Gloria E. Clagett kept a handgun for protection in the bedroom where she was found stabbed to death on Sunday, Montgomery County police said yesterday.

Police found the gun not far from her body when they arrived at her house in Derwood. They would not say whether it was within her reach.

They came to her doorstep after the pastor of the nearby Good News Bible Church reported that an unfamiliar car had been sitting in the church parking lot for several days.

The 1994 blue Oldsmobile Cutlass was traced to Clagett, 67. Police found the kitchen door open when they went to her multilevel brick home in the 6900 block of Muncaster Mill Road. The television was on, and a cigarette had burned to ashes, investigators said.

Clagett was found wearing shorts and a shirt on the floor of her blood-spattered, ransacked bedroom.

The state's medical examiner said she was stabbed with a knife. Sources would not say whether police had found the murder weapon or if it came from her home.

Ann Evans, a police department spokeswoman, said investigators had yet to identify a suspect, and another source described the case as a "wide-open investigation." Police were prepared to distribute leaflets asking for help from her neighbors.

Clagett had served for many years as a part-time aide at the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, retiring three years ago. Friends described her as a short, sweet grandmother who was quick to offer a cheerful word or a sound piece of advice.

Deborah Beahm, a former co-worker who worshiped with Clagett at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, recalled the aftermath of the death of Clagett's husband, Clinton, in 1994.

"You'd try to comfort her," Beahm said, "but she'd comfort you for problems you'd have. Gloria made it easy."

One woman quipped that Clagett's former co-workers were stunned to learn from newspaper reports that the youthful woman was 67 years old.

"She kept it a nice little secret. No one ever knew how old she was," said Sherry Martin, a 46-year-old Montgomery Village resident who supervised Clagett during her last eight years working for the county.

Police have asked that anyone who saw suspicious activity in the Muncaster Mill area last weekend call Crime Solvers at 1-800-673-2777.

Staff writer Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.