The Montgomery County man living in a Silver Spring group home after a five-year stay in a mental hospital for smothering his 23-month-old son never returned to the home after he was released by county police on drunken driving charges on Oct. 2, officials said yesterday.

Lt. Col. Darren Popkin, chief deputy of the county sheriff's department, said Lazas, a schizophrenic who was released from Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center 16 months ago, was stopped by Montgomery County police at 12:48 a.m. Oct. 2 on Montrose Road in Rockville and charged with drunken driving.

He was released later in the morning and never returned to the group home, though he retrieved his truck, which had been impounded, later in the day, Popkin said.

Lazas, who was last seen on Oct. 1 by the staff members who supervised him, wasn't reported missing until Oct. 5 despite a judge's order that any violation of his conditions of stay at the group home be reported "immediately."

Lazas remained free last night, though officials said there have been several unconfirmed reports that he had been seen in the county. Police said they believe Lazas may not be taking his medication, necessary to control his mental illness, and could be unstable and dangerous.

Lazas, of Burtonsville, pleaded guilty in 1991 to stabbing a man in the neck and ear at an Olney park. After his schizophrenia, alcoholism and cocaine addiction were diagnosed, he received two years' probation and an 18-month suspended sentence.

In 1993, he was found guilty, but not criminally responsible, for the suffocation death of his 23-month-old son, Michael A. Lazas Jr. He told police, according to charging documents, that he put his hands over the boy's mouth and nose to silence his crying, and said voices in his head told him to do it.

"I did it. I did it. I was lying down and the baby was crying and I couldn't take it," the documents quote Lazas as saying.

"We've got 10 deputies working around the clock on this case alone," Popkin said. He said Lazas was last seen as he drove away from the county impound lot on Oct. 2 in a dark-red 1990 Chevrolet pickup.

Parkwood House, a facility in the 12000 block of Swallow Falls Court where Lazas had been living, is one of several group homes run by independent contractors with state health department funds, administered by the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. Both Parkwood and Perkins are supervised by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"In these cases, you do let a certain amount of time pass, in case the person is coming back, so you don't hit the panic button too early," Timothy Santoni, deputy director of mental hygiene, said yesterday. Santoni acknowledged that more than three days "does seem long" and said an investigation of the incident would begin this week.

Group home officials filed a missing persons report on Lazas Oct. 5, but police have said they did not know that Lazas was in violation of his release from Perkins. An arrest warrant was issued two days later by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Paul H. Weinstein.

Perkins officials said yesterday that Lazas was sent to the group home under routine procedures and that his release to the home was approved by a Montgomery County judge, with the knowledge of the state's attorney's office.

M. Richard Fragala, superintendent of the Perkins hospital in Jessup, said in an interview yesterday that Lazas was a "model patient" during his five years at the facility. He added that he knows Lazas "very well."

According to Fragala, Lazas's five-year stay at Perkins was within the norm; most patients leave within three to seven years. Lazas did so well at Perkins, Fragala said, that he "had a rather smooth course" through the facility's treatment sequence, which allows qualifying patients greater and greater levels of freedom.

Lazas responded well to treatment, never refused medication, took responsibility for the crime that sent him there and seemed remorseful, Fragala said. "There was never a problem with him," Fragala said, noting that Lazas, toward the end of his time at Perkins, did landscaping work on the road outside the facility.

Until a month ago, Lazas also had been employed in a landscaping job while living at Parkwood House, which, like Perkins, works toward moving residents to increasing levels of freedom in the community, Fragala said.

When found, Lazas will be returned to Perkins and recommitted there, Fragala said. Had he not walked away from the program, he could have been released to the community within a few years. Conditionally released patients such as Lazas routinely are reviewed in court after five years, Fragala said. The court may release them unconditionally, or impose additional time or new conditions.