The widow of a Fairfax County lawyer found dead in the trunk of his burned-out car three years ago has collected a check for $450,000 from her husband's insurance company, even though Fairfax police are "99.9 percent sure" the lawyer committed suicide.

The strange saga of Paul G. Gabelia didn't end when firefighters discovered his body in the back of his charred Mercury Sable near Dulles International Airport on the night of Sept. 1, 1996. Police and fire investigators were intrigued by the fact that wire was tied around Gabelia's lower legs, and jumper cables were wrapped around his neck, but nothing was tied around his wrists or hands.

Next, fire investigators determined the fire started inside the trunk, while the lid was closed. They also found matches similar to those used by his son's Boy Scout troop. And when detectives learned that Gabelia was deeply in debt and had bought six life insurance policies in 1996, including a $700,000 policy from USAA just two months before his death, they began to suspect that Gabelia had killed himself by climbing into the trunk and setting himself on fire.

Meanwhile, Gabelia's widow, Nam Dong Kim, filed a claim with USAA. The company denied the claim in April 1997, citing a standard clause that insurance companies do not have to pay on suicides in the first two years of a policy. Last year, Kim sued USAA.

Both sides lined up experts and mountains of documents to support their beliefs that Gabelia, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Georgetown University Law Center, did or didn't kill himself. Then, on the eve of a two-week trial in U.S. District Court late last month, USAA blinked. Kim's attorneys argued that, with interest, USAA now owed close to $900,000, and USAA agreed to pay half that.

"This is something that USAA should have settled three years ago," said Walter E. Diercks, one of Kim's attorneys.

Paul Berry, a spokesman for USAA in San Antonio, said the company "feels its decision to deny this claim was correct and was willing to defend it in court. But with any litigation, there are risks for both sides. Therefore USAA and Mrs. Kim compromised on a settlement at an amount less than the policy required."

USAA faced a serious legal hurdle if it hoped to defeat Kim's claim. Under Virginia law, an insurer may refuse to pay a claim on the basis of suicide only if it can exclude all other reasonable causes of death.

Kim's attorneys were prepared to show that Gabelia could have been murdered. Central to that theory was the Fairfax medical examiner's conclusion that the cause of death was strangulation.

For a jury to rule Gabelia's death a suicide, Diercks said: "You'd have to believe somebody strangled themselves to death, and before they passed out, lit a match. And I don't think anybody believed that possible."

Frances Field, the Fairfax medical examiner, did rule the cause of death strangulation, but she ruled the manner of death as "undetermined."

Field found that the hyoid bone in the throat, often broken during a strangulation, was intact and that Gabelia had breathed in a significant amount of soot and carbon monoxide.

"The way the cause of death is written," Field said yesterday, "does not rule out homicide or suicide. It could be either."

Fire investigators determined that the fire started in the trunk of Gabelia's car with the lid closed and that pressure from the fire would have prevented another person from starting the fire and then closing the trunk. Diercks said he had an expert who would have testified that the fire's origin was uncertain and that gasoline traces were found inside the car.

Police never formally declared Gabelia's death a suicide or a homicide but called it a "suspicious death." Part of Detective Bob Murphy's reason for believing Gabelia was not murdered was his financial situation. Gabelia, who had a wife and two children, had no income from 1993 to 1995 and had more than $60,000 in credit card debt and a mortgage.

Murphy also noted in his report that Gabelia told his wife he was going to meet with some possibly shady businessmen the night of his death and that his computer records indicated the client was a company called ARC Limited.

Murphy said he found no such company with any connection to Gabelia.

Diercks said the financial investigation was inadequate.