To the men who invited Gary Ray Bowles into their lives and homes, he appeared rugged, handsome and charming.

But lurking beneath that veneer, law enforcement officials said yesterday, was a skilled con artist, drifter and street hustler who is now the object of a national manhunt for the killer of several gay men.

Bowles, 32, who faces murder charges in Montgomery County, Savannah, Ga., and Nassau County, Fla., still may be in the Washington area, officials said. In addition, he has been linked to at least three other slayings in Florida. Fairfax County police also are investigating whether two killings there might involve Bowles.

Authorities from several law enforcement agencies expressed hope yesterday that he had not escaped to a jurisdiction where police aren't searching for him. They theorized that Bowles might be hiding in the Baltimore-Washington region, where he lived several times before, but they conceded that because of his transient history, he could be anywhere.

"He's a wild card," said Detective John Best, lead investigator of a team from the Savannah police. "From what we've seen, he can be as persuasive and charming as he wants to be, and then, next thing you know, he does a 180-degree turnaround and he can kill you. That's what makes him extremely dangerous."

Law enforcement officials from other jurisdictions said yesterday that Bowles may have been in Howard County recently. The strangulation slaying of an unidentified man found early Thursday in a Howard motel fits the pattern police attribute to Bowles. Howard police contacted Montgomery police "immediately" to compare notes, said Sgt. Harry Geehreng, a Montgomery police spokesman.

Howard police have been hesitant to publicly link the killing to Bowles, but other departments chasing Bowles are intensely interested in the case.

According to interviews with law enforcement officials in Maryland, Georgia and Florida, Bowles has a long history of instability and criminality. He has portrayed himself to authorities as the product of a profoundly dysfunctional home life. He told probation officers in Volusia County, Fla., that his mother had been married as many as eight times and that he was mentally and physically battered by a string of abusive stepfathers.

Bowles's biological father, William Franklin Bowles, worked as a coal miner and died of a lung disease in 1961. Gary Ray Bowles was born in Clifton Forge, Va., on Jan. 25, 1962, and while still an infant moved with his mother -- known at different times as Frances Carol Hodges and Carol Pace -- to Wilmington, Ill., officials said

Bowles's mother remarried while he was a baby, and when Bowles was 8 or 9 years old, his family moved to Kankakee, Ill.

His mother divorced when Bowles was 12, and she remarried again a few years later. Bowles quit school in the eighth grade, left home and drifted around the country, living in Louisiana, Florida and Missouri.

His first arrest was at age 17 on a marijuana charge in Joliet, Ill., in 1979, according to Florida records. From that point, Bowles's rambling life can be traced through police and court documents.

Over the years, he has been convicted of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated battery, prostitution, sexual battery, grand theft, violation of probation and robbery, Florida corrections officials said.

"I don't know that he had any established roots after a certain age," said Harold Jones, an FBI supervisor in Savannah, the informal hub of the fugitive search operation. "You're looking at a drifter. It would be like trying to track a homeless person, and a guy like him could be anywhere. We just don't know where he might turn."

Authorities said Bowles has a brother, a half brother, a half sister and other relatives scattered in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona and California.

Now police are following a trail of blood that began in March in Florida.

Shortly after his release from a Florida prison in December, after serving two years for robbery, Bowles moved into an apartment on Fairview Avenue in Daytona Beach. He was seen off and on in the downtown bars frequented by members of the resort town's conservative, cliquish gay community, Daytona police said.

At one of those bars, Bowles met John Hardy Roberts, 59, an insurance agent who worked in Orlando, officials said. Neighbors would later tell police that Roberts was a kind, quiet, fastidious man who kept to himself and frequently invited male visitors to stay at his stylish beachfront home.

Bowles soon lived in Roberts's home for seven to 10 days, investigators said. The two were seen together several times at the Beachside Club and other gay bars in mid-March, when the Daytona Beach population swells with 500,000 college spring break revelers and leather-clad bikers.

