More than two years have passed since the February afternoon in 1997 when a middle-aged couple scouting rental property in St. Mary's County saw a man dragging a girl's limp body across the road, then abandoning her in a ditch before fleeing into nearby marshland.

The dead girl was Claudia Pickeral, a 13-year-old Leonardtown Middle School student known to her family as "Little Boo Boo." She had been on her way from the school bus stop when she was grabbed, strangled and left to die.

What happened over the next 19 months as police investigated and reinvestigated the slaying caused many St. Mary's residents to question every aspect of the justice system and brought allegations of racism, police and prosecutorial incompetence and vigilante justice. The missteps were even fodder for last year's campaign for St. Mary's sheriff.

Tomorrow Keith Allen Green, 35, a former neighbor of the girl, will go on trial in a Prince George's County courtroom on first-degree murder and kidnapping charges in Claudia's death. Authorities hope the trial finally will mark the beginning of the end of the bruising ordeal.

But even Green's lawyer has called the girl's death "an alleged crime that is easily the most sensational to occur in St. Mary's County . . . in recent memory."

And Green's trial was moved to Prince George's after a St. Mary's judge ruled in February that the details of the case and its aftermath were so widely known that it would be impossible to draw an untainted jury pool from among the county's 83,000 residents.

Green, a former pool installer who lived next door to Claudia's family in the sleepy community of Longview Beach, has maintained his innocence. In a telephone interview from jail in November--his only public comments since he was charged in the girl's death--Green said, "I did nothing wrong. So I have to stick to my guns and fight for my life, basically."

Green has been in the St. Mary's County Detention Center since April 1997, when he was arrested on an unrelated sexual assault. He was indicted in September in Claudia Pickeral's death.

He said the prosecution's case against him is weak. "They don't have nothing," he has scoffed.

St. Mary's County State's Attorney Richard Fritz (R) believes otherwise. "I feel good, very good," Fritz said last week about the upcoming trial. "It's a circumstantial case. [But] the facts are clear."

Few details about the physical evidence against Green have been disclosed. Fritz declined to discuss evidence obtained during numerous searches of Green's home and property.

But the travails of the man who is likely to be one of Fritz's star witnesses are well known.

Green's best friend, a 31-year-old Mechanicsville farm laborer named Thomas Alonzo Young who is known in St. Mary's County as "Bobo" Somerville, allegedly told police in 1997 that one day while the two were riding in a car together, Green confessed that he had killed Claudia Pickeral while high on cocaine. Young allegedly told police that Green said he killed Claudia after she thwarted his attempts to rape her.

But when Young was called before a St. Mary's grand jury investigating Claudia's slaying, he denied he had told police of Green's confession. Then Young was charged with perjury, but his case was placed on the "stet" docket, a move that essentially made it inactive but still pending.

Young could not be reached for comment for this story, but his mother said last week that Fritz personally served her son with a trial subpoena but that he plans to testify that the police are lying and that Green never confessed.

Julian Izydore, Green's lawyer, did not return telephone calls requesting comment. His relationship with Green over the past several months has been troubled. According to court records, the two have disagreed sharply over payments to Izydore to represent Green and over Izydore's health problems. In April, Izydore asked to be removed from the case, but his request was denied by Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge G.R. Hovey Johnson.

Although Izydore has not discussed his defense, he likely will focus on several key missteps sheriff's deputies made during the early hours of the investigation, actions that later were investigated and detailed by Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.

Montanarelli investigated the sheriff's department's handling of the Claudia Pickeral case after the dead girl's parents questioned the propriety of some actions by the department.

According to a letter written by Montanarelli to Claudia's parents, sheriff's detectives initially failed to take written reports of all but one of the witnesses, did not take written statements from the two witnesses who saw a man dragging what appeared to be a body across the road, failed to interview the school bus driver who had last seen Claudia Pickeral alive and did not conduct a search of Green's garage after he consented.

In addition, because the crime scene was not secured overnight, someone was able to put the dead girl's personal papers in a nearby burn pile during the night, according to Montanarelli's letter. But Montanarelli found that St. Mary's Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar (R) had not been "criminally corrupt" in his department's investigation of the case, and Voorhaar made the details of Montanarelli's investigation public in an effort to bolster his reelection campaign.

Because of the controversy surrounding the sheriff's department's handling of the investigation, Voorhaar ultimately removed all of the original detectives from the case--including a veteran African American deputy popular among the local residents. The new investigators, with the help of the Maryland State Police, reinvestigated every aspect of the case, interviewing more than 150 people.

Still, as months passed with no arrest, the case rankled members of the local African American community. They theorized that the sheriff's office was dragging its feet because of a lack of concern about black-on-black crime. Claudia and Michael Thompson, Claudia Pickeral's mother and stepfather, formed the Justice for Claudia Committee and campaigned ardently for her killer's arrest in protest marches, candlelight vigils and letters to local newspapers. Two meetings of sheriff's officials and local residents dissolved into shouting matches.

Voorhaar said he hopes that, since Green's arrest, those wounds have healed. "My understanding is that there is full cooperation between the community and the sheriff's office. Everyone involved has one purpose in mind, to bring this individual to trial with a successful conclusion," Voorhaar said.

But Nace Bowman, president of the Justice for Claudia Committee, said that the Longview Beach community may never be the same.

After the slaying, a local minister who was close to Claudia Pickeral's family was indicted--and later acquitted--on a charge of conspiring to burn down Green's home. Many in the community considered the arson attack on Green's home an act of vigilante justice.

Parents who once let their children roam free on Longview Beach's narrow gravel streets now watch them closely, and don't let them go to the tiny beach alone, Bowman said.

"It's never been simple," Bowman said with a sigh. But, he added, "we're hoping the complicated part of it is over."

CAPTION: Claudia Pickeral, a 13-year-old Leonardtown Middle School student, was slain in 1997 on her way home from school. The St. Mary's County teenager was abducted after she left a school bus. The suspect in the case goes on trial tomorrow.