For two summers the young botany student came to Blackbird State Forest here to sit in the shade of tall oaks and study the wild hog peanut. The Montgomery County woman would arrive in the morning, and people in the park sometimes would see her working off the side of a dirt road in the forest, surrounded by electronic equipment and engrossed in the research that she expected would earn her a master's degree by 1987.
But last week it was homicide detectives who were working at the site, and Jane Marie Prichard, 28, of Clarksburg was dead from the blast of a gun. The oaks were labeled with numbers, the underbrush cleared and the soil sifted, and the spot where Prichard's body was found a week ago was marked with wooden pegs.
New Castle County police say they have not found a motive for the shooting of the tall University of Maryland botanist who lived in a small cottage in Clarksburg, about six miles northwest of Gaithersburg. They know that Prichard made the 115-mile drive from her home and arrived at the forest on Sept. 20 around 7 a.m. for the last day of research on her project. And they know that two campers found her body at 5:30 p.m. lying 20 feet from her equipment. What happened in between remains a mystery.
"We have no solid leads," said Lt. Frederick M. Calhoun Jr., a police spokesman, ". . . or any suspect."
Police and forest officials said that between 25 and 50 hunters were in the 7,000-acre forest that Saturday for the first weekend of Delaware's squirrel hunting season. But although police refused to provide any details of the shooting, they said they are certain that the killing was no accident.
Prichard's death was a violent end for someone who had spent her recent years in the quiet study of botany. The valedictorian of her 1976 Poolesville High School class, she was a scholar and botanist who wanted to become an environmental lawyer. She loved driving around in her old Datsun convertible with her long brown hair blowing in the wind.
"She really reveled in that type of image," said her academic adviser, Irwin N. Forseth Jr. She was a calm person who loved being "out in nature," he added, and she never handled guns or went hunting.
For her research she chose a quiet section of north-central Delaware, a place where "violent crime is not a way of life," said forest manager John C. Bennett. Blackbird State Forest is 15 miles north of Dover. In winter months, great flocks of blackbirds come in from the marshes to feed in the state forest.
In summer, hog peanuts -- small bean vines that look something like honeysuckle plants -- grow in the brush beneath the oaks, and it was these that Prichard came to study. Bennett had never heard of hog peanuts, but was happy to have her working here.
Soon the woman was driving from her home to Delaware every few weeks to spend a day watching her vines. She would park just off the dirt road, half a mile from the forest office building, start a small gas-fired generator, connect electrical monitoring equipment to the vines and measure the leaves as they turned to face the sun.
"There was something about that girl," said Bennett, who has seen hundreds of students pass through the forest in his 17 years there. "She was very dedicated and enthusiastic about her work. If I'd let her, she'd have spent days telling me about her work."
Prichard grew up around plants and loved the countryside. When she was 10, her parents moved from Silver Spring to Barnesville in the farmland of western Montgomery County. They raised horses and cows on their 30 acres, and "Janey," as the family called the third of four children, always was growing plants and shrubs.
"A house was not a home unless there was something green, some growing thing, in it," her mother Audrey Prichard said last week. "She was always interested in plants and always growing something."
After graduating from Poolesville High School, Jane Prichard went to Western Maryland College in Westminster and studied biology and political science. She graduated with honors in 1980.
She then went to work for the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission as a gardener at Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring. She moved into a small cottage in Clarksburg, 15 minutes from her parents' house, and landscaped the garden and filled it with flowers. After almost four years, Prichard decided to return to school and get a master's degree in botany.
"Once she made up her mind to do something," her mother remarked, "she wanted to do it yesterday."
So Prichard got in her Datsun convertible, which had 120,000 miles on it, and drove to universities as far away as California looking for a place that would accept her as a student and teaching assistant and accept her right away, her mother said.
She ended up close to home, at the University of Maryland. She sometimes complained that her undergraduate students were more interested in easy grades than in botany, her mother said, but she was happy at the university and loved her research.
When the family went for a horseback ride near Sugarloaf Mountain recently, she excitedly pointed out some hog peanuts she discovered. When she prepared presentations on her project, Audrey Prichard said, the "family was forced to sit and watch the slides, and the progress of her bean plant as it followed the sun."
Botany professor Forseth said that he had had doubts about accepting Prichard as a student.
"I usually don't like to take people like gardeners, or people who want to become lawyers," he recalled. "You want someone who's going to stay in academia.
"I thought I was taking a risk, but that was far from the truth," he added, saying that her research proved to be original and "top-notch." When she delivered a speech describing her work to an Ecological Society of America meeting in New York in August, the editor of the society's journal told her to write it up for publication.
At first, Forseth said, Prichard got "pretty average" teaching reviews from the undergraduates she taught.
"That insulted her," he said. " . . . She wouldn't accept the fact that she was just average, and worked at it to the point where she got the highest teaching reviews" of any of the department's 50 graduate students.
In the spring, students in Prichard's plant ecology class filled out course evaluation forms. "What are the strong points of the course?" they were asked.
"At least 50 percent of them wrote in 'Jane Prichard,' " Forseth said.