An Anne Arundel County man told a neighbor that he panicked after his 3-year-old daughter died unexpectedly in his home last winter, burying her body in a wooded area because he was "afraid" to call authorities.

But Richard Lee Marshall never reported the death of his daughter, Z'aira Tri'ann Marshall, because, he told the woman yesterday, "I was afraid, I panicked," according to the neighbor.

Linda Williams, whose daughter Rebecca had twins with Marshall in 1996, said she saw Marshall yesterday in the Severn neighborhood where they both live.

She said he told her that the day Z'aira died, he heard a thump in the kitchen and found his daughter lying on the floor with oatmeal and mucous in her mouth. He said that the child had a history of seizures and that he tried to revive her but couldn't, Willliams said.

"I don't know if he did or didn't do it," Williams said, recounting how Marshall looked her directly in the eyes yesterday and told her what happened. He seemed sincere, she said, but she was furious that he never reported the toddler's death to authorities.

Marshall on Sunday led police to Z'aira's body in a forested area just south of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Investigators characterized the death as suspicious but said no evidence pointed to homicide. An autopsy was performed Monday on the child's badly decomposed body, but officials said they haven't determined the cause of death.

Investigators and prosecutors said they are unaware of any criminal statute that would allow them to charge Marshall for allegedly abandoning his daughter's body or failing to notify authorities of her death. Z'aira apparently had been dead for eight months before anyone reported her missing.

Z'aira, whose mother, Odelle Morris, lives in Lakewood, N.J., apparently had been living with Marshall since at least July 1998.

Morris, 21, reported her daughter missing to Lakewood police last Friday night. She told police that she did not have custody of Z'aira and had not seen her since last summer.

Lakewood police asked officials in Anne Arundel to investigate. Marshall told an officer Friday night that his daughter was not at his home and allowed him to search the house, police said. After further questioning, police said, Marshall said that his daughter had died suddenly and that he tried unsuccessfully to revive her before taking the body to a wooded area near Dorsey and WB&A roads, not far from his home.

Williams said that Morris also has an older daughter by Marshall who still lives with her. Police in Lakewood said Morris was devastated by the news of her younger child's death.

"She really doesn't have any idea what happened. She's really distraught," said Capt. James Stephanik.

Anne Arundel County police said their investigation remains open, as detectives try to confirm Marshall's story and follow several other leads.

"There's lots of stories to follow up and confirm. . . . We're getting new information and leads as we speak," said Thomas Torrence, the lead detective on the case.

Investigators said Marshall's story is quite plausible. They described him as "cooperative" and said he speaks to them by phone daily.

The body's poor condition will delay autopsy results--and any subsequent police action--for several weeks, police said.

The only law that deals with burials requires that public officials and medical professionals report any bodies in their possession, according to law clerks in the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office. Private citizens are not included, they said.

"There's nothing that says you can't bury your husband, wife or child in the back yard, as morbid as that sounds," said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney.

In Marshall's neighborhood of modest two-story brick garden apartments, residents were astonished that the man they refer to as "Prince" had not been arrested.

"That's wild," said Gilbert Means, a neighbor. "No matter what, he didn't do right by her."

Staff writer Raja Mishra and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.