It has been nearly three years since Judith Palfrey was kidnapped, driven to a muddy debris-strewn lot in Crystal City and raped at knife-point by a stranger who had followed her from a Georgetown bar.

Six weeks later, on July 4, 1975, while shopping at Landmark Center in Alexandria, Palfrey spotted her alleged assailant and said she spent 45 minutes persuading police to arrest him.

On Aug. 18, 1975, Milton Norwood Bullock, then 25, was indicted in the case by an Arlington County grand jury on charges of rape, sodomy and abduction. Despite the fact that he was a probation for a previous offense when the alleged assault occured, Bullock was released on $3,000 bond, of which he had to pay $300 in cash.

Shortly before his trial, which was scheduled for Nov. 13, 1975, in Arlington Circuit Court, Bullock jumped bail, secured a phony passport and fled to Great Britain and then Sweden, where authorities believe he is still hiding.

Arlington officials said the case, initially a routine matter - has become one of the most unusual and frustrating they have ever handled.

It is now an international case involving, at various times, the New Scotland Yard, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), the Swedish government, the FBI, the State Department and the governor of Virginia, as well as Arlington police and prosecutors.

Bringing her alleged assistant to trial has become a personal crusade for Palfrey, who estimates that she has spent nearly a year of the last three pursuing the case.

Her experience has been a trauma that she said she thinks about every day. A frail and intense woman, Palfrey, 28, has gone through periods of intense anger and unremitting depression. Last year she slammed her fist through a window and needed stitches to close the wound.

A short time later she attempted suicide by swallowing a dozen sleeping pills. Lately, she said, she had experienced sudden episodes of paralyzing fear. Divorced, she and her 9-year-old son have recently moved into her parents' apartment.

"It's a mess," said Arlington police Detective Betty LeBaron, who has investigated the case. "It just seems that this case has been mishandled by everybody. Trying to get answers out of people is very hard. Papers would sit on desks and a lot of people didn't have anyexperience because this is such a rare case. "Very few people charged with rape skip the country."

Officials in the State Department, FBI and Arlington commonwealth's attorney's office said they have done everything they can. They said the case, which one referred to as a "comedy of errors," illustrates the often Byzantine complexities of international extraditions. FBI, State Department and Arlington officials give the following account of the case:

In the spring of 1976 the FBI, acting on a tip, asked the New Scotland Yard to check its records on a man named Milton Norwood Bullock. On June 30, Scotland Yard officials informed the FBI that they had no record of a man by that name.

The FBI requested a second check and on March 31, 1977, Scotland Yard advised the FBI that in April 1976 a Milton Bullock had in fact been arrested and convicted in magistrate's court or a charge of living on immoral earnings.

"Through administrative inadvertence, previous inquiries did not indentify Milton Bullock with Milton Norwood Bullock," according to a report from London to the FBI's Alexandria office. Scothland Yard officials said they believed Bullock, whom they considered "armed and dangerous," had gone to South America. Meanwhile, FBI officials said that as early as April 1976 nearly a year before the report from Scotland Yard, Bullock had made collect telephone calls from Stockholm to friends in the Washington area. He had also been arrested on a drunk driving charge on Jan 7, 1977, but Stockholm police did not fingerprint him.

In April 1977 the FBI received word through Interpol that Swedish police had conducted an investigation of Bullock and found that he had married a Swedish citizen and was living in Stockholm. At this point Assistant Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Kenneth E. Melson began preparing extradition papers.

Palfrey said that last April she receieved a transatlantic phone call from a man identified himself as Bullock. "I was terrified," she said. "He essentially asked me if it was worth my life to drop the charges. He told me his mother was sick and he wanted to come home. I told him it was up to the commonweatlh's attorney to drop the charges and that he could come back and take his chances." If convicted, Bullock could face a sentence of five years to life imprisonment.

Last June, amid a flurry of publicity, Palfrey, a drugstore bookkeeper in Arlington, became the first rape victim in Virginia to publicly testify about her experience before the State Crime Commission to which she had been appointed.

Even after her case became widely known, there were more delays in seeking Bullock's extradition.

State Department officials said the huge stack of legal documents in the case had to be sent to Sweden to be translated because of a shortage of translators here. That took 30 days and cost Virginia $1,800, a fee that Arlington Circuit Court Judge Paul D. Brown initially balked at paying.

While the papers were being translated, the Swedish government requested additional documents. These included written assurances from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and then Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin that the death sentence would not be imposed if Bullock were extradited.

"The real confusion began in August," said prosecutor Melson. While extradition papers were being processed, Stockholm police called Bullock in for an identity check that had been requested by Interpol. But Bullock had disappeared when police went to arrest him several weeks later.

A month later State Department attorney George Lehner said he received what turned out to be a misleading cable. He thought Bullock had been arrested and called Melson who notified Palfrey. LeBaron and her police officer husband prepared to go to Stockholm.

In early January of this year Lehner sent a letter to Melson saying that there had been a mistake. According to Swedish authorities, Bullock had been "arrested in his absence." Stockholm police said that they believe that Bullock, who is 6-foot-9 and black, is still hiding somewhere in Sweden.

"I'm sure he's not on their Ten Most Wanted List," said Lehner. "We've told the Swedish authorities that this is an important case...and that a lot of money has been spent."

"If I had a choice now I would (not have prosecuted)," Palfrey says angrily. "I've knocked myself out for three years to get nowhere. But you cannot be released from being a victim. I'm going to hound this thing to death."

"It's hard to explain some of the (delays)," said FBI special agent Robert Kunkel. "Our system is so different from everybody else's. We have problems dealing with a foreign police agency. I'm not being critical of them, but they're likely to put different priorities on matters."

"All we can do is wait," said Arlington prosecutor Melson. "It's out of our hands. But if he is picked up in an other country, we may have to start the whole extradition procedure all over again."