A Fairfax County grand jury yesterday indicted Keith J. Gardner on three counts of first-degree murder in the stabbing deaths of his parents and grandfather at their Lorton home in May.

Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against Gardner, Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said. He declined to explain why.

Gardner, 39, who has nine felony convictions, faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life without parole if convicted.

Police believe Jannis Gardner, 63, Jimmy Gardner, 64, and Elmer Gardner, 90, all were stabbed to death in their bedrooms, then dragged to a backyard fallout shelter where their bodies were covered in limestone and remained for more than a week. Keith Gardner and his wife, Michelle Yi Gardner, 19, lived in the house during that time and vanished only after neighbors grew worried and discovered the bodies on May 11.

Keith Gardner was arrested three weeks later in Pensacola, Fla., and returned to Fairfax County. His wife disappeared at the time of his arrest but turned herself in on Aug. 4 after she was charged in Alexandria with an April carjacking. Gardner is being held without bond at the county jail.

Police and prosecutors have not suggested a motive in the slayings.

Friends and neighbors described the Gardners as a family that had experienced many triumphs but had struggled to help the younger son, Keith, through years of problems with drugs.

Both Jannis Moss and Jimmy Wayne Gardner had grown up in Harrisburg, Ark. After they got married, Jimmy Gardner enlisted in the Army and learned to work on helicopters.

Gardner was transferred to Virginia in 1960 and began working on the presidential helicopter at Davison Army Airfield on Fort Belvoir. There, the Gardners met lifelong friends such as Joe and Dianne Piatt and Dick and Irene Gilroy, beginning a string of annual trips to the beach, frequent golf outings and card games, backyard barbecues and the shared experiences of raising suburban families over four decades.

"He was always helping people," Dick Gilroy said of Jimmy Gardner. "If you were in a bind, he'd be there in a minute." Joe Piatt said he once needed money immediately to pay for the burial of his father, and Jimmy Gardner "wrote a check right there."

After Jimmy Gardner resigned from the Army in 1964, he and his wife went into the fabric business. Combining Jannis's creativity and Jimmy's business instincts, they opened their first "House of Jannis" in the Woodlawn Shopping Center on Richmond Highway. Soon, they added stores in Woodbridge, Manassas, Springfield, then moved over to Maryland, in Riverdale and Silver Spring.

The stores advertised on television, with Jannis Gardner as the spokeswoman. "She was the one people came in to see, the one people fell in love with," said Kim Gardner, their older son.

But when the House of Jannis opened up its biggest store in Beacon Mall, it became a drain on the other stores. One by one, the stores closed, and by 1979, the House of Jannis was over. The family had to sell its five-bedroom house in Harbor View on Belmont Bay in southern Fairfax County and moved to Lorton just north of Route 1.

Meanwhile, Kim and Keith were working separate paths through Hayfield High School. Kim recalled his father saying, "We're going to need an accountant and a lawyer, so why don't you become an accountant?" The dutiful older son agreed, went to Virginia Tech and graduated in 1976 with an accounting degree.

Keith was not interested in college, which disappointed his father, Dianne Piatt said. "He kind of got in with the wrong crowd in high school," Joe Piatt said.

"He wasn't a bad kid," his brother said. "He just did stupid things. He wanted what he wanted now. He wasn't willing to work for it."

Less than a year after his high school graduation, Keith Gardner was arrested and charged with stealing and burglary. He was sentenced to six months in jail and two years' probation. But he violated probation and headed to Texas, where he stayed for nearly three years.

After he was picked up in Texas in spring 1984, he wrote a letter to the judge seeking leniency. "I now recognize my mistakes and I am ready to change my way of life," Keith Gardner stated. "My parents would be glad to have me move in with them upon my release. All I need is one more chance to prove myself and I guarantee you I will become a perfect citizen of Fairfax Co."

He was sentenced to nine more months in jail. In 1986, he was arrested again and charged with eight burglaries. This time he wound up with two years in prison. Not long after his release, he was arrested again on drug charges and received an eight-year term.

Jannis Gardner visited him nearly every weekend, Dianne Piatt said. "I think it hurt Jannis and Jim very deeply," she said, "but they never turned their back on him."

Meanwhile, Jannis Gardner continued to run a custom drapery and upholstery business out of her house, fueled almost solely by word-of-mouth referrals. Jimmy Gardner played golf two or three times a week, getting his score down into the upper 70s, Dick Gilroy said.

Keith Gardner got out of prison in 1994 and moved his probation to Florida. He got married. And most recently, he asked for his parents' help to kick his addiction to Dilaudid, a synthetic narcotic.

He moved in and gave his parents the keys to his truck, to help him avoid the temptation to go out in search of drugs.

"He wanted to go to Arkansas to get away from it all," said Kim Gardner, 45. His parents owned a dozen rental houses there, and he wouldn't know where to get drugs. But police believe his old haunts and habits were tempting him. Even after his parents' deaths, police said, Gardner was spotted in the District, buying drugs.

CAPTION: Jannis and Jimmy Gardner, along with Jimmy Gardner's father, Elmer, were found dead in a bomb shelter behind their home in May.

CAPTION: Keith Gardner faces 20 years to life without parole if convicted.