The pictures were taken by the convenience store's three automated surveillance cameras. They are shot from on high, in stark black-and-white. They are on a videotape but they are stills, snapped three seconds apart to conserve film. The mind reads the images like a child's flip book -- individual frames that, when viewed quickly one after the other, form a surreal, herky-jerky semblance of motion. They move like a bad dream.

A wide view of the store. Display racks, bright fluorescent lighting, broad, clean aisles -- the familiar tableau. A slight figure in a wide-striped hooded shirt appears. A candy bar materializes in her hand. She arrives at the counter as if to pay. A female clerk is tidying up nearby. She walks behind the counter to accept the money.

Now, a view from behind the counter. It is tighter, more intimate. For the first time, we see the face of the figure in the hooded shirt. She is a young white woman, her features expressionless, her face downcast. She is waifishly pretty. Her eyes rise under heavy lids and lock on the clerk, who is now behind the cash register. The clerk is tall and thin and wears her hair in a businesslike banana clip.

The next frame comes. The customer's eyes are wide, her mouth agape. She is pointing a handgun at the clerk, who is looking down, toward the register, and does not appear to see the gun.

For what comes next, you must remind yourself that this is not fiction, not a reenactment in a TV docudrama. You are about to watch something terrible.

Next frame: The assailant has stiffened, and fired. The clerk is frozen in recoil. The impact of the bullet is snapping her backward, like a fist in the face.

Then: The customer leaves the store. Now she is gone. Click. Click. Click. Fifteen shots of a nice, clean, empty convenience store, eerily normal, the body on the floor hidden by the countertop. And then, suddenly, the assailant has reappeared. Now she is behind the cash register, attending to unfinished business. She is leaning over the woman she has shot, trying to jimmy open the register.

The clerk is paralyzed, her spinal cord severed at the neck. She is 45 seconds into what will be a lifetime of quadriplegia. She will never again walk. She may never breathe again without mechanical assistance. Lying there on the floor of the convenience store, she cannot speak. But she can hear.

This is what she hears:

"Are you dead yet? No? How do you open this?"

This happened here last March 8. For months, the FBI and local police had no clues other than that videotape. Then a break, the kind that occasionally happens in the most sordid of cases: In Oklahoma, a jealous ex-boyfriend was pulled over for speeding and ratted to the police.

That brought the FBI to the front porch of Jim and Suzanne Edmondson's large gray house at the quiet corner of Martin Luther King and 13th streets in Muskogee, Okla. Some agents rustled in the pyracantha bushes below the porch. It was 5 p.m. on June 2.

"Where is Sarah?" one of the agents asked Suzanne Edmondson.

Her daughter, Sarah, wasn't home. Suzanne felt panic. The Edmondsons were used to trouble with Sarah, and it never got any easier to face.

But this was different from having to pick her up at a police station at 2 a.m. for some juvenile escapade. These men produced a warrant for Sarah's arrest on charges of attempted first-degree murder in Louisiana. They showed Jim Edmondson faxes of the pictures from the convenience store. One looked a lot like Sarah. The gun looked a lot like Jim Edmondson's .38, the one Sarah had borrowed without permission a few months before when she drove off with her boyfriend for a trip through the South.

The lawmen sat in their unmarked cars, and waited.

"This is," said the stricken mother to her husband, "the day that changes our lives."

At 11:30, Sarah and a Jeepful of friends pulled up out front. Out of courtesy, the officers had agreed to let Jim Edmondson turn his daughter over to them.

Sarah's father walked out to meet her. She is clear-faced, broad-featured. Waifishly pretty. Her mother stood bathed in the porch light and waved the other kids inside. It was a still, warm night, not yet as hot as this summer would get.

Father and daughter stood alone, alongside the bushes in front of the house they had lived in for all of Sarah's 18 years. Up walked an FBI agent. Sarah Edmondson -- a perplexed look on her face -- was locked in her father's arms.

Edmondson spoke in his quiet, steady Oklahoma drawl.

"The FBI is here, and they want to question you."

Then, Jim Edmondson said this to his daughter:

"You should be brave. No one is going to hurt you. And you should never forget . . ."

He took a breath.

