High noon along the winding streets of Northwest Washington's fashionable Forest Hills neighborhood, which rests like carefully buried treasure between Connecticut Avenue and Rock Creek Park north of the National Zoo. The serpentine pavement disappears now and again, giving way to winding driveways and extended lawns of expensive Tudor-style and colonial homes.

But there is trouble in this urban paradise. Residents have abandoned their tree-lined streets and retreated to their family rooms, stunned and horrified by what they describe as a sudden rise in street and personal crime in their area.

Friday evening, Paul Worthington Reed, a retired Air Force colonel, was walking his dog along Chesapeake Street, not far from his Linnean Avenue home, when he was shot to death during an apparent robbery attempt.

That, said one neighbor who knew him, is "what it must have been like on the streets of Chicago in the 1930s."

Reed's death was the latest in a chilling series of shootings among strangers -- physician Michael Halberstam, killed during an apparent burglary of his Northwest Washington home; Donnell Plater, 16, shot to death as he walked to his Southeast Washington home after a Christmas shopping list; David Seaton, 15, felled by a bullet in the head as he sat in a friend's truck near Children's Hospital while waiting for a traffic signal to change.

The deaths fly in the face of conventional wisdom and many police statistics, which indicate that most gun-related homicides involve people who are at least acquainted with one another.

"These people -- the criminals who are doing this kind of thing -- aren't from around here, they aren't people who know us or know anything about us," one woman, who lived near Reed for 15 years and asked not to be named, said yesterday, as she cautiously opened a door sealed by three dead-bolt locks and two chains.

"But it makes you feel like you're living in an armed camp . . . like you can't trust anybody. Time was, if a young woman came to my door, I would have let her in, no questions asked. But Washington was another world in those days."

"I've lived here since 1948," said Alton Armistead, a neighbor who learned of the death when he dropped by the Reed home on his regular Saturday afternoon call, "and let me tell you, it was never like this before."

Armistead, visibly shaken, identified several homes near the one where Reed lived quietly with his widowed mother, Dorothy, as recent burglary targets. He said residents have recently been victims of unprovoked abuse from strangers, recalling that Reed had been the subject of such an attack not too long ago.

"He was just walking down the street when these three colored guys drove up in a car and pointed a gun at him. "You don't like black people, do you? they said. Finally, they drove away. Paul was still upset when he told me about it a few days later."

A few doors away, a woman who lives with her 10-year-old daughter said her home was broken into only yesterday. "I would like to leave this neighborhod right now," said the woman, an Italian journalist temporarily on assignment in the United States. "My daughter and I sleep in the same bed because she is afraid, and before we go to sleep, we put a big chest against the door. Is that any way to live?

"I pick her up from school, even though it is only a short walk away, because just the other week a man followed her home and exposed himself. We don't go out at night. No moonlit walks, no looking at the trees, nothing. No, this does not fit my perception of what America was like.

"Of course we have violence in Italy, but it is so much more the political violence, not this kind of thing where you take a person's silverware because you need drugs, or shoot them just because you don't like the expression they have on their face," the woman said.

Another neighbor stopped in the midst of having an alarm system installed to comment on the killing. "They've got to bring back capital punishment," she said. "It's ridiculous. A guy blows someone's brains out, and they say we ought to rehabilitate him.

"I know it sounds terrible, and I do think of myself as a Christian woman. But this has become bizarre. I'm afraid to even go out with my dog . . . I'm a native Washingtonian, though, and I'm not about to be chased out of my city. We've just got to tighten up."

"You don't want to get into a thing where you look at every stranger and find yourself thinking it's us against them," said another neighbor, "but that's what it's turning into.

"But I'm not going anywhere," he proclaimed, as he dug his heels firmly into his garden. "If people -- these criminals, I mean -- are looking for a showdown, then I say we'll damn well give it to 'em.

Police said yesterday that they had no leads in their search for Reed's killer.