A 17-year-old New Carrollton youth, charged with the strangulation murder of 8-year-old Brian Zippert, helped organize the search when the boy was reported missing last week and told friends that he was concerned about his neighbor's disappearance, several of his friends said yesterday.

Thomas Wayne Wright, a 10th grade student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, hung around younger children and was often playing with the young Zippert, neighbors said yesterday.

"Tommy was friends with Brian ," said 16-year-old Donna Reed, who lives in the same apartment building as the Wright family.

The victim's father also said he knew Wright. The families lived less than 100 yards apart in the same apartment complex. "I recognized him when he was arrested," Heinz Zippert said.

Wright, who has been charged as an adult, yesterday was ordered held in a protective custody section of the county jail, without bond, by District Judge Joseph S. Casula. A pretrial hearing was scheduled for June 9 to give defense attorneys time to prepare a request for psychiatric evaluation.

Looking younger than 17, his brown wavy hair dishevelled, Wright stood alert at his bond hearing but said nothing. He was not required to enter a plea.

Brian Zippert, from a family of four children, was reported missing about 9:30 last Wednesday night. His body was found in a wooded area behind the nearby Kim Apartments shortly after 8 a.m. the next day, and an autopsy revealed he had been strangled.

Wright was arrested Saturday evening. According to a police statement, Wright was questioned extensively and gave "contradicting" answers. His mother and three younger sisters have since moved out of their apartment at Carrollan Gardens.

Carrollan Gardens, the home of both Wright and Zippert, is a large, sprawling complex of garden apartments, with individual buildings separated by small parking lots.

Zippert's body was found in a wooded area behind another apartment complex where residents said it was not unusual for young people to go to drink beer.

Eric McGraw, 20, who lives at Carrollan Gardens, said he spoke with Wright several times after Zippert disappeared, and Wright seemed particularly concerned. "He was the one who organized the search--him and a couple of his friends," McGraw said.

Later, McGraw said, as residents of the apartment complex grew afraid because the killer had not been caught, Wright walked several kids home after playing. "He said that he hoped they caught the person who did it."

Reed's brother, 17-year-old Jimmy, said Wright drew a map illustrating where people had searched for Zippert on Wednesday night, and showed it to friends at school the following day. On Saturday, Donna Reed said she saw Wright, before he was taken away by county police. She said Wright was "dressed up," and said he was going to police headquarters to look at photographs of suspects.

Brenda Baker, a 17-year-old girl who lives in the area and went to school with Wright, said none of his friends believe he is the killer. "We don't understand it," she said. "He has never been violent."

Mitchell Smith, 22, who lives in a nearby apartment, said the only problems Wright ever caused was throwing crabapples at his balcony about a month ago. Smith noted that Wright "was always playing with the younger kids."

Said Jimmy Reed, "If he did do it, I think it was an accident. He was always wrestling with the other kids. They all were."

The night after the killing, McGraw said, he was talking about the incident with several friends, including Wright. But Wright "seemed like he was out in left field. He kept getting off the subject."