A Nail in Hechinger's Coffin

Hardware Giant to Close All Stores

Over a proud history spanning most of the 20th century, Hechinger Co. helped countless Washington area residents build their houses, fix up their homes and keep them running smoothly. But in the end, the Largo-based home-improvement chain couldn't keep its own house in order.

The business, which got its start when Sidney Hechinger began to sell scrap materials from a horse-drawn wagon in 1911, will close its 117 remaining stores by Christmas. The chain's new owners concluded that they couldn't patch up their tattered finances. Going-out-of-business sales will start immediately.

Hechinger's fortunes had been declining for years as newer, larger competitors such as Home Depot chipped away at the market share of the country's first major home-improvement chain. But in its day, Hechinger set the standard.

"This was once the premium home-improvement chain by which Wall Street measured every other chain," said Kenneth M. Gassman Jr., a retail analyst with Davenport & Co. in Richmond.

The Hechinger family sold the company two years ago to a Los Angeles investment firm that combined it with Builders Square, another ailing chain. But that approach didn't work, and the business filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June.

Young and Restless

10-Year-Old Freshman Starts College

Greg Smith, a freshman at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., dreams of receiving three doctorates, colonizing space and becoming president of the United States. But first, he has to turn 11.

Greg, a 4-foot-6 towhead with a bowl haircut who cruised from the second grade to eighth grade in a single year, is taking calculus, French and something called "Warfare in Antiquity." But each night, the boy who says he has dreamed of college life since age 4 returns home to his parents.

The 10-year-old is already a veteran of "60 Minutes," "Today" and "The Late Show with David Letterman." But he's not jaded yet.

His parents, who have moved twice so that Greg can attend the schools deemed best for him, said that the experience is fun for their son and that if that changes, they'll gladly take him off the fast track.

Greg, meanwhile, says he's ready to make new friends on campus, "as long as the other kids don't bend my morals." Moral No. 1: No violence in movies or songs. Moral No. 2: No burping for fun.

Across the Region

Metro Mobility; Water Rules Eased

* Metro wants to help you get where you want to go--in more ways than one. Starting tomorrow, the transit agency's Web site, www.wmata.com, will become one of the first in the country to offer interactive trip planning. All you have to do is type in Point A (where you are) and Point B (where you want to be). You'll get door-to-door directions, including walking directions to bus or train stations, trip time, fares and arrival and departure times.

* They've endured the drought. And now millions of mosquitoes are celebrating the recent rains by hatching and getting a bite to eat. Out of you. Maryland, which harbors 58 varieties of the pest, is mounting its own aerial attack, spraying 20,000 acres of marshland with insecticide.

* A week after Maryland lifted its water restrictions, officials in Loudoun have lifted the county's mandatory water-conservation measures. In late July, the Virginia county became the first in the Washington area to impose limits on washing cars and watering lawns. But although the sheriff's department issued 63 warnings, it didn't fine anyone.

* In a victory for prosecutors, a judge ruled that the man accused of killing two police officers at the Capitol last year can be forced to take medication that could make him competent to stand trial. Russell Eugene Weston Jr., who has suffered from schizophrenia for years, has said he wanted to save the world from cannibals and deadly disease.

* Potomac Yard used to be the East Coast's main railroad hub. But in its next lifetime, the 400-acre parcel likely will be loaded with freight that's even more valuable: 1,900 town houses and apartments, a hotel, office space and a park. The Alexandria City Council approved the project, which could take 20 years to finish, but it still must go before the Arlington County Board because the land straddles the border.

* Paul Singer was a Vienna-born psychiatrist who lived in a tiny apartment in Summit, N.J. But while still a teenager in Austria, he picked up a hobby that would become a lifelong obsession: collecting Asian antiquities. By the time the nonagenarian died in 1997, he had about 5,000 objects worth about $60 million. And now, those treasures are headed to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The gift will make Washington the nation's premier center for the study of ancient Chinese art.

* Keith J. Gardner faces at least a 20-year sentence--and up to three life terms--after pleading guilty to killing his parents and grandfather. Jimmy, Jannis and Elmer Gardner were stabbed repeatedly in their Lorton home in the spring, then were buried in a fallout shelter in their yard. There was no indication that the attack followed a conflict, but Keith Gardner, 39, was known to have a drug problem.

* Officials in the District and state police in Maryland and Virginia melt down guns they've seized after they no longer need them for evidence. But over the last four years, Fairfax County police have traded 655 seized guns to firearms dealers for weapons they needed. At least one of the guns was later seized from a juvenile charged in a drug case. County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger says the practice saves taxpayers money. But Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) says she'll try to stop it.

Charges Filed in Children's Deaths

Father Faces Trial for 2 Slayings; Couple Indicted in Infant's Disappearance

It was a sad week for children.

A Laurel man was charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of his 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter after he allegedly shot them in the chest as they sat in their safety seats in a Jeep Wrangler on the Eastern Shore. Richard Wayne Spicknall II initially told police that he had been carjacked by an armed hitchhiker who had abducted the children.

The same day, a Bethesda couple who reported that their baby daughter was kidnapped nearly two years ago in Florida were charged with making the story up and conspiring to cover up her real fate.

In the first case, Destiny Array Spicknall and her brother, Richard Wayne Spicknall III, were supposed to be heading to Ocean City, Md., with their father for a week of fun. The children's parents had separated in November, but the couple was sharing custody. Lisa Marie Spicknall had let her estranged husband take the children for a few extra days.

The children "were his whole world," a neighbor said.

Spicknall, 27, shouldn't have been able to buy a gun in the first place. His wife had a restraining order against him, and federal law prohibits people under such orders from buying a gun for one year. Yet he bought a 9mm handgun at a College Park pawnshop in August, nine months after the order was issued.

"It was a mistake," said Howard County Sheriff Charles Cave. "Something fell through the cracks."

Spicknall is being held without bond, and his attorney has requested a psychological evaluation.

In the second case, a federal grand jury handed down an indictment against Steven B. and Marlene J. Aisenberg, who reported in November 1997 that the youngest of their three children, 5-month-old Sabrina, had been kidnapped from her bedroom near Tampa. The Aisenbergs gained national attention after appearances on TV shows including "Dateline NBC," "Larry King Live" and "Geraldo." The couple moved to Bethesda, Steven Aisenberg's childhood home, in May.

Sabrina has never been found. But the indictment alleges that her parents used money raised by the case to pay off credit card debts.

The indictment also includes fragments of one of the couple's conversations secretly recorded by investigators.

"The baby's dead and buried!" Marlene Aisenberg is quoted as telling Steven about a month after Sabrina's disappearance. "It was found dead because you did it. The baby's dead no matter what you say--you just did it!"

"Honey, there was nothing I could do about it," the document quotes Steven telling Marlene. "We need to discuss the way we can beat the charge."