". . . that you have the right to remain silent. You have the right to have an attorney with you at all times, and anything that you say can be held against you as evidence." The Family Tree

Sarah Edmondson is the daughter of an Oklahoma judge. She is the niece of the state attorney general, the granddaughter of a former congressman and the great-niece of a former Oklahoma governor. The Edmondsons are a political dynasty in Oklahoma -- something like the Kennedys, except without the scandals, until now. Their record is the old-fashioned one of genuine, selfless public service.

Because of the defendant's lineage, the case has attained national notoriety. Inevitable comparisons have been made to "Natural Born Killers," the film about a young, media-savvy couple who go on a homicidal road trip. And to Bonnie and Clyde. And to James Dean lookalike Charlie Starkweather, who, with his teenage girlfriend Caril Fugate along for the ride, massacred 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958.

In cases such as these, the media's impulse is to engage in forensic sociology. The questions being raised are familiar; they get raised whenever someone unlikely gets charged with something unspeakable. Why did no one foresee this? How did a good child suddenly go bad? How can someone with so many advantages take such a self-destructive turn?

Let's clear those up right now. They do not apply. This was not entirely unforseeable. Sarah went bad, but there was nothing recent about it. When she hit puberty, her parents say, everything inside her seemed to rot and warp. From her early teens, she was a liar and a drug abuser. She had protracted bouts of near-suicidal depression. Her parents were not unheedful of her troubles, or neglectful, or uncaring. They checked her into a psychiatric treatment center when she was 13. They did what they could for her until there seemed not to be much more they could do.

There are some events that defy analysis, or even comparison. This is not Bonnie and Clyde or "Natural Born Killers" or Charlie Starkweather in the Badlands. This is, simply, what it is. A sudden, bewildering descent of darkness. You can't explain it, you can only explore it, by describing what happened and what came in its wake. On the Road

On March 6, Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend, Benjamin Darras, 18, got in her white 1986 Nissan Maxima and left his home in Talequah, Okla., without telling anyone where they were going. Two weeks later they returned. Sarah's parents were angry and frightened because they knew she had taken a handgun from the family's weekend cabin -- they were afraid she was suicidal and might harm herself with the weapon.

On the road trip, they drove through Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Oklahoma. Darras -- who was arrested with Sarah that night at her parents' home -- has told police that on March 8, the couple needed money and Edmondson held up the Time Saver convenience store in Ponchatoula, La., just off Interstate 55. The slug that severed the spinal cord of the clerk, Patsy Byers, matches test firings from Jim Edmonson's Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver, according to police sources. Byers, paralyzed from the neck down, lies in a rehabilitation hospital in Houston.

Police also suspect the couple were in Hernando, Miss. -- 300 miles north of Ponchatoula on I-55 -- the day before. On that day, March 7 -- Jim Edmondson's 50th birthday -- a cotton gin operator named William Savage, 58, was shot in the face in his office. He died. About $100 and some credit cards were taken with his wallet.

A police source says the slugs recovered from the Hernando slaying also match those from test firings of the Edmondsons' .38. Though the police say Edmondson and Darras are "prime suspects" in that case, no charges have been filed yet. Police sources say Edmondson has fingered Darras as the triggerman in Hernando, and is bargaining for a lighter sentence in the convenience store robbery, or immunity in the killing.

Edmondson and Darras sit in the Tangipahoa Parish jail in Amite, La., she on $1 million bond, he on $500,000. Prosecutors reduced her charge to attempted second-degree murder because that allowed them to add weapons charges. An attempted murder conviction carries a sentence of up to 50 years; the additional charges could carry another 109. Darras is charged with armed robbery. He has pleaded not guilty. She has remained silent; a not guilty plea was entered by the court on her behalf. Lawyers would not allow an interview with either prisoner. The two likely won't face trial until early next year.

People in Tangipahoa Parish seem pretty much agreed that they have never seen a crime as coldblooded as these. Who could do such a thing?

On July 26, Suzanne and Jim Edmonson visited their daughter. It was her 19th birthday. They brought her street clothes so she wouldn't have to wear the prison-issue orange shirt and pants to hearings. In a conference room in the jail, she sat on her parents' laps -- first Mama's, then Daddy's. The Route to Murder

There are two ways to come to Producers cotton gin, which is about a mile west of Hernando on state Route 314.

