Friends say Jeremy Ray Akers doted on his three children, Finny, Zeb and Isabel.

He surprised Finny two years ago with a scuba diving trip to the Bahamas as a high school graduation gift. He sent Zeb and Isabel to private elementary school.

When his marriage deteriorated last year, Akers stayed in the house with the children. His wife, romance novelist Nancy Richards-Akers, moved out of their upper-middle-class home in Northwest Washington and into a nearby apartment, friends said.

But whatever love he had for his children, it apparently wasn't enough to keep Akers from killing their mother and then himself.

None of Nancy Richards-Akers's friends or relatives could be reached yesterday to talk about the woman who was killed.

Friends of Akers said they believed that when the children began spending time with their mother's new boyfriend, Akers snapped. Last weekend, the affluent lawyer and decorated Vietnam veteran grabbed one of his several guns and fatally shot his wife twice in the head as she sat in her red Jeep Wrangler.

Ninety minutes later, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Akers put a shotgun in his mouth and fired.

A handgun also was found next to his body, D.C. police sources said. It is illegal to purchase or carry handguns in the District. A neighbor said that Akers had made it known that he kept guns in his house.

Now, his family and friends are wondering why the man they thought of as having a zest for life would end it all in a jealous rage.

"We're just absolutely devastated," said Ron Phillips, Akers's brother-in-law. "It's just a terrible tragedy."

Robert G. Brown, a retired marketing executive who had known Akers for more than 30 years, said he was stunned to learn of the killings.

Brown and Akers met while in Marine Officer Candidate School in Quantico in 1966. "To do what he did was outrageous," Brown said. "There's no excuse for it."

Akers, 57, was raised in Sheffield, Ala., a town of 12,000 about 70 miles west of Huntsville. After graduating from the University of Alabama, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and Officer Candidate School and was sent to Vietnam. He was wounded twice and received the Silver Star and at least two Purple Hearts, according to his friends. After three years, he returned to Quantico and trained officer candidates before being discharged from the military in 1969.

Akers spent time traveling in Europe with Brown. The two drove from Rome to Barcelona, where they went cliff diving, and then Akers enrolled in the University of Virginia law school. He graduated in 1972.

Don R. Boswell, Akers's law partner and former college roommate who had been a friend for three decades, said Akers was "brilliant and also very headstrong."

Akers was an environmental lawyer who served as an assistant state's attorney in Florida under Janet Reno, Boswell said. He later moved to Washington and worked for the Justice Department before opening a practice in Palm Beach, Fla. Akers spent little time there, instead traveling to investigate Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites and oil spills, Boswell said.

His friends say he had always collected guns. In his free time, Akers pursued adventurous hobbies such as hunting alligators in the Louisiana bayous or chasing stingrays while scuba diving in the Bahamas.

Akers and his wife met 21 years ago in Washington, friends said. Soon after, he moved to Aspen, Colo., where he was, for a while, a "ski bum." She followed him there, and the two married, a move that stunned his close friends.

"He was never involved in long-term relationships," Boswell said. "He was more of a James Bond-type -- having woman after woman."

A year after they wed, Finny was born, Boswell said.

Akers's friends said he and his wife appeared to be a loving couple for years. Although the friends knew he could be controlling, opinionated and brutally blunt, for a time, Nancy Richards-Akers seemed to find it appealing, they said. "Parts of Jeremy were in her novels," Boswell said.

Richards-Akers, 45, wrote several novels, including "Wild Irish Skies," which was named one of the top 10 romance novels of 1997. But as Richards-Akers developed into a well-known author, friends said, her marriage began to fall apart.

"She knew what Jeremy was like when she married him," Boswell said. "He didn't change. She just got more tired of it, and financially, she didn't need him anymore."

Richards-Akers filed for legal separation, custody and child support on Feb. 18 of this year, according to D.C. Superior Court records. Akers filed a counterclaim requesting separation on the grounds of cruelty, records show.

"It used to drive him nuts the fact that she was with some other man with their kids," said Boswell, who was handling the legal paperwork for Akers's divorce. "I think that's the nut that made him crack.

"But it shocks me that he loved his kids so much that he would leave them parentless," Boswell said. "It's a sad thing."

Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.