A Pennsylvania man was arrested near his home yesterday and charged with murdering his wife, a Marine Corps captain who was last seen almost two years ago in the quarters the couple shared at the Quantico Marine Base.

The case against Robert Peter Russell, 33, was described by law enforcement officials as the first federal murder case in which the victim's body was never recovered. Shirley Russell, 29, who had sought a divorce from her husband shortly before her disappearance, was never found despite an intensive search by local and federal agencies in Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania.

U.S. Attorney Henry E. Hudson said this kind of case is "obviously more difficult because you have the added burden of proving that a death occurred . . . . That necessarily has to be proven by circumstantial evidence, and that is the course we will take."

Robert Russell, a former Marine Corps captain, was arrested about 10 a.m. yesterday at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pa., where he worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, according to law enforcement officials. Russell resigned from the Marine Corps in the late summer of 1988.

Russell is expected to be transferred to Alexandria over the weekend and arraigned Monday morning in U.S. District Court. If convicted of the charge of murder on a federal facility, Russell could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Investigators said they were confident that Shirley Russell had been killed but would not discuss what kind of circumstantial evidence would form the basis of their case.

"She had an extremely good reputation," said Gregory G. Golden of the Naval Investigative Service. "It would have been totally out of her nature just to take off. No doubt in our mind that she met with foul play."

Shirley Russell, an administrator for the officer training program at Quantico, was last seen March 4, 1989, according to law enforcement officials. She had separated from her husband just a few weeks earlier, after having been married for about a year and a half.

Though Robert Russell was living off base and Shirley Russell had moved to the Quantico bachelor quarters, they returned the weekend of March 4 to the apartment they had shared on base to finish cleaning it out, according to law enforcement officials.

"She was due to report to duty on the morning of the 6th, Monday morning, and obviously she didn't report," said Golden.

Shortly after Shirley Russell's disappearance, Robert Russell left a teaching job at North Stafford High School and returned to his home town of Mahonoy City in eastern Pennsylvania.

James E. Mull of the FBI said a task force of FBI, Investigative Service, and local authorities conducted an extensive search for Russell.

"There was a lot of effort expended by a lot of different agencies, including terrain searches, air searches. They even searched mine shafts in Pennsylvania," said Mull. "All indications are that she is dead."