soil. As news of the Goldmark killings inundated the city, early suspicions centered on such neo-Nazi hate groups.

The case would also serve up a moral dilemma about guilt and responsibility that one Seattle writer has described as "the Smerdyakov factor," after the half-witted brother in Dostoyevski's "The Brothers Karamazov."

In the Russian writer's classic novel, Ivan Karamazov returns home from college spouting trendy views on nihilism and the fraudulence of any kind of morality. His half-brother, Smerdyakov, listens enrapt to these intellectual mind games and ultimately acts them out -- murdering the brutal father they both despise. Ivan breaks down at the terrible impact of his words, and takes responsibility for committing the murder through his ideas.

The police say David Lewis Rice acted alone and that he did not belong to any of the gun-toting neo-Nazi groups. But he went to a lot of meetings of the strange little rightist group with the unlikely name of the Duck Club.

It was the creation, a half-dozen years ago, of a 54-year-old Cocoa Beach, Fla., millionaire named Bob White. In 1980, ld,10 outraged by the international bankers and Trilateralists who "gave away" the Panama Canal, he started forming Duck Club chapters and selling Duck Books. Some said the unusual name came from the old McCarthy-era identification of communists and their colleagues: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . . "

White said he simply liked ducks. In any case the Duck Book, bible of the original Duck Clubs, was illustrated with sketches of them. Alongside the sketches were slogans: "Stop Rockefeller's peanut farmer puppet and his Marxist superbrain advisers before they turn our country into a complete socialist welfare state for their one world government crap."

In its heyday the Duck Club had almost 1,000 chapters. By last Christmas Eve, according to White, it was down to a handful -- "one in Seattle and a few in California." White said he was shocked by the Christmas Eve crimes, that his club was nonviolent and devoted to "conservative economics."

Indeed, one of the more perplexing elements of the Smerdyakov theory is just how small and relatively quiet the Duck Club had become. Could mere words become as threatening as the militant and often armed virulence of the ultrarightist big leagues?

His clothes badly bloodied, Rice left the crime scene quickly. He did not ransack the Goldmark home for conspiratorial evidence or trophies. Instead, he drove his old Volkswagen through Christmas Eve traffic to the nearest automated branch of the Seafirst Bank.

Rice inserted the bank card he had taken from Goldmark's wallet and punched in the code. The machine rebelled. Intentionally or not -- no one will ever know -- Goldmark had given him the correct number for his personal banking card. Rice had taken Goldmark's law-firm card.

He tried once more. The machine rebelled again and, as programmed for false codes, photographed Rice's latest failure, timing the photo of the bearded, gaunt figure at 7:38 p.m. At about the same time the first dinner guests arrived, as expected, at the Goldmark home two miles away.

Realizing he had left the handcuffs, the weapons and his fingerprints behind, Rice made one aborted attempt to cover his tracks. He drove to the apartment he had been sharing with Anne Davis, a 40-year-old naturopathic physician, and stashed his bloody clothes. He also dropped off two empty chloroform vials and the toy pistol.

Then he hailed a cab, using part of the $14 he had taken from Goldmark, and rode to about a mile from the house, walking the rest of the way. Creeping behind a high hedge across the street, he heard the squawking of police radios. He quickly fled, abandoning his plan to clean up the evidence left in the upstairs bedroom.

For the rest of the night and most of Christmas Day, Rice aimlessly rode city buses, scrawling out confession after revised confession on lined schoolboy tablet paper and leaving them in an easily followed trail. He wrote them, he said later, because he knew the authorities would never take him alive. He had, after all, knocked off the area's top communist, the top man in the conspiracy that controlled those authorities.

By Christmas afternoon Rice was exhausted. He needed a place to crash. Davis' apartment was out -- the cops might be watching it. His old Volkswagen, in which he had lived off and on during his unhappy years in Seattle, was out for the same reason. So he went to see Homer Brand.

Around Seattle, Brand was known as something of a constitutionalist gadfly. He once sued Boeing on the grounds that it didn't have the right to withhold income taxes from his paycheck. Last year he ran an abortive antiestablishment campaign for a post on the Seattle School Board.

Brand also is president of a small local chapter of the Duck Club. Davis is the club's treasurer. She had brought Rice to meetings and, on other occasions, to Brand's home.

Brand was taken aback when Rice showed up at his door at 6 p.m., he later told reporters from The Seattle Times. He had always considered Rice a dour and inward young man, an oddball. Now, on Brand's doorstep, Rice looked cheerful.

"Hey, Homer," he said "it's me. David Rice."

Brand was in a hurry, on his way out to Christmas dinner. But he invited Rice in and, after an awkward silence, Rice suddenly said he had to talk.

"The cops are after me," he said. "They could be arriving any minute. I've just dumped the top communist. There were four involved."

Brand had not heard about the Goldmark murders. But he had heard Rice babble before -- about getting camouflage gear and a gun and going on maneuvers. He said he didn't take Rice seriously that night or earlier. The Duck Club was into talk, he said, not paramilitary activities, and surely not violence. He sent Rice away.

Rice crossed town to the apartment of Robert Omar Brown. They had met a year earlier through Davis, the naturopath who had treated them both.

Pacing constantly, he told Brown only that he had "been cruising" and needed a place to sleep. In the news vacuum of Christmas Day, Brown, like Brand, had not heard of the Goldmark killings. He allowed Rice to stay.

The next morning, his guest was still asleep when Brown arose. On a coffee table he found a strange handwritten note, part confession, part suicide threat. He worried about a suicide in his apartment, but wouldn't understand the confession until he met friends across the street for coffee. They told him about the grisly story splashed across the front page of the newspaper.

Brown walked directly to a pay phone and called the police. "I didn't want to be an accomplice to some neo-Nazi thing," he said.

The police arrived in moments, just as Rice was leaving the apartment. He made a halfhearted run for it, dodging a block or two through the street-people environs above city center. As the police closed in, he pulled a vial from his pocket and quickly gulped its contents. The cops panicked, sure they had a suicide attempt on their hands. The vial contained a nicotine solution. Rice, a chain-smoker, told the police he took it because he didn't like to pollute the air.

In Rice's pocket the police found the handcuff keys. But they got more than that. The man who had sat silently through the Duck Club meetings began to talk and talk.

Tomorrow: The Smerdyakov Defense