Franklin W. Shepherd, who went before television cameras in January and appealed for information about his missing wife, pleaded guilty yesterday to beating her to death in the couple's Prince William County home.

Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert recommended that Shepherd, 29, receive an 80-year sentence, with half of it suspended. Prince William Circuit Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. is expected to sentence Shepherd on Jan. 13. Shepherd, the owner of a potato chip franchise, could be sentenced to life in prison for his guilty plea to the charge of first-degree murder.

During a 75-minute hearing yesterday at the courthouse in Manassas, Shepherd sat solemnly, looking down, as Ebert and witnesses for the prosecution portrayed him as a man who initially attempted to appear to be a distraught husband but who later admitted to beating and choking his wife during a fight over her refusal to have sexual intercourse with him.

The defense offered no evidence in Shepherd's behalf.

Shepherd reported his wife Carol, a 31-year-old Army nurse and the mother of two young children, missing on Jan. 24, saying he had last seen her the day before at a shopping center in Chantilly.

Police found her body Feb. 13 in the trunk of her car, which was parked near the shopping center. Investigators said they were led to the site by directions Shepherd left, with a suicide note, in a Baltimore County motel room. At the time, Shepherd was hospitalized with what authorities said was a self-inflicted knife wound and injuries received when he was hit by a truck near the motel.

In court yesterday, Carol Shepherd's mother, Vi Phelps of Dover, Del., and friends watched tearfully as Ebert showed a videotape of a statement Franklin Shepherd made to a television reporter shortly after informing police that his wife was missing.

Whisenant, who denied a request from defense attorney E. Allen Newcomb that the tape not be shown, left the bench to view the TV monitor.

On the videotape, Shepherd said that his wife "said she was going to do some shopping. I hopped out and said, 'Okay, I'll meet you at home. You get the kids.' And I took off walking down the snowy road -- didn't even think anything. I didn't even look back. That was the last time we saw each other."

Later in the three-minute interview, Shepherd said: "We had two kids at home. We had a new home . . . . Everything was . . . looking great."

Police said Shepherd became a suspect because he was the last person to see his wife. During questioning, inconsistencies in his statements were noted, police investigator Bill Metheny testified yesterday.

Metheny said Shepherd was asked to take a polygraph test on Feb. 13 but did not show up for it.

That same day, after he had checked into a motel northeast of Baltimore, Shepherd was found on Pulaski Highway. He had been hit by a truck and had a self-inflicted stab wound, police said, and he was flown to a hospital in Baltimore. Officers searched his motel room and said they found two notes, one of which led them to Carol Shepherd's body.

The next day, Feb. 14, Franklin Shepherd told police that he had beaten his wife in the couple's Montclair home after she refused to have intercourse with him, Metheny testified yesterday. An autopsy revealed that Carol Shepherd died of blows to the head and compression of the neck.

Metheny testified that Franklin Shepherd told him that he and his wife argued frequently about their sexual relationship and that Shepherd had described their final argument this way:

"I wanted to have sex, so I entered the room . . . and attempted to get in bed with her and have sex. She told me to get out and to stay out, and started screaming at me and stuff. That's when I hit her."

According to Shepherd's statement to police, Carol Shepherd hit her head on a stereo cabinet as her husband tried to pull her off the bed. Shepherd said he then dragged her into his room and continued to beat and choke her until she stopped moving and screaming, Metheny testified.

Shepherd said he placed his wife's body in a plastic bag and put it in the trunk of her car, which he then drove to Chantilly, Metheny testified.

Carol Shepherd's family and friends filed quietly out of the courtroom yesterday.

"It's finally over," said her mother. "We just hope he will be in for a long time.