The DeSoto County Sheriff's Department thinks the killer headed south out of Memphis on U.S. Route 61, which splits the fabled Mississippi Delta and leads to the brand-new giant casino boats on the Mississippi River. A look at a state map shows that Route 314 East goes from the casinos straight back to I-55, passing Bill Savage, who was sitting in his office alone after a board meeting broke up in the late afternoon of March 7.

It was about 4:30 p.m. If coming from the west, the killer drove on a two-lane blacktop through the swamp. When the road hits dry land, the ditches on each side and power-line stanchions are draped with kudzu. Great trees are shrouded in the creeping vine, making them look like so many giant children pretending to be ghosts under green sheets.

The road dips a bit at the seed mill, and Producers Gin -- a large, three-story structure that looks like a granary -- appears on the left. Savage's white Chevy 4x4 pickup was parked out front, glistening like a lure. He was inside. He had just gotten off the phone with a supplier.

Police believe the assailant first opened the aluminum storm door and then the white wooden door, surprising Savage, who was working at his desk. He wouldn't have seen anyone coming -- the room's only window is filled by an air conditioner.

There were no signs of a scuffle. It appears Savage had time only to stand up and look at his killer, who fired two shots -- the first glanced off Savage's shoulder; the second hit him directly in the face, killing him. He fell forward. The killer then slipped Savage's wallet from his pocket and took his money and credit cards and fled, driving through town and getting back on the interstate.

When the call went around town that something had happened to Savage at the gin, so many friends came it was hard to find a spot in the parking lot.

One of the friends who saw him carried out was Malcolm Baxter, one of two town doctors in Hernando. He had known Savage since the first grade of Hernando Consolidated High School, when the two boys squeezed into the same desk for the entire school year. After medical school, Baxter came back to Hernando to practice, and he and Savage took several quail-hunting trips together. The doctor's office is filled with stuffed game birds. One that's missing is a prize wild turkey that Savage once swiped from the doctor's office as a practical joke on his buddy, whom he nicknamed "Bone Bender."

"Bill Savage is the sort of man who, if they would've asked, would have gladly given them the money in his wallet," Baxter says. He talks about the church missions he and Savage made to Honduras. Suddenly, be begins to cry.

"I'm sorry. I should be above this, but I can't help it." He wipes his fingers behind his glasses.

Just outside Hernando, Barbara Savage reads in the sunroom of her tan house on Savage Road. The sunroom used to be just a porch, but Bill glassed it in a few years back because of her allergies. Tinkling at her feet is a small garden fountain. It was outside, but Bill did such a good job insulating the room that Barbara couldn't hear its soothing sound anymore, so Bill lugged it inside and set it on a neat little pad of river rock.

Barbara Savage's mother lives in the lightblue trailer a couple dozen yards over, and her mother-in-law lives within sight down in the glen, right where the biggest buck Bill Savage ever saw passed by. He didn't shoot it because he couldn't fire toward his mother's house. Or so he said. Barbara suspects he couldn't shoot it because Bill was taken by the great beast's beauty.

For 30 years, Bill and Barbara Savage worked alongside each other in the tiny office of the cotton gin where he was killed. He managed the operation; she did the books.

They were married in 1955. "He was 18 and I was 15," she says. "That's kind of a Southern thing." He was her first boyfriend. Together, they went on hayrides and to movies and to stock car races over in Arkansas.

On days off, they would ride the fields of their small farm and look at the cows. Bill had a Southern drawl and a belly laugh. He made children laugh. There is a picture inside the house of Bill holding a small, grinning Honduran boy, who is wearing Bill's favorite John Deere cap. The Savages had two girls -- Terry and Joy -- and they had a warm life.

At night, Bill would come home so tired that he'd often fall asleep in his brown La-Z-Boy recliner. Barbara would sit next to him in her light blue recliner and read and knit. At 10 p.m., she'd wake him up and he'd shuffle into the bedroom and fall fast asleep again. Bill snored.

