VIRGINIA BEACH -- For 10 years, Linda W. Bennett searched the faces of boys for a glimmer of familiarity -- a smile, a glance, a gesture. Putting her life on hold, she looked for any detail that resembled the 10-year-old son she lost in 1977.

Finally, she has ceased looking.

Two months ago, she found what she was looking for: evidence that proved that her son David was murdered, and the conviction of the man who killed him.

David Bennett was found strangled near his grandmother's Eastern Shore home three days after he was reported missing. But Linda Bennett never viewed the body, and she never got back his clothes, which were kept as evidence.

Torn by anguish, she clung to the hope that the body found that hot July day was that of some other boy.

"I knew in my mind, but not in my heart," Linda Bennett, 42, said. "Seeing the pictures and his clothing and hearing the testimony {at the trial of the man convicted of David Bennett's murder}, it was enough to put me at rest. Finally, I had confirmation."

After the Oct. 21 guilty verdict against Ronald David Elkins, already a twice-convicted murderer, Linda Bennett broke down on the steps of the Northampton County courthouse.

"I had this pain in my chest for so long that I didn't know it was pain. That is, until it was lifted," she said.

"It was the hardest I've ever cried. I let out 10 years' worth."

David Bennett and his 7-year-old brother Chris were visiting their grandmother in Cape Charles, on the Eastern Shore, in July 1977. David went off to visit a friend one day and did not return to his grandmother's home for dinner at 6 p.m. Less than an hour later, his bicycle was found in a ditch about 600 yards from his grandmother's house.

Back in Virginia Beach, his mother had felt out of sorts all day.

"I remember I stayed in bed almost the whole day," she said. "I cried. I didn't know what was wrong with me. Then the call came about 8 o'clock that night. I knew what had happened."

Several hundred people teamed with authorities to comb a wide area. Members of the Virginia Beach Police Department, where David Bennett's stepfather was a sergeant, helped in the search.

Three days later, two farmers found David Bennett's body, clad in dungarees and a yellow football jersey, in heavy underbrush six miles from where his bike had been found. He had received massive head injuries. An autopsy listed the cause of death as strangulation.

David Bennett was buried next to his father, who had died in a car accident when his son was 7 months old.

For the next 10 years, his mother carried doubts, hostility and anger. "My counselor said I was like a Thermos bottle waiting to explode," she said.

Pieces of her life, including her marriage, crumbled. She took out her frustrations on her other son, now a high school senior.

"I've tried to raise him without the stigma of what happened to David," Linda Bennett said. "But I had a hard enough time letting him out of the house. It was even harder letting him go back over there" to the Eastern Shore to visit relatives.

Even when police informed her that they thought they had the man who killed David Bennett, Linda Bennett was incredulous. She never thought he would be convicted, she said.

Elkins, 45, was in the State Penitentiary in Richmond serving a life term plus 50 years for the murder of a Newport News man and the murder and attempted sodomy of an 11-year-old Hampton boy.

The Bennett case was based on the testimony of two convicts who said Elkins spoke about the crime at the Powhatan Correctional Center. On Oct. 21, Elkins was convicted of murder and abduction. He was sentenced to life plus 30 years.

"For those 10 years, I hate him, I do," Linda Bennett said. "Now, I have no feelings one way or another about whether he lives or dies.

"Losing a child was a fear I had always lived with," Linda Bennett said. "I thought, 'Don't let me lose one, because I don't think I could go on.' "

Now, after 10 years, she said she is ready to move on.

"I had David for 10 years. His father had him for 10 years. And now, it's like he was given back to me."

She said she still cries when she thinks of David Bennett, but they are no longer tears of anger and frustration.

"Now," she said, "it's an 'I miss you' cry."