But even in that crowd and confusion, several witnesses would later clearly recall Bowles as someone who didn't quite fit the good-time atmosphere.

"Some {witnesses} remember him as a creep," said Daytona Beach Police Department spokesman Al Tolley. Bowles made some people uncomfortable for reasons they couldn't explain, Tolley said.

Roberts was found dead on March 15, sprawled in a pool of blood on his living room floor. His skull was smashed with an instrument police recovered but have declined to describe.

Police say Bowles disappeared with Roberts's blue 1992 Saturn, which was recovered 10 days later at a public housing complex in Nashville.

Bowles surfaced a few weeks later in the Washington area, police said, and by the time he disappeared again, another law enforcement agency was investigating the slaying of a gay man. Witnesses told police they saw David Alan Jarman, a loan processor from Wheaton, leave a Dupont Circle area bar with a man resembling Bowles late on April 13.

The next day, Jarman failed to report for his job at World Bank Group Credit Union in the District. His body was discovered late April 14 when family members persuaded managers at his Georgia Avenue apartment building to check his room. Police discovered that Jarman's driver's license, credit cards and blue Toyota Tercel had been stolen.

The credit card was used the same day at a Baltimore motel. Montgomery County police later matched the registration card signature to Bowles's handwriting and said the South Arlington address he scrawled on the card resembled an address he had listed after a Washington drug arrest a decade earlier.

Police say the scene then switched to the genteel world of Savannah.

Milton Bradley, a World War II veteran left mentally incapacitated by a shrapnel wound to his head, was a colorful local character. He was frequently seen puttering around the family locksmith shop, Bradley Lock & Key, running simple errands because of his disabilities. When he talked at all, Bradley spoke in a slow, deliberate pattern.

He was known and remembered fondly by many people in the town of 140,000. "He was just a fixture here," recalled Lt. Harold Ragan, who knew Bradley for years and is now overseeing the investigation of his slaying. "He was always in the park feeding pigeons. He was very well known, just a kind, gentle old man."

Bradley was unable to drive, but he lived comfortably thanks to a government pension and money from his family. Bradley apparently met Bowles at Faces, a gay bar next to the FBI office in Savannah. The two were seen together several times during the week leading up to Bradley's death, Ragan and Best said.

Bradley's body was discovered May 5 at a golf course on the eastern edge of the city. It was about noon when the body was found hidden behind a plywood utility shed. He had been beaten and strangled, and police said his pockets had been rifled. They said they collected unspecified physical evidence that eventually would link his slaying to Bowles.

Two weeks later Bowles surfaced in Hilliard, a small town in Nassau County, Fla., local authorities said.

Again, Bowles gravitated toward the gay community, police said. He struck up a friendship with Albert Alcie Morris, 37, who managed a convenience store owned by his parents. Morris invited Bowles back to his mobile home, where the drifter stayed for 10 to 14 days, police said.

Morris's parents found him face down in the living room on May 19, strangled and shot.

"There are bad scenes and there are real bad scenes; this was a real bad scene," said Sgt. Thomas Seagraves, an investigator with the Nassau County sheriff's office. "There was quite a struggle."

Three days later, Morris's blue 1986 Cadillac was found in Jacksonville, about 25 miles north of Hilliard.

Stringing together the common threads of the killings in Savannah and Hilliard, the FBI issued an alert on June 8, telling police departments in the Southeast to watch for similar slayings. The bulletin immediately caught the attention of investigators in Daytona Beach.

Daytona Beach police spokesman Tolley said the informational packets prepared by his department gave investigators in Savannah and Nassau County the missing puzzle pieces they needed to link Bowles to their crimes.

Within the week, law enforcement agencies along the Eastern Seaboard began pulling files on unsolved cases and scrutinizing them for connections to Bowles.

Tolley said yesterday that his department had not filed charges against Bowles but classified him as "a very strong suspect." Investigators in his department are in no hurry to file charges there because murder warrants already have been issued by other jurisdictions.