The sun was nearly rising when Gladys Bradley came home to her Alexandria apartment after working the late shift at the post office in the spring of 1977. She didn't notice that in the parking lot a young man was waiting -- with a steak knife from his mother's kitchen.

Montie Ralph Rissell followed Bradley into an elevator. By dawn, she was dead -- raped twice and dragged by her feet to a shallow creek, where Rissell held her gasping body underwater until she moved no more.

Rissell, then 18 years old, sexually assaulted and killed five women in Alexandria and Fairfax County over a nine-month period beginning in August 1976, stabbing four and strangling another with her bra. In 1977, he was ordered to serve five life sentences for the murders.

Twenty years later, relatives of Gladys Bradley and Rissell's other victims are reliving the excruciating details in an annual ritual now in its third year: Rissell's attempt to get out on parole.

Since 1995, their summers have been punctuated violently by the thought that Montie Rissell could go free and by the efforts they make each July through September to keep him in prison.

"Every year, tortured, tortured with this," said Katie Washington, who remembers Gladys Bradley as her laughing little sister. "My heart pounds so hard I think it will pound out of my body. My stomach, it's all knotted up. It's especially hard in the summer. . . . He just won't leave our lives alone."

Although a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections said Rissell's chances of ever going free are "slim to none," the uncertainty associated with his yearly parole consideration leaves the victims' families to languish in emotional limbo.

"We feel like we just can't relax," said Kathleen McClelland, a nurse midwife whose sister Jeanette McClelland died after Rissell stabbed her 24 times in the chest and back.

Rissell became eligible for parole in 1995, about two years before he completed his 20-year minimum sentence, because he earned credits for "extraordinary good time," a program that awards a five-day credit for every 30 days spent well-behaved. He is entitled to be reconsidered by the Virginia Parole Board every year.

During Rissell's so-called parole quarter -- July through September -- the board hears Rissell's request and schedules separate meetings with victims' families or other interested parties or reviews written material they send in.

For the victims' survivors, that means ripping open old wounds at least once a year.

"July comes, and this kills my nerves," said Debi Washington, who organizes a letter-writing campaign against Rissell's parole in memory of her aunt, Gladys Bradley.

Karen Bundy, whose sister Ursula Miltenberger died at Rissell's hands in a Fairfax woods, said she resents the whole process "for bringing up bad memories." Survivors would rather focus on the good times.

Robert McClelland said his family has coped through the years by remembering the wonderful things his daughter Jeanette contributed to life. Sarah McClelland, who was 5 when her sister was killed, can still hear Jeanette's voice singing her to sleep. Her other sisters, Beth and Susan, remember her poetry.

"But you don't think . . . if you can help it, truthfully . . . about the death," Robert McClelland said with several deep breaths. "It brings all that back and brings all those nerves tender again. Those are the moments you don't care to remember, and you wouldn't if you could."

The McClellands remember those moments each year when it comes time to testify. They bring pictures, they plead and, at the end, they pray.

"We cannot fix {Rissell}, but we can help him by not allowing him to do this to other people," said Jeanette McClelland's sister Susan, who asked that her last name not be used. "But for us, this is the last thing we can do for Jeanette. We don't really mind it in that perspective."

By the time he was 16, Montie Ralph Rissell had been convicted of robbery and rape, had been in and out of mental institutions and juvenile homes and was about to stand trial for attempting to rob a woman at knifepoint in Alexandria. He withdrew from T.C. Williams High School, where he was a "C" and "D" student, in April 1977.

Rissell, who is held at Buckingham Correctional Center south of Charlottesville, agreed to be interviewed for this article last week but changed his mind.

In August 1976, when Rissell began his string of killings, he was living at home with his mother in the 400 block of North Armistead Street in Alexandria. All the women were killed near their apartments and his.

The first victim, Aura Marina Gabor, 26, lived in Rissell's building. He approached her in the parking lot one night and demanded that she drive him to a secluded area. According to court records filed with his confession, Rissell said he wouldn't hurt her if she had sex with him.

Rissell said he made the same promise to most of the women, according to court documents. After they submitted, he killed them anyway.

Gabor's body was found in a creek. She had been strangled with her bra.

Bradley, 27, and McClelland, 24, were Rissell's second and third victims. Both were accosted at knifepoint in the apartment complex then known as Holmes Run Park, within walking distance of Rissell's home.

Aletha Byrd, 35, who also lived at Holmes Run Park, was abducted at knifepoint. She was forced to drive to a wooded area, where she was raped. She tried to flee, but Rissell caught her and stabbed her 14 times in the chest.

With each discovery of a body, anxiety in and around Alexandria grew.

"I think it was the biggest thing to hit back then," said Bill Zinc, an Alexandria businessman who employed Miltenberger, 22, Rissell's last slaying victim. "A lot of women were afraid to go out at night. It shook the whole town. A couple of my employees quit. They were all spooked by the situation."

In May 1977, Rissell was arrested on an unrelated assault charge. Police, suspecting a link, questioned him about the killings. Eventually, he admitted to all five.

Ironically, he'd had a reputation in the neighborhood as a good kid; he even escorted women frightened by the serial killings to and from their cars at night.

"Everyone was really stunned when we found out who it was," said C.F. Pfeiff, a former Alexandria police officer who helped catch Rissell. Pfeiff is now with the Fauquier County Sheriff's Office.

Rissell was charged with abducting, raping and murdering all five women, although the abduction and rape charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to murder.

David Botkins, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said Rissell "has a lot of enemies in prison due to the nature of his offenses."

For that reason, Rissell spends most of his days isolated in protective custody. He has his own cell away from most inmates.

Rissell has received a General Educational Development diploma since being incarcerated and "has not been a problem inmate, relatively well-behaved," Botkins said.

At the time of the offenses, the law allowed people sentenced to multiple life terms to be eligible for discretionary parole after serving 20 years, or sooner, depending on "good time" earned, said Richard Crossen, executive director of the Parole Board Support Group. Virginia abolished parole in 1994, but that didn't affect those convicted earlier.

"Unfortunately, the laws of the time govern the sentencing," Pfeiff said. "I would feel very uncomfortable knowing he was out."

So would Katie Washington.

"I hope I'll be able to sleep tonight," Washington said, "and all the nights until I know that he'll be behind bars for another year."

CAPTION: Robert and Elizabeth McClelland, left, plan to attend the parole hearing of the man who killed their daughter Jeanette, 24, far left, and four other women in 1976 and 1977.

CAPTION: Slaying suspect Montie Rissell was led into an Alexandria court by sheriffs in May 1977. Rissell was convicted of killing five women and ordered to serve five life sentences.