Beverly R. Mitchell died a horrible death, strangled and bludgeoned and dumped on an empty housing lot near La Plata.

Mitchell's slaying in 1995 set in motion years of effort for childhood friend Stacey Findley. She handed out thousands of fliers on city street corners in a bid to find Mitchell's killer, then faithfully attended hearings and a week-long trial after an arrest was made in the killing.

Her toil came to an end Monday as a Charles County judge sentenced Garrison Thomas to life in prison for killing the Alexandria woman.

"I'm happy," said Findley, 30, of Woodbridge, her eyes glistening with emotion minutes after Circuit Judge Richard J. Clark pronounced the sentence. "This was the end of a nightmare. At least he'll be in jail."

Thomas, 44, of Washington, will not be eligible for parole consideration for at least 15 years, said Maryland Parole Commission spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr.

Sipes said he knew of no prisoners released upon initial review in the past decade. "The average server [of a life term] serves life," Sipes said.

Thomas was convicted in June by a jury that decided he was the man seen in Washington with Mitchell's car about five hours after she last was seen alive.

The family of Mitchell, 26, welcomed the sentence.

"I'm just so happy," said the victim's mother, Marva Mitchell. "I just hope life means he never gets out."

Clark said the prison term was the mandatory penalty for Thomas's conviction of first-degree felony murder, as well as the maximum sentence. A judge may suspend part of the sentence, Clark said from the bench during sentencing, adding that he saw no reason to do so.

Clark passed sentence after rejecting a motion for a new trial, which was filed by defense attorneys who vowed to appeal the case.

"We think justice has not been served in this case, for lots of different reasons," Public Defender Carl W. Buchheister told Clark. "He had nothing to do with this."

Buchheister and Assistant Public Defender Betty Stilt said Clark should have thrown out the case before it reached the jury.

They said that even if one believed key testimony that Thomas had the victim's car after her slaying, that should lead only to the conclusion that he received stolen goods--not that he participated in her murder.

Aside from a wig fiber found in the car, prosecutors had produced no fingerprints, blood match, weapon or other physical evidence that could link Thomas to the crime, despite a lapse of three years before Thomas's December 1998 arrest, Stilt said.

Assistant State's Attorney Matthew R. Stiglitz derided the argument that prosecutors should have produced more evidence. "There's always another test . . . always another line of inquiry," Stiglitz said.

At the trial that ended June 30, prosecution witness Novella Lee Harris testified that Thomas, dressed in a wig and dress and high heels, knocked on her Southeast Washington door hours after Mitchell disappeared.

Thomas was seeking cocaine, said Harris, an admitted cocaine user. She said Thomas was evasive when asked about the car he used to reach her residence.

Clark said jurors drew "permissible inferences" from Harris's statements and other evidence. The trial included:

* Testimony that Thomas knew the victim. He lived in the basement of the Southeast Washington home of his lifelong friend, the victim's uncle. Mitchell last was seen alive there, as she dropped $10 with her uncle.

Thomas told police he was home when she delivered the money, but could not adequately account for his whereabouts later that night, Stiglitz said.

* Harris's testimony that Thomas appeared with Mitchell's Mitsubishi Eclipse, tried to burn the sports car and tossed the vehicle's keys into a waste basket and an empty lot. The prosecution said those were attempts to hide evidence.

* Harris's testimony that Thomas was dressed in women's clothing; testimony from others that he had dressed in that fashion before; and the discovery of a brown wig fiber in the Eclipse.

"The whole state's case is, 'He had the car, he had the keys,' " Buchheister said. "So what? That doesn't prove that he did the murder."

Clark disagreed.

"There certainly was sufficient evidence for the jury to make the findings [it] did," the judge said.

At the time of the slaying, Thomas was on parole after having served six years of a 15-year prison term stemming from a conviction for an illicit sexual liaison, Stiglitz told Clark.

Since his arrest, Thomas had had "problems" in jail, and was written up for fighting and for disobeying orders, the prosecutor said.

CAPTION: GARRISON THOMAS. . . sentenced to life in prison.