The Fairfax County woman whose decomposed body was found outside Richmond earlier this month with the body of a former boyfriend may have been holding thousands of dollars for a jailed drug dealer, authorities have told the boyfriend's father.

The body of Deborah Ferguson, 21, a 1987 Robinson Secondary School graduate and a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, was found with the body of James Sherrin, 20, in a wooded area 15 miles from Richmond. The cause of their deaths has not been determined.

Bradley P. Coats, Sherrin's father, said yesterday that police officials told him Ferguson may have been holding a large sum of money for the drug dealer. Coats said his daughter, who also was a friend of Ferguson's, had said the Fairfax woman had been spending large sums of money "and I don't know where she got it from."

The Hanover County Sheriff's Department, which is handling the investigation, declined to comment on the case.

Sources have told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that Ferguson was keeping money for a 30-year-old convicted drug dealer named Mark Miller, whom she met through another employee at the Richmond restaurant where she worked. After Miller was arrested on drug charges in January, the employee asked Ferguson to keep Miller's money in her apartment, the newspaper said.

The newspaper also said Ferguson took part in cocaine parties.

"I know she did smoke pot and she drank," said Jason Coats, brother of the slain man. "I've seen her. I've been with them when they've done it.

"There was no addiction or anything like that. They were just kids who had fun. I know my brother and I know Debbie fairly well. They just don't seem like the type to do cocaine parties."

James Ferguson, of Fairfax, the slain woman's father, said he didn't know anything about the allegations. Anyone with information about his daughter's death "should take it to the police," he said. "Nobody is going to have anything definitive until the police solve the crime. Anything else is speculation or gossip."

Miller's attorney, David Boone, declined to comment.

Boone was Ferguson's attorney when she was charged with shoplifting in 1988. She was arrested for taking $140 in merchandise from a Richmond-area department store. A judge sentenced her to perform 50 hours of community service, the newspaper said.

Friends at Robinson school remembered Ferguson as a lively student and talented artist. She was to have been a senior next year at VCU's School of the Arts, where she majored in painting and print-making, the school said.

Bradley Coats said Ferguson dated his son from May 1988 until last December, and said Ferguson remained a friend of the family's.

He said Ferguson had not seen his son for at least a month before she went to his town house on the evening of May 18, the last time the pair was seen. They were reported missing to Richmond police on May 26. "I do not know why she came over to see my son," he said.