They fell in love at a K mart in Annandale. He was a stock clerk. She worked in ladies apparel. Within three years Keith Bee had married his department store sweetheart, fathered a son and moved up the K mart ranks to assistant manager.
His friends called him "Mr. K mart" and said it was only a matter of time before he became a district manager. His mother, a cook at the K mart near Tysons Corner, knew her son's ambition did not end there.
Then two months ago, during an early morning robbery at a Baltimore K mart where the 27-year-old Bee had been transferred last year, he was killed -- shot in the back of the head with a shotgun taken from the store's sporting goods department. Bee's 3-year-old son Jason had gone with him that Sunday morning to unlock the store for the day maintenance worker. Police found Jason standing over his father's dead body.
Thirty minutes later, with Keith Bee's body still lying in an aisle beside the employes' lounge, his 25-year-old wife Monica gave birth to their second son.
Last week, five of the seven people charged in the Bee slaying were arraigned in Baltimore Criminal Court for murder and armed robbery. Two of the suspects were K mart maintenance men on duty at the time of the shooting. A third suspect, 22-year-old Clinton Ellison, had been fired by Bee from K mart two weeks before the killing after he and Bee had a fist fight. Investigators say an unidentified witness told them that Ellison, the son of a minister, pulled the trigger.
The K mart killing -- the alleged execution of a man in front of one son on the day a second was being born -- wrenched emotions beyond Baltimore and Northern Virginia. Photographs of Jason, crying at his father's burial in Arlington, appeared in newspapers across the country. The story with it told of a tearful boy, looking into his father's grave and asking: "Is Daddy down there?" Letters and checks came to Monica Bee from more than 40 states.
"The case had an immediate, emotional impact on the community," says Tim Doory, a Maryland assistant state's attorney who is prosecuting the K mart cases. The 32-year-old Doory argued Baltimore's first death penalty trial last year after the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment legal. This week, as five defendants pleaded not guilty to 25 felony counts connected with Bee's murder, Doory would not say if he will ask for the death penalty when the trials begin in March.
Keith Bee's mother has already made up her mind. "My family firmly believes in fair trials. But if they're found guilty, I would like to be the one to throw the switch," said Marie Bee, sitting in her dark, basement apartment in Falls Church, smoking the cigarettes that Keith was forever urging her to give up.
Monica Bee has left Baltimore, taking her two sons to join her mother in another state. She has told family and friends about death threats against Jason. She does not wish to be interviewed.
Keith's mother's apartment is not far from the Falls Church neighborhood where she and her four sons moved in 1967 from Yonkers, N.Y. Her husband had died seven years earlier, when Keith was six years old.
"He always said, 'It's really rotten growing up without a father. I don't want my children ever to have to go through that,' " recalls Mary Jane Naudus, the mother of Keith's best friend, Peter. When her son drowned in a hunting accident 10 years ago, Mary Jane and Stanley Naudus unofficially adopted Keith.
That same year, when Keith's mother gave up the rented, wood-frame house on Washington Drive to join her other sons in Florida, Keith moved into the Naudus home. He stayed for six years, until he married Monica.
"Keith was tall and handsome. He had beautiful teeth and nice brown hair. He liked nice things and was willing to work for them," said Mrs. Naudus recently as she sat with her husband at a small kitchen table and looked through a photograph album, smoking cigarettes. "He was a real good all-American type boy. He didn't drink or smoke and was really down on drugs. He was also very stubborn. If he didn't think you were working hard enough, he could really be tough. People either loved him or couldn't stand him."
Stanley Naudus was the best man at Keith and Monica's wedding in 1977. One Christmas the Naudus couple treated the Bees to a vacation in Aruba. They went to dances together, made each other's Halloween costumes and spent extravagantly on Christmas shopping sprees. They were such good friends, Stanley Naudus could tell Keith to shut up already about K mart's "Blue Light" specials and revenues.
"He used to bore the heck out of me sometimes," said Stanley Naudus, rubbing a big hand across his forehead and allowing himself the first smile of the afternoon.
At K mart Keith Bee found both a successful career and a wife. Monica Bee went to work at the Annandale K mart right after finishing Jefferson High School near Falls Church. She was dark-haired, pretty and outgoing. And she wondered when the brown-eyed stock clerk in the automotive department was going to get up the courage to ask her out.
"When Keith finally decided the night to ask Monica for a date, he walked up and down the aisles for two hours before he went up to her," said Steven Bee, Keith's 25-year-old brother, who works as a custodian in Florida. "She said, 'What took you so long?' "
William Bee, 31, the oldest of the brothers, remembers Keith was more infatuated with success than females. "Keith knew what he wanted. He wanted the top. And he wasn't going to let anything else get in the way."
