A 17-year-old charged in four rapes, who escaped from custody in Howard County and is suspected of then stealing a car, committing a rape and assaulting an elderly couple at a church, was the object yesterday of an intensive manhunt involving at least 70 police officers using helicopters and bloodhounds.

He remained at large early today, police said.

Howard County police said Daniel Dennis Collins, who was awaiting trial in Prince George's County on rape charges arising from a two-day August crime spree in the Largo area, escaped from guards Saturday at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia.

He had been taken to the hospital for wrist X-rays from Clifton T. Perkins Medical Center, where he was undergoing psychiatric evaluation, after complaining of an injury, police said.

Last night and early today the search for Collins was focused in a 20-square-mile area bounded roughly by the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, U.S. Rte. 1 and Maryland Rtes. 32 and 175, authorities said.

In addition, officers at four state prisons located in that area were on the lookout for Collins.

Earlier in the day, officers from Howard and Anne Arundel counties, the Maryland State Police and other police forces combed nearby wooded areas and set up a roadblock that backed up cars about three miles on Rte. 175 near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Late last night, police pared the search to roving patrols in that area, Howard County police said. They said they had had no contact with Collins. State police said they were also watching the home of Collins' parents in Waldorf, in Charles County.

Collins was arrested Aug. 6 after a seven-hour manhunt behind the Hampton Shopping Mall in the Largo area of Prince George's County.

The manhunt was triggered when an off-duty county police officer inside a bank in the mall saw a man fitting the description of a suspect in the abduction of an off-duty D.C. police officer two days earlier and the rapes of several women, including a companion of the officer.

Collins was subsequently charged as an adult with four rapes and a sexual assault.

Three days later, Collins was transferred to Perkins, a maximum-security state mental hospital at Jessup. The transfer was requested by his lawyer after Collins apparently tried to kill himself by twisting a sheet around his neck as he was standing in the processing area of the Prince George's County Detention Center, county police said.

Throughout the day and into last night, police at stopped all cars traveling along Rte. 175 near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at roadblocks. After informing drivers that they were searching for a fugitive, the officers asked for their car keys and cautiously opened and examined car trunks.

It took most cars about a half hour to clear the roadblocks. As darkness fell, police continued the searches using flashlights. State trooper Gary L. Wisniewski said motorists were very cooperative.

Police advised residents near the search area not to open their doors to anyone except uniformed police officers.

Betty and David Link, who live on Rte. 175 near the Jessup Baptist Church, said yesterday that police had checked cars, trailers, boats and other hiding places in the back yards of their house and neighboring houses.

"This guy has got everybody shook up," David Link said. "You see people running around with SWAT teams, and that's not normal." Link said he had a placed a loaded gun by the front door in the living room, and another loaded gun in his bedroom.

Howard County and Maryland State Police said they suspect Collins in a number of crimes that occurred after his flight from Howard County General:

At about 6:20 p.m. Saturday, a man fitting Collins' description accosted a woman on Woodcutter Way in Columbia and commandeered her car, Howard County police said. The woman jumped from the car on Little Patuxent Parkway, they said, and she received minor hand injuries.

Soon after that, police said, the car was involved in a minor collision with a car being driven by a woman on Rte. 29 between South Entrance Road and Rte. 108. Police said the woman was forced off the road and taken to a wooded area where she was raped at knife point and stabbed. She drove herself to Howard County Hospital where she was treated and released, police said.

A county police officer saw the stolen car near the junction of Rte. 175 and I-95 at about 6:45 p.m., police said. They said the car crashed on Rte. 32 near Quarry Bridge Road, and the driver fled on foot.

Yesterday morning, a man who police believe may have been Collins assaulted an elderly couple opening the Jessup Baptist Church at 175 Brock Bridge Rd., police said. The assailant fled in the couple's car, drove about 800 feet and crashed into a tree, they said.

Allen Hughes, 71, chairman of the Jessup Baptist Church Board of Trustees, said he and his wife, Elizabeth, 63, opened the church about 9 a.m. He said his wife went into the nursery to prepare for Sunday school, and he heard her call for help.

"I heard her scream 'Allen, help! Allen!' and I ran into the nursery," he said. "The guy had caught her from behind, tried to choke her, and told her he was going to kill her. He came at me with a butcher knife and he hit me in the face, and I knocked it away from him."

As Hughes struggled with his assailant, he said, his wife moved toward the door. "My wife reached for the door, and he grabbed her and stabbed her in the back," he said. "But the knife blade bent." Hughes said the assailant had two knives, but the blades bent on both of them. "That's what saved us."

Hughes said the man demanded his car keys, "and I handed them to him and told him to get out of there. I didn't feel up to holding out with him. He was crazy as anything."

Hughes said he suffered a cut lip, and his wife had two minor stab wounds in her back. Both were treated at a hospital and released.

Police said they believe the same man then broke into an unoccupied house on Brock Bridge Road. Blood was found on a broken window as well as on the telephone, they said.

Dr. Stuart Silver, superintendent of the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, said Collins had fought with a hospital attendant Friday. The attendant was treated at the county hospital for head and facial injuries and released, Silver said, and Collins complained Saturday that his wrist had been injured.

Collins was taken to Howard County General Hospital Saturday afternoon by two guards from Perkins, Silver said. His hands were handcuffed to a leather strap around his waist, Silver said, but X-ray technicians had guards, who were not armed, remove the handcuffs so Collins' wrist could be examined.

One guard remained in the X-ray room, Silver said, and the other guarded the door. But when the handcuffs were removed, Collins fled through a second door that the guards had not realized was an exit, Silver said.

Collins was charged with sexually assaulting a Largo woman repeatedly at gunpoint in August, according to Prince George's police. Later the same evening, he allegedly pulled a gun on an off-duty D.C. police officer, took the officer's revolver and locked him in the trunk of his car, police said.

Collins is also charged with subsequently raping the officer's female companion and another woman, and with raping two sisters in Landover Hills several hours later. He was arrested by Prince George's police at Hampton Mall the next day