Steve Cohen, a 20-year-old apprentice meat cutter from Woodbridge, got off work at about midnight yesterday, visited friends in suburban Virginia, and left for washington at about 1 a.m.

About 3 a.m., the 1973 blue Volkswagen being driven by a 17-year-old acquaintance of Cohen's stopped near the corner of 14th and Wallach street NW.

As Cohen and his companion stopped the car, five youths approached them, demanding money, police said. Before the driver was able to pull away, one of the youths pulled out a 45-caliber handgun, stuck it through the open window and shot Cohen point blank in the forehead.

The companion, whose name is being withheld by police, drove Cohen to Howard University Hospital where he remained in critical condition last night with a bullet in his brain.

Yesterday Cohen lay in a coma, his chest rising and falling with the help of a respirator, his face covered by a thick white bandage.

Fred Cohen, who works for U.S. Postal Service at the Woodbridge post office, sat in the waiting room off the intensive care unit with the Cohen family. They were planning to get together for a Fourth of July picnic. Instead, they clutched tissues, drank coffee and kept an all-day vigil in the hospital's basement. "If he lives, he'll just be a vegetable," sobbed Steve Cohen's fiancee, 18-year-old Lisa Collins.

Collins, who has lived with the Cohens since January, said, "Maybe he did come in looking for drugs, maybe he didn't. He didn't like to talk about stuff like that."

The family said it was "unusual" for Steve Cohen to drive the 25 miles into Washington at 1 o'clock in the morning. Collins said she, Cohen and his companion drove to a friend's house in Woodbridge around midnight Monday, after Cohen got off work at the Capital Beef Co.

Collins said she went to sleep, at the friend's house, unaware that Cohen and his companion had decided to drive to washington.

"He was so good-looking," said Collins, twisting the engagement ring on her finger. "If you lived in Woodbridge, you knew Stevie. He had a lot of friends, he liked to go out and have a good time."

Irene Cohen, who owns a dress shop in Woodbridge, held her husband's hand, trying to understand what had happened to her son. "I feel this hate just welling up inside me. I can't help it. I feel hate," she said, sobbing.

"They're animals" said Fred Cohen angrily. "Just animals. Look what happened to those two cops in P.G. county. And those three girls in Woodbridge. What kind of animal would do this to my son?"

Irene Cohen broke down. "I just hope they catch them," she said.

The family said Steve Cohen had quit high school in the 10th grade, worked in construction for a while and finally got a job as a meat cutter. "He was going to make something of himself," said his father. "But he was so impetuous."

His older brother Michael, who turned 25 yesterday, comforted the Cohen sisters, Jennifer and Debra. "He was a nice kid," Michael said Steve was the youngest child.