"I miss that as much as I miss the company. I miss the physical fact that he was here. It's real quiet here now," she says.

It's hard enough being in the house without him; it's almost impossible having to go back and keep books for the gin in the tiny, stale office where her husband was murdered.

But somehow she does. She won't let Bill down.

On the day of her husband's funeral, Barbara Savage wore a black dress with pearls on the front and a zipper up the back. Bill had encouraged her to buy it while they were on a shopping trip together.

"I have arthritis and my hands are bad, so I don't do buttons in the back very well or zippers. I usually wear something with buttons down the front," she says, pointing to the buttons on the front of her white shirtdress. "But he liked that dress, and I said, Well, you know I can't zip it.'

"And he said, Oh, I'll always be here to zip it for you.' " The Lucky One

The tail end of Patsy Byers's 11-to-7 late-night shift at the Time Saver convenience store in Ponchatoula was the best. That's when her husband, Lonnie, who was heading out on his delivery truck route, would stop by, fix a cup of coffee with cream and sugar, and they'd talk.

They'd talk about their three children. They'd talk about how much she liked her job because of all the people she met. She'd never be behind the counter; she'd always be out on the floor fiddling with something or talking.

She was straightening the magazines in front of the gray metal counter when the woman in the video pictures walked up to the register.

According to the clock on the video, Byers was shot at 11:52 p.m., not yet an hour into her shift. Lonnie never wanted her working at all, much less the night shift. But, like everything, once Patsy set her mind to it . . .

Just outside Ponchatoula, where the Spanish moss hangs from the live oaks, Lonnie Byers was watching TV, lying on the sofa in their tidy gray double-wide trailer.

The phone rang. It was the boyfriend of a neighbor up the road, who had just stopped by the Time Saver. He asked if Patsy was working tonight. When Lonnie said yes, she was, the boyfriend said Lonnie'd better get on up there right away.

Before Lonnie Byers could put his shoes on, the Ponchatoula police called.

"There's been an accident at the Time Saver."

"How bad is it?"

"She's conscious."

That's all they would tell Byers about his wife. When he arrived at the Time Saver, his wife was being brought out on a stretcher. She was driven to a hospital in Baton Rouge. The next morning, when Patsy woke up, the first person she saw was Lonnie. Her voice barely a whisper, she said:

"I quit."

The first person she would see every morning except one for the next five months would be Lonnie, who moved into her hospital room in Baton Rouge. Then they moved to the rehab hospital in Houston. He would stroke her hair until she fell asleep, then he'd go to sleep in a chair that folded out into a little bed.

The time in Baton Rouge was the worst.

Patsy would pretend to be asleep when visitors came. She wouldn't receive her children, ages 18, 13, and 4, because she couldn't hold them in her useless arms. She wouldn't allow the television or radio to be turned on. She wouldn't even allow the blinds to be opened. When doctors and nurses visited her, they used flashlights.

The only sound in her small room was the beeping of the respirator, which sounded a warning signal when her breathing became too shallow.

Patsy Byers lived in the dark.

"I don't know if that was her way of not having people look at her," says Lonnie Byers's mother, Audrey, who has come up from Florida to look after the children. "When there's no light, people couldn't look at her with IVs, machines and stuff attached to her."

"I couldn't even get any sunlight," Lonnie Byers says. "People would send flowers and I'd set them on the window, and I'd kind of draw the curtains back early in the morning to get some light to the flowers. She would tell me, It's too bright in here.' " Then he'd draw the curtains and return with Patsy to the blackness she had painted her room in.

At his dining room table, Lonnie thinks about the day he met Patsy -- he was 18, she was 14 -- when he came over to help at her father's mechanic shop. She is white; he is Creole. It made no difference. They were married the next year. On their 20th anniversary -- a week before she was shot -- he gave her a diamond ring. His pet name for her was "mother." He started calling her that when their first child, LaDonna, was born 18 years ago.

Last Sunday, Patsy Byers turned 36.

If none of this had ever happened, Lonnie probably would have come in from mowing the yard as he did on this day, covered in grass clippings and sweat that clings like the Bayou humidity, and he probably would have found Patsy standing at the kitchen sink like a stork, her right foot up on her left knee. She might be nibbling on something she was fixing for dinner, looking out the window and thinking about planning her annual, massive Halloween party, which she lived for. About this time every year, Lonnie was dispatched to start looking for kindling for the bonfire. He wants to have Patsy home in time for this year's party.

