Michael Carl George's name jumped into Mary Perry's head as she sat on her front porch last month after learning that a 15-year-old boy had been shot in the woods near her Prince William County home.

Perry recalls that the news brought a rush of painful memories about George's involvement 11 years ago in the disappearance and death of her 8-year-old grandson Larry. Hours later, George, a 32-year-old computer operator and expert woodsman, was charged with killing Alexander Eugene Sztanko near where Larry may have been buried.

How could it be, Perry wondered, that the man responsible for the death of one young boy could be out of prison after 2 1/2 years and a suspect in the death of another?

There is no simple answer.

The case centers on how a young, overburdened police department handled a sensitive investigation more than a decade ago when missing child cases were treated with less urgency than they are today; it involves a plea bargain that the prosecutor felt was the best he could get, a sentence that reflected the bargain and that was not served in full, as is usual under Virginia law.

Larry Perry's body has never been found. He was missing for several days before police decided foul play was involved. Then it took three years and many dead-end leads before investigators got a statement from George, who said Larry accidentally shot himself while the two of them were target shooting. Police found nothing in the area where George said the boy had been buried.

When Larry disappeared in 1979, Prince William police assumed missing children had run away or had just gone to a friend's home and had forgotten to call their parents if there were no obvious signs of foul play, said Dave Watson, a senior homicide investigator in the Prince William County Police Department and one of the first officers on the Perry case. There was no investigation for at least 72 hours after Larry's disappearance was reported.

Such cases now are handled as abductions from the minute a child is reported missing, Prince William police say.

George and his lawyers declined to comment on the Perry case. However, through an examination of court records, newspaper clippings and interviews with investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others linked to the Perry case, the following scenario emerged.

Larry Perry disappeared around 7:30 p.m. on May 22, 1979, after his uncle saw him near a blue and white Ford Bronco on a rough path that leads to the "power lines," a utility right-of-way between Interstate 95 and Route 234 in southeast Prince William that often is used as a playground. The family notified the police around 11:30 p.m.; a two-hour search didn't begin until the following afternoon.

"The only thing I got out of him is you have to wait a certain amount of time before making a search," Mary Perry said of a police officer who visited her home.

As a frequent visitor to the power lines and the last person to see Larry Perry alive, George was visited by police shortly before 1 a.m. May 24, 1979. Larry had been missing for 29 hours.

In those interviews, George told police he briefly talked to Larry after he entered the power lines to drive his four-wheel-drive Bronco. When he left the area about 9:30 p.m., he said, he did not see the boy.

George would stick with that story under questioning that resumed later that day and continued sporadically during the next three years. When police zeroed in on him several months later, after exhausting other leads, the questioning would focus on whether George ever had girlfriends, if he had sexual problems or homosexual experiences. Acquaintances had told police that George was nearly always in the company of young boys, according to court records.

Police did not seek a search warrant because they did not consider George a prime suspect in Larry's disappearance.

Within a week, the police department's criminal investigations department took over the case. Initially, investigators with the most homicide experience were involved in other cases. "We were stretched to the limit," said one investigator on the case who asked not to be identified. "We had a triple homicide we were investigating. There were other cases to be pursued."

Mary Perry has criticized police for moving too slowly. The day after her grandson disappeared, she said the family pressed authorities for quicker action; a friend even called a "Richmond official," who Perry believes was a delegate or a senator, to complain.

"I think they waited too long before they started," Perry said. And once they got going, she said, "they didn't stick with it."

One police officer who was involved in the investigation acknowledged there was a problem in the initial response to the case because police believed Larry was a runaway. But once the investigation geared up, it was thorough, said the officer, who asked not to be identified.

Searchers looked for Larry for two days after his disappearance. George volunteered to drive Larry's grandfather, John, through the area. John Perry remembers that George's car was spotless. He also remembers seeing a holstered gun on the front seat. "He didn't say anything the whole time we rode around," recalled John Perry. "I couldn't wait to get out of that car."

About seven weeks later, police started using a canine search unit, known as air scent dogs. The dogs weren't brought in sooner because police were not aware that they exist, according to an article in the Potomac News, a local daily newspaper.

"Obviously, had the dogs been used earlier in the search," they would have been more effective, according to a letter from Alice Stanley of the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association, Inc., concluding her dogs' participation.

In March 1980, after other leads failed, police asked George to take a polygraph so he could be eliminated as a possible suspect. That month, one of the department's most experienced investigators entered the case and persuaded George to take the test. Polygraphs administered in 1982 after George said he was involved, more than three years after Larry disappeared, also were deemed "inconclusive."

Police began aggressively pursuing George in 1982 after a tipster indicated he was involved in Larry's disappearance. George subsequently turned himself in and told police Larry had shot himself accidentally while the two were shooting targets.

This is what happened, he said. George laid his gun on the hood of his Bronco to adjust some targets. While his back was turned, he heard a shot and turned to see Larry on the ground. George left the area, then returned later that night to drag the body deep into the woods, where he placed it in a ravine and covered it with leaves and branches. He hid the boy's body because he feared police and Larry's family would not believe the shooting was accidental. "In retrospect, they {the police} did a good job," said Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert. "This was one of those cases with lots of leads. Two years after the boy's disappearance we were still getting reports that he was in different parts of the country. After George was developed as a suspect they worked the case."

A grand jury indicted George on charges of murder, abduction and failure to provide medical care to a minor on Aug. 1, 1983. No Prince William murder case had ever been successfully tried without a body.

Ebert, known for taking chances despite slim evidence, had a hunch he could prove that Larry Perry, small for his age, could not have climbed on top of the truck's hood and could not have shot himself with a 9mm pistol.

Despite the tough talk, Ebert and defense attorney Blair D. Howard worked out a deal the first day of the trial. George pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of involuntary manslaughter and abduction.

"We had no body, no witnesses and only his statement that a crime had occurred," Ebert said. "His attorney started feeling like a jury was not likely to let him walk. But we didn't really have enough evidence to get him convicted of murder. Manslaughter was the best we could do to get him off the streets."

On June 15, 1984, Judge H. Selwyn Smith sentenced George to five years in prison, the maximum for the manslaughter charge, and gave him a 10-year suspended sentence for the abduction. Except for a shoplifting conviction, George had no other convictions on his record.

The suspended sentence means George could be sent back to prison for at least 10 years if he is convicted of any crime after being released from prison.

George served only 2 1/2 years in prison under Virginia laws that allow early release for prisoners with good behavior and the use of time served in jail awaiting trial.

State prison officials were not eager to release George, denying him parole at least twice. He became a free man Feb. 10, 1986.

Said Fielding Lewis, chief probation and parole officer in the Fredericksburg office that supervised George's release, "They held him as long as they could."