The largest single rape trial in recent Arlington history began yesterday in Circuit Court against an electrician who the prosecution said disguised himself, then tied up, robbed and raped or molested four women.

Leroy Allen Lovelace, 39, was arrested in August and charged with 15 felonies, including three counts of rape, one of sexual assault, three counts of abduction with intent to defile, and four counts of robbery, one of them while armed.

Lovelace has pleaded not guilty and is expected to testify during the weeklong trial. He faces up to 11 life terms.

County police said it was the first time they could recall that a defendant was tried for this many rapes at one time.

In opening statements, the prosecution said the case is based largely on circumstantial evidence. Investigators said the prosecution hopes to link similar aspects of each of the four cases with evidence seized by police at Lovelace's home.

"You're going to have to fit {evidence} piece by piece together because this person, from the very beginning, made an effort to hide his identity," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Barbara L. Walker told the jury during opening remarks.

Defense attorney John C. Youngs said that Lovelace was either at home, at work or on the way to a recreational center when the assaults occurred. "Not everything is as it appears at first blush," said Youngs.

A number of similarities in the assaults surfaced in the first day of testimony, as three of the four victims took the witness stand. Each testified that her assailant told her he just wanted money and that, during the rape, he made comments about her race.

The four victims are white; the defendant is black.

Each of the three said her assailant tied her hands behind her, gagged her and covered her head with a pillow case or other cloth during the assault.

In court, Walker entered into evidence a black jacket with stripes, a bandana, brown gloves and a small spiral notebook, all of which were seized in August at Lovelace's home at 1105 S. Emerson St. The notebook contained the names and phone numbers of two of the women who testified yesterday. Walker said in remarks to the jury that two of the victims said her attacker wore brown gloves and a black jacket with stripes.

The rapes and assaults occurred between November 1986 and July 1987 in the Rosslyn and Buckingham areas of the county.

A 23-year-old victim testified yesterday that after her assailant had told her all he wanted was money, he raped her. "I started to cry and I said, 'Oh my God, please help me,' " she said. "And I started to say a prayer out loud and he put a knife to my face and said, 'Shut up.' "

Another victim, a lawyer, said Lovelace took photographs of her nude before he raped her. "He kept saying things like, 'Smile pretty,' " she testified.

According to a police affidavit filed in the case, a large quantity of photographic equipment was seized in a search of Lovelace's truck. Police said nude photographs of other women were found in a search of his residence.

A 1982 presentencing report in General District Court indicates that Lovelace has been convicted of one felony and nine misdemeanors in five local jurisdictions since 1976. The charges include assault and battery, indecent exposure, disorderly conduct, peeping Tom, simple assault, trespassing, and breaking and entering.

In the same report, a psychiatrist who evaluated Lovelace said Lovelace "has problems involving the handling of sex and aggression in his relationship with women." Without treatment, the report continued, "there may well be some repetition of his previous offenses or an offense similar to these."

Under Virginia law, the jury may be informed of previous convictions, but not told their nature.