A mysterious, early-morning shooting last week near Laurel initially left Prince George's County police baffled. They could not imagine why an intruder would force his way into an apartment, awaken Eugene C. Prowant Jr. and his wife Pamela and shoot them with a handgun as they sat up in their bed.

Burglary was not a likely motive: Police found $700 in cash untouched on a dresser in the room where the couple was sleeping. And police said they had no reason to suspect that the Prowants, who were critically wounded, had been involved in illegal activities.

But after nearly a week of interviewing relatives and neighbors of the couple, police arrested James Wallace Watson III, Pamela Prowant's ex-husband, late Wednesday and charged him with three counts of attempted murder in connection with the shootings.

In the statement of charges against Watson, police cited a bitter custody battle in Howard County last summer for Watson's and Pamela Prowant's two children, who were in the custody of Prowant's mother in Jessup, Md. According to the statement, the judge awarded custody to Prowant "over the objection and against the will" of Watson.

Watson, 30, of 3704 Taylor St. in Brentwood, did not want custody of the children, police said, but neither did he want his former wife to have custody of them.

Patrice Lewis, Watson's attorney, said at a bond hearing for Watson yesterday that the allegations concerning her client are "totally inaccurate. He was not even summoned as a witness at that Howard County hearing."

Pamela Prowant fought for six months in Howard County Circuit Court to gain custody of her 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter from her first marriage, which ended five years ago.

She wanted custody of the children, a family member said, so that they could become part of her life with Eugene Prowant Jr., her second husband, and their 2-year-old son, at her new home near Laurel.

"It was a horrible, horrible, horrible battle," said Grace Prowant, Pamela Prowant's mother-in-law. "Our family has never experienced anything like this."

In August, Pamela Prowant was awarded custody, and she was going to pick up the children at her mother's home at 4 p.m. last Friday. She had asked her in-laws to accompany her, for moral support. A Howard County deputy sheriff would have been there, too.

But at 3:30 a.m. that morning, an intruder pried open the patio door at the Prowants' apartment at 11721 S. Laurel Dr. The intruder awakened the Prowants and shot them when they sat up in their bed, Prince George's County police said.

Both Eugene Prowant, 30, a construction worker, and Pamela Prowant, 26, a payroll accountant at a toy store, are in critical condition at Prince George's General Hospital. County police officers are guarding their rooms.

The Prowants' son, who was sleeping between them when his parents were shot, was slightly bruised during the incident. Robert Law, a county police spokesman, said police do not know whether a bullet caused the bruises.

"He was screaming every night since it happened," Grace Prowant said of the child. "He feared his mother was dead."

She said that the boy was able to visit his mother at the hospital earlier this week for the first time since the shooting, "and he's been sleeping well ever since."

Prince George's District Court Judge C. Philip Nichols reduced Watson's bond yesterday from $300,000 to $70,000 and Nichols was released from the county jail last night.

Joe DePaul, another of Watson's attorneys, disputed police charges regarding the custody battle and said that his client never had been a party to the custody fight.

Watson, a mechanic at Koch Auto Radiator Service Inc. in Hyattsville, has remarried and has another child by his new wife, DePaul said. The lawyer said that Watson visits the two children from his prior marriage "from time to time."

"He just wants the best for his children," DePaul added. "I think this is a case of overreaching by the police."

Pamela Prowant and Watson had agreed after their divorce to have her parents become the children's legal guardians, according to Fred Howard Silverstein, a Howard County lawyer who represented Pamela Prowant during the custody battle.

Pamela Prowant's relatives began to restrict her visits with the children after she remarried three years ago, Silverstein said, and she filed for legal custody this year.

Her mother could not be reached for comment.

Many of Pamela Prowant's relatives objected to her gaining custody of the two children, Grace Prowant said. Twice, said Grace Prowant, she and her husband Eugene Prowant Sr. traveled to the Howard County courthouse in Ellicott City to testify as character witnesses for their daughter-in-law.

After one heated hearing, Eugene Prowant Jr. found all four tires slashed on his pickup truck, his mother said. Police acknowledged the vandalism, but they said they do not know whether it was related to the court dispute.