Then talk turns to Sarah Edmondson. This gentle man, who bears no ill will toward Edmondson's parents, thinks differently about their daughter. He and Patsy have lawyers; they have filed a civil suit against Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin Darras for any money that may come from their stories. Screenplays, "Hard Copy," whatever.

"We just don't think she deserves to have anything. Anything that she can enjoy," he says in calm, measured tones, no different from those of the previous two hours' conversation. "I would like to see her put away for as long as my wife cannot walk. And if my wife walks, then Sarah can walk. It's sad to say, but she took my wife's legs away from her. That's the way I feel about it." The Parents, The Horror

It's 5 p.m. on a stiflingly hot late August afternoon at the Edmondsons' home in Muskogee. Nearly three months ago, at this time of day, the police officers stood on Suzanne Edmondson's front porch and told her they had come for her daughter. The pyracantha below the porch is now in full, magenta bloom.

Jim and Suzanne Edmondson had so many talks, so many fights, so many tears with their daughter in the den where they now sit. On the table next to Suzanne are the self-help, positive-thinking books that keep her barely wired together. The den is the only air-conditioned room in the house. Even so, glasses of iced tea sweat like fat men.

Sarah Edmondson's old boyfriend, who turned her in to the police, was Patrick Williams. The Edmondsons helped Williams, three years older than Sarah, a drug user and a high school dropout, to get his equivalency diploma with math tutoring sessions at their kitchen table. At Christmas, a stocking hung for Patrick alongside Sarah's. When Sarah broke up with him a year ago, things got ugly. The Edmondsons obtained a restraining order against him. He could not be found for this story, but he told the Muskogee Daily Phoenix and Times-Democrat in June: "I'm still in love with her. The rest of my life, I'll be living by her jail. I'll be bringing her money or cigarettes or whatever she wants."

The Edmondsons met Ben Darras only a couple of times. He is also a high school dropout and a drug user. His mother told a newspaper he was dominated by Sarah's strong personality. When Ponchatoula police questioned Darras after he was arrested, he could not spell his home town of Talequah.

"Sarah started hanging around these druggie, yucky kids in high school. She fell in with the outlaws, the freaks," Suzanne Edmondson says. They had such high hopes for Sarah. Instead, Sarah took in strays. Consider it a twist on the sort of public service practiced by generations of Edmondsons.

"There have been a great number of sad events in her life which she has taken extremely seriously and not well, and she has needed some kind of solace that we have been unable to supply as mere parents," Jim Edmondson says. "I think she has looked for it in drugs, she has looked for it in self-sacrificial missions to help others, like outcasts . . ."

His wife interrupts.

"All of her boyfriends have been real . . . well, she has been head and shoulders above them," she says.

The kitchen phone rings. Suzanne Edmondson gets up to answer it; her husband stays on the sofa.

A moment later, Suzanne Edmondson is halfway back in the den, stretching the phone cord to its limit. She scratches her fingernails on the den door.

"It's Sister," she mouths. The Edmondsons' nickname for their daughter.

"That's Sarah," Jim Edmondson says, getting up. "Come on in here and see the light this little girl puts in her mother's eyes."

Each Sunday and Wednesday at 5 p.m., Sarah is allowed to call collect from the Tangipahoa Parish Jail and talk for 30 minutes. Sometimes the phone calls are like her letters -- rambling epistles of fundamentalist Christianity. She turned religious before her arrest. She told her parents her mind-altering experiences with LSD had opened her eyes to Christ.

For the next 15 minutes, the parents smoke cigarettes, doodle with pens and pass the phone back and forth to talk to their daughter, trying to maintain some sense of normalcy in a crisis almost too big for a frame of reference. But they are, after all, Edmondsons. And things have always worked out pretty well for Edmondsons. At least until now.

Sarah is cut off, then calls back. What is heard in the Edmondsons' kitchen is one side of an impossible conversation:

Father: "I love you very much. You're mighty sweet. I think of you all the time."

