Friends of Erica Mendell Daye said she deeply loved her only child, William DeLoach III, maybe more than she loved herself. Daye sometimes went out of her way to provide for him, they said, such as the day before the boy's second birthday in 1982 when she bought $137 worth of toys at a Toys 'R' Us store.

But she paid the bill with a bad check, according to Prince George's County District Court records, and she ended up on probation after pleading guilty to the charge.

Prince George's police have charged Daye, 25, with first-degree murder in the death of her 5-year-old son, whose decapitated and mutilated body was found last Sunday by a relative in Daye's apartment in Adelphi.

The slaying and the arrest shocked the Washington area and left Daye's friends surprised.

Police are saying little about the slaying, and details about Daye's life are sketchy.

Her formal education, at least in the Washington area, ended after seventh grade. She has been in and out of county courts, mostly on charges related to writing bad checks or shoplifting. In her adult life, Daye has moved from job to job, apartment to apartment, probation officer to probation officer.

And people who knew her said that in recent years she was using PCP.

"What happened is just a terrible, terrible thing," said Russell Manley, 26, a close friend who first met Daye in the early 1970s when she lived in the Riggs Park area of Northeast Washington.

Last August, Manley said, he helped Daye move into her apartment at 7950 18th Ave., Adelphi. It was at least the fifth address for Daye since August 1981, according to court records. At times over the next couple of months, Manley said, he would pick up Daye's son from his day care center. But their relationship began to falter in the autumn, he said, when Daye began using PCP almost daily.

"She was abusing drugs," Manley said. "I told her that if she couldn't get herself together, I had to stop seeing her. We had a friendship that couldn't last because of that."

Soon afterward, Daye visited Manley at the house where he lives with his mother. Daye brought a baseball bat with her, he said, and she used it to strike him and his older brother across their arms. Before leaving, Manley said, Daye tossed a brick through a window in the front of the house.

His family decided against reporting the incident to police. "We weren't thinking about that at the time," said Robert Manley, Russell Manley's 33-year-old brother. "We were trying to help her."

Prince George's police have not established a motive in the death of William DeLoach III. Investigators said they had no evidence that Daye was under the influence of a drug when she allegedly killed her son.

A psychiatrist who examined Daye last week, after she interrupted arraignment proceedings in D.C. Superior Court with unruly behavior, said in a report that "it was unclear whether Daye's demeanor is related to stress, drug abuse or mental illness." Abraham Blitzer, Daye's court-appointed attorney, said he does not believe that his client has been tested for drug use, as is the usual practice in D.C. courts. He acknowledged that Daye, who refused to accept him as her counsel in the arraignment hearing, "won't talk to me."

Daye is being held in the D.C. Jail as a fugitive from justice on a $50,000 bond. A hearing on extraditing her to Prince George's County is scheduled next month.

Meanwhile, police investigators are trying to piece together the events leading to the slaying. It appears that the victim first came to police attention on the Thursday before his death when his mother went to the criminal investigation division of the D.C. police to report that she suspected that William DeLoach III had been sexually abused, said Sgt. Joe Gentile, a District police spokesman.

Police referred her to Children's Hospital, where the boy was examined and released about 6:30 p.m., said Theresa Fulton, a hospital spokeswoman. But before Daye and her son left the hospital, some of the boy's relatives showed up and began arguing with Daye about the abuse allegation, sources said. Hospital security personnel escorted the women out of the hospital.

When Daye went to the hospital garage, she found that more than one of the tires on her car had been slashed, the sources said. Hospital security called D.C. police, but no charges were filed. Daye and her son left the hospital in a taxi.

Gentile declined to comment on the sexual abuse allegation, saying that police are still investigating the matter.

Harold Kranz, Children's Hospital spokesman, said: "Everything that could be done medically and socially was done. There was no indication he was in any danger by any of our people. Because of the tragedy that occurred, we're of course going back to check all of our procedures."

Relatives of Daye's and members of the DeLoach family declined to be interviewed for this article. A woman who identified herself as the boy's aunt, Carrolyn DeLoach, has told local television news reporters that days before William DeLoach III's death, Daye had talked frequently about "people and demons" being after her son. Carrolyn DeLoach told those reporters that Daye had been using PCP and other drugs.

Daye's early life apparently included several moves. Her D.C. school records show numerous addresses, a different one almost every year. She last attended schools in Northeast Washington. She was at Rabaut Junior High School in 1972 and in 1974 was briefly in the seventh grade at Backus Junior High when, according to schools spokeswoman Janice Cromer, Daye disappeared from the school system.

Neighbors who remember Daye from the days she lived in the neighborhood near Backus said she was often gone from home for long periods of time.

Last Sunday, Daye's sister discovered the boy's body about 5 p.m. on a love seat in Daye's apartment. The body had been decapitated, dismembered and disemboweled. The Maryland medical examiner said William DeLoach III had died about 24 hours before his body was found.

Daye's neighbors told police that they heard Daye and her son yelling at each other about 7 a.m. Saturday, according to court documents. Nine hours later, county police said, an officer went to Daye's apartment in response to a call from there about an armed man in the area. But when Cpl. William Lynn knocked on Daye's door, according to the statement of charges against Daye, a woman who refused to open the door told him that he "would not want to see what was inside."

That Daye could have been involved in the death of her son is hard to believe for some of her friends.

"She did love that boy," said Russell Manley, who added that Daye sometimes left the boy alone at the apartment and would get complaints from her sister about it.

One man who attended Daye's arraignment last week in D.C. Superior Court said Daye "loved her son as much as she loved herself, if not more." People were so used to seeing them together that when Daye showed up without her son Sunday morning at the Park Road Community Church, 1019 Park Rd. NW, members of the congregation repeatedly asked her of his whereabouts.

At the church, according to the police statement of charges against her, Daye repeatedly told the Rev. Eugene Burton that her son "is safe now." Burton, who police said was alarmed by Daye's irrational behavior, arranged for Daye to be taken to Howard University Hospital.

But Daye left the emergency room about 7 p.m., before she could be treated, a hospital spokeswoman said. By then, county police were looking for Daye, whom they found the next day at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a federal mental institution.

Staff writers Margaret Engel and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.