To some people, the name Laurel brings to mind the Washington suburb where George Wallace was shot, a motley assortment of small businesses, fast-food restaurants, car dealers, Fort Meade and a racetrack along Rte. 1.

But there is another Laurel: a 2 1/2-squaremile city of quaint homes, garden apartments, antique stores and a 72-year-old soda shop. City residents say they're fighting an image problem with the larger, surrounding area that uses the same name.

Several recent murders in that area haven't helped.

Laurel, described by its mayor as being "30 feet this side of heaven," is hardly the place one would expect to find excessive violence. Yet, in the past six months, there have been two murders and two violent suicides in the city and two more disturbing killings nearby. Four violent deaths in Laurel add up to a lot of crime, residents say, for a city of 13,000 that reported only one murder during all of last year.

Laurel, an independent, 112-year-old municipality, was founded long before Prince George's County. It is nestled between Rte. 1, I-95 and Rte. 198. The surrounding area, which the Postal Service also regards as Laurel, is partially in Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

The area has prosperous-looking farms and hundreds of small businesses, as well as large employers such as Fort Meade, the National Security Agency, United Parcel Service and Arbitron.

Laurel's convenient location along major readways has been a boon to business, but, according to police, the commercial establishments also have attracted crime. The area is easily accessible to out-of-town criminals who pass through to dump stolen cars, shoplift or rob, police say.

Out-of-towners also accounted for Laurel's only murder last year, which involved a Baltimore couple, Kenneth and Catherine Annack. Earlier this month, a Prince George's County jury found Kenneth Annack guilty in the shooting death of Danny Ward, 30, of Laurel.According to testimony at the trial, Annack's wife had wrongly led him to believe she had been raped by Ward.

In another incident involving out-of-towners, city police said that early in November a District couple was arrested after a security guard from Laurel Centre's J.C. Penney Co. store was stabbed.

Police said the guard suspected the couple was shoplifting and tried to apprehend them, only to be stabbed by the man outside the store. The couple fled in a car and led about 25 city, county, state and park police cars on a 15-mile chase through Laurel streets and highways before being arrested.

The security guard is recovering from his wounds. But other victims in Laurel have not been so lucky.

On Oct. 21, Sanford Sadowsky, 19, shot himself to death in the front yard of his girlfriend's house on Alan Drive.

A few days later, Stella Leonard, 21, of Howard County, was sexually assaulted and strangled. Her body was found by a jogger on a path behind Dwight D. Eisenhower Junior High School, just outside the Laurel city limits.

City police believe Leonard had left the popular B&E Tavern on Rte. 1 with a man she met there. A few days after the killing, Alan (Scooter) Jones, 17, of Laurel, the man who police believe accompanied Leonard from the bar, was arrested and charged with her murder.

Then, at about 8 p.m. on Nov. 6, police say, Cobie Johnson, 50, allegedly fatally shot his estranged wife, Adelaide Johnson, 48, and her friend, Howard G. Wood, 59, in the parking lot of the apartments where Wood lived. Cobie Johnson then apparently killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

Most disturbing to some Laurel residents, however, has been the case of the 28-year-old nurse who disappeared in July, just days before she was to have moved to a new job in Texas.

Stefanie S. Watson, who lived alone in a Laurel apartment, was last seen when she picked up her final paycheck at the Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital. She was reported missing the next day by her cousin.

Watson's blood-stained car was found four days later in a parking lot. Early in September, Prince George's County police identified a partial skull -- found in a trash bag dumped in the woods by an unidentified man in the 13000 block of Larchdale Road -- as that of Stefanie S. Watson. The investigation of how, when and where Watson was killed, and by whom, continues.

Residents sometimes confuse the details of the recent killings, but nevertheless are concerned. "Things like [the Watson case] never used to happen in Laurel," said Darla Nielson, 26, who moved to the area from Texas two years ago with her minister-husband, Dennis Nielson, of the United Pentecostal Church.

Nielson said she and her husband fell in love with Laurel because of its friendly people and "small, home-town atmosphere." Now, she said, the little town is growing and she is afraid of the increased violence.

Robert DiPietro, 30, mayor of his home town of Laurel since he was 25, said the recent murders have been "very discouraging.... The entire community is affected.... It's not the kind of thing that happens here frequently."

"People around here read about murders in their daily paper. It doesn't really affect you until it hits close to home," said Capt. J. D. Ervin, deputy chief of Laurel's 28-member police force.

Robert and Janet Amoruso, a young couple who live in the Laurel Park Apartments, heard shots the evening Cobie Johnson allegedly shot his estranged wife and her friend. "I've never been that close to a murder," Robert Amoruso said.

Janet Amoruso, an avid jogger, stopped running shortly after Stefanie Watson disappeared. Now, she said, "even walking out to the car I'm really scared."

The recent murders have prompted Amoruso to look for a new home for himself, his wife and their two small children. They may move to Anne Arundel County, he said, because he believes there is less crime there and it is away from the Baltimore-Washington corridor, which he maintains is "known for drug trafficking."

Not everyone shares Amoruso's fears. "I never considered Laurel as a crime area," said a female neighbor, who asked not to be named. Although the recent shootings shook her up, she said, she has learned to take such crimes in stride.

Two murders in a single year may be a record for the city, said James Collins, a spokesman for the city police. In the southern and western parts of the Laurel area in Prince George's County, five murders have been reported this year, compared with one in 1981.

During the first half of this year, rapes and robberies were up and assaults and burglaries were down from a year earlier in the county portion of Laurel. The city has experienced a similar pattern during the first six months of 1982, police reports show.

The Laurel area always has had its share of problems, Howard County Police Chief Paul H. Rappaport said, but the nature of the crimes may have become more serious.

"I can remember patrolling Laurel 28 years ago (as a state trooper), and it was a hub of problems then," he said. Rappaport particularly recalled intervening in many bar fights. As for crimes of passion, he said, "no law enforcement agency in the world can stop that."

Laurel officials are upset that the city's reputation is being tarnished by problems that occur outside its borders. "We can't be responsible for the things that happen outside," said H. Edward Ricks, a City Council member and head of the public safety commission.

Areas surrounding Burtonsville, Scaggsville and even Jessup often are mistakenly referred to as Laurel, saddling the city "with a stigma [that] can be overshadowing," he said.

Fighting this identity crisis and the town's growing pains keeps Mayor DiPietro busy. Main Street has been rebuilt and hosts an annual summer festival, and the mayor is trying to convince businesses to move into the area.

To try to ensure that the town's reputation is not unjustly damaged, police have been using video-tape machines to practice dealing with the press.

Police said they are unsure what can be done to prevent murders, but they have been reducing the number of break-ins of homes. Residents who travel out of town can ask officers to keep an eye on their houses.

As for defusing crime, at least the domestic type, DiPietro said he has asked social service agencies and ministers to be on the lookout for people who are depressed or under additional stress during the holidays.