Mother: "Honey, do you think small steps at a time like this . . ." She holds her head with her left hand and grimaces while Sarah interrupts. Then: "Well, at least aren't you glad you're not smoking?"

Father: "In time, we will no longer be in limbo. We'll know how much time or how little time we're looking at."

Mother: "Sarah, have you ever heard the expression, If you're given lemons, make lemonade?' I know that's trite and I know that's a cliche, but everyone -- you, Dad, {brother} Jimmy, me -- are trying to make the best of a bad situation."

Sarah answers with something that obviously tasks her mother. It must be the religion thing again.

"Well, Sarah, some of us are sustained by less faith than you."

Finally, Jim Edmondson says: "Have sweet dreams, honey." And they hang up.

All around the dining room table, like place settings, Jim Edmondson has fanned out three months' worth of the local newspaper for a reporter to see.

The June 9 issue of the Muskogee newspaper printed the surveillance photo of the woman in the hooded shirt holding the gun on Patsy Byers. Alongside it is a recent mug shot of Sarah. The similarity is convincing.

Jim Edmondson says it is "horrifying" to see the pictures side by side.

"Is it obviously she?" Suzanne Edmondson asks her husband, as she sips a cup of coffee in their kitchen.

Her husband swallows hard and hitches his neck.

"They say mothers know."

But Suzanne Edmondson holds her coffee close to her lips and shudders.

"I can't look now," she says.

It is hard to believe that this newspaper has been in the house for nearly three months and she has not looked at it, but Suzanne Edmondson says it is so.

"I can only take small doses."

On one of the dining room walls, looming over the serious, dark-wood furniture, is a large oil portrait of Ed Edmondson, Jim's father.

"My father and I never talked about drugs or sex, but we did have long conversations about ethics -- Saint Agustine, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson," Jim Edmondson says. "I ate that up. I've never really been inspired to do anything strange or bizarre."

Both express great empathy for the Byers family. Suzanne Edmondson wrote them a note saying so.

"Our heart just goes out to them so much," she says. Her husband nods. "At some point," she continues, "when it seems right, we'd like to meet them. We really would. It might help."

Upstairs is Sarah's room.

Suzanne Edmondson pushes up the stairs, and the air gets thicker and hotter with each riser.

"This has been the longest, hottest summer," she says. "September must come. It must cool off. Life must resume in a less fearful way for me."

The mother moves uncomfortably around her daughter's room, with its mementos from a Girl Scout, choir-girl youth.

Is this the room where Sarah Edmondson first turned away from the light?

It all broke in December 1990. During that month, one of Sarah's best friends committed suicide. Another friend was killed in a car crash. And soon after Ed Edmondson saw his alma mater -- the U.S. Naval Academy -- score a touchdown in the Army-Navy game on TV, the lifelong public servant died of a heart attack at his home five blocks away.

When Jim Edmondson came back from watching them take his dead father out of his house on a stretcher, he went up to Sarah's room, held his daughter and told the 13-year-old her beloved granddad had just died.

She threw her telephone through the window nearest her bed. The only other thing she broke in her room was the glass in a picture frame. Inside the frame was a silhouette of Sarah.

A couple of days later, she came home with a dozen cans of black spray paint. She took the things off her walls, brought down the lace drapes and covered the cheerful, flowered wallpaper with great, looping streaks of black.

Since then, Jim and Suzanne Edmondson have repainted Sarah's room. Suzanne points to the dark orange ceiling. "See? You can still see the black underneath." CAPTION: Clockwise from above: Patrick Williams, the ex-boyfriend who turned her in, with Sarah; alleged accomplice Benjamin Darras; the quadriplegic Patsy Byers, receiving physical therapy, with husband Lonnie on the phone; Suzanne and Jim Edmondson on a porch swing. CAPTION: Sarah Edmondson, the troubled teenage scion of a blue-blooded family. Is she the woman in the surveillance video? Below, victim Patsy Byers, whose spinal cord was severed, and William Savage, who was killed. CAPTION: The convenience store surveillance camera catches the crime. In the next seconds, the gun will fire, and clerk Patsy Byers will crumple to the floor.