But Keith told his brothers that Monica was different. She had a keen intelligence, a good disposition and worked as hard as he did. "Those were two peas in a pod," said William Bee.
Monica was pregnant with Jason in 1978 when Keith was accepted into the chain's management training program in Staunton, Va. For the next two years he worked as an assistant manager at K mart stores in Richmond and Forestville, Md. He was transferred to the Baltimore K mart in November 1980. The young family moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Owings Mills, a bedroom community just northwest of Baltimore. Monica went to work at a nearby pharmacy and Keith devoted himself to his new store.
"The people who have succeeded at K mart pretty much live in K mart," says Susan McKelvey, a spokeswoman for the K mart chain of 2,000 stores, the second largest general merchandise retailer in the country behind Sears. "He was a model employe in every way. He really had great potential with the company."
Michael Hickman was one of the few neighbors in the Richmarr apartment complex the Bee family got to know. Hickman and his wife have a son Jason's age. The two families occasionally played badminton on a makeshift court behind their apartments. Hickman says there was little opportunity to build a close friendship. "He worked all the time. He was hardly ever home."
Bee had volunteered to open the K mart on the Sunday morning of Oct. 25 as a favor to one of the other seven assistant managers who rotate that chore. His wife was due any day, but he expected to be away from home less than an hour. As a treat to Jason, a fair-haired, rosy-cheeked boy with an unusually playful disposition, he was allowed to come along for a ride and a quick walk through the toy department.
Bee and his son left the apartment about 7:30 a.m. Three hours later they had not returned and Monica began having contractions. She drove herself to the K mart, 15 minutes away, and looked for her husband. When she arrived his 1981 blue Chevette was not in the parking lot. Assuming they had passed each other on the road, she continued to Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Her husband was already dead.
According to charges filed by police, Ricky Thomas, a 25-year-old night maintenance worker at the store, admitted Clinton Ellison, who had been fired just two weeks earlier, and at least two other men to the store before Bee arrived.
Howard Gersh, the head of the violent crimes unit in the state's attorney's office, told reporters that after Keith Bee arrived at the store, he was confronted by robbers and forced to open the store safe. Then, Keith Bee was kicked and beaten while his son was forced to lie on top of him. Jason also saw his father shot once in the back of the head at close range with a .410 gauge shotgun, said Gersh.
Thomas originally told police he had fallen asleep after being tied up in a restroom. Charges filed against Thomas listed another, unnamed witness who reported a conversation he had with Thomas the day after the killing. In that conversation, Thomas allegedly said the plan had been to knock Bee out and rob the store.
"No one was supposed to be killed," Thomas allegedly said to the witness.
The same witness, according to court papers, said Thomas heard Ellison tell the others, "I'm going to blow this mother------'s brains out."
About $12,000 in cash and 14 Seiko watches were taken from the K mart during the robbery. Police have recovered $4,000 of the money and an undetermined number of watches.
Bee's coworkers at the huge K mart, which has 144 employes, wore black armbands the day after the killing. Sally Grimes, who worked with Monica at a pharmacy in Reisterstown, began a memorial fund for the family that has so far received $7,500. Late that same night, Keith's three brothers arrived in Baltimore from Florida. They were grief stricken and bitter.
"They're going to put the murderer away for five years, and then he's going to come out and kill somebody else's daddy," Greg Bee, a 29-year-old mechanic told a Baltimore newspaper. "Things like this happen every day in this stinking country and nobody ever does anything about it."
Within a week, police had charged five men with the murder. Two others were later charged, one with receiving stolen goods and the other with being an accessory after the commission of a felony. The mostly middle-class, church-going families of the defendants, aged 19 to 25, encountered their own shock. Ellison's mother, Nanette, is a minister at the Faith Deliverance Revival Church.
Prosecutors say there could be as many as five separate trials beginning March 31. With appeals, legal action in the K mart killings might continue for years. Two of the five suspects have been released on bond.
Keith's mother, Marie, has been following the legal proceedings by talking on the phone periodically with prosecutors. Because she works two jobs, cooking at both K mart and Bloomingdales, she says it is unlikely she will attend the trials. With her husband dead, her sons gone and her granchildren moved out of state, Mrs. Bee says she works two jobs to keep herself occupied.
"What else am I gonna do, sit here alone and watch television?" asked Mrs. Bee.
Mary Jane and Stanley Naudus say this is a particularly difficult time of year for them because Keith was so fond of buying Christmas gifts and they always went together to visit their son Peter's grave. Now Keith is buried just 20 feet from his boyhood friend.
"I don't think I can take any more tragedies," said Mrs. Naudus, sitting near a basket of cut holly she planned to weave into a wreath for Peter's grave. "I guess this year I'll be making two wreaths."