Steve Adelman almost felt sorry for her when she started to cry, the woman accused of murdering his father. He had been watching Ida J. Chase all day in D.C. Superior Court, but in a way, he had been tracking her in his mind's eye for three years.

In July 1996, during the early days of the investigation, Adelman delivered Chase's name and a set of deeply felt suspicions to District detectives. Police worked the case and worked it some more. After a time, one investigator said, "the evidence was just talking to me. Just talking and talking and talking."

That vocal evidence fills nearly seven single-spaced pages of an affidavit naming the likely killers as Ida Chase and her husband, Charles F. Chase. After police arrested the couple last month, Adelman drove from Baltimore to bear witness at a preliminary hearing that left him feeling more shaken than settled.

"There's an emptiness in me, a hole in me," said Adelman, who often goes alone to his father's grave for quiet conversation. "I'm trying to explain the unexplainable, so I drive myself nuts."

Unexplainable is the fact that on July 8, 1996, someone dumped the body of 69-year-old salesman Julius Adelman in the 300 block of Randolph Place NE, duct tape on his mouth, wrists and ankles. Equally unexplainable is the idea that Ida and Charles Chase, if they ambushed the elder Adelman, felt the need to go so far.

"I'm nervous. This is not an open-and-shut case," said Steve Adelman, a 37-year-old security system distributor, who plans to attend the yet-unscheduled trial. "I'm nervous enough that sometimes I don't want this to happen. I don't know how it's going to turn out."

Julius Adelman, by his son's description, was a hard-working man, physically and mentally strong, a good judge of character and a personable guy. For nearly 40 years, partly with the Baltimore firm of J&R Kayes Inc., he worked routes that touched streets in Clarksville, Lanham and working-class neighborhoods in the District. He peddled household goods from dishes to television sets, mostly by word of mouth, mostly on installment.

"He'd been doing this so long, he knew the neighborhoods. His customers were protective of him," Adelman said. "Everyone knew it was dangerous, but my father was a mule. He was a tough guy. A puppy dog on the inside, emotionally."

One person who worked on the case said: "He'd been dealing with customers for years, for generations. No one said anything bad about him."

Many people knew that the elder Adelman carried a lot of cash, often thousands of dollars that he kept in a hidden compartment in his car. He cashed checks for his customers, made personal loans, arranged payment plans. Viola Holmes remembers the times he cashed her retirement check without charging a fee.

"Oh, he was a beautiful person," said Holmes, a Northwest Washington resident who bought a bedroom suite from Adelman. "Because he wasn't prejudiced about anything. When you needed help, whether you owed a lot to the company or not, and you needed a favor, he would give you a favor. He was very honest."

Someone suffocated Adelman, the D.C. medical examiner said. He had been beaten. His wallet and watch were missing, and his pockets were turned inside out. Six days later, his car turned up in Northeast Washington, the hidden compartment torn open.

The Chases were often short of money, investigators learned. Ida Chase, 48, lived mostly on public assistance. Two relatives said she sometimes stole from her mother and other relations. Charles Chase, 53, who lived with her in the 600 block of I Street NE, was an unemployed maintenance man, according to the police affidavit signed by Detective James Trainum, who worked with the lead detective, Mitchell Credle, on the case.

Yet within hours of Adelman's death, witnesses reported, Ida Chase paid an overdue $400 debt, peeling $100 bills from a large wad of cash. She soon made two payments on her mother's mortgage. Both Chases were seen with large amounts of cash.

As it happens, Ida Chase owed Adelman $14,065 shortly before he turned up dead. The money represented a $10,000 loan, made in January 1996, and $4,000 for items she had purchased, according to Adelman's business records. He had recently told his wife, who maintained the ledgers, that Ida Chase had made no payments.

Family records show that Chase had tried to make a payment, but it didn't count. Police retrieved a check for $2,788.50 from Readers Service, made out to Ida Chase and forwarded to Adelman. Steve Adelman said the check bounced because the original payment amount on the check was not $2,788.50, but simply $.50.

Ida Chase had known Julius Adelman for much of her life, first meeting him because her mother was one of his customers. She told one witness that she had a previous sexual relationship with Adelman, according to the affidavit, which provides no further details. Steve Adelman said he does not believe the allegation.

When Chase borrowed money from Adelman, she reportedly told him that she was expecting a settlement check from her four years of service in the U.S. Army. On July 3, 1996, five days before the slaying, she allegedly asked a relative to tell Adelman that her Veterans Affairs disability check for $22,970.06 had arrived.

The relative, whose name does not appear in the affidavit, understood that Chase wanted Adelman to bring enough money to cash the check. When Adelman failed to return home July 8, the relative reported that Chase had expected to see the salesman that day but had missed him.

A detective questioned Chase on July 26. She told him that she made good on her debt on June 29, paying Adelman $14,065. She said Adelman gave her a receipt, but she couldn't find it. He was supposed to deliver a television set July 8, she asserted, but she was gone most of the day and never saw him.

Where did she get the $14,065? Chase said her husband had won the lottery.

Charles Chase told police that he had won several times in a short stretch of time, but he had no records confirming his big winnings. The D.C. Lottery board showed no large payments, and relatives said they had heard no such thing. Nor did either of the Chases mention a VA disability payment to police.

On Aug. 1, 1996, police searched the Chases' apartment. They found a federal form reflecting a refund of retirement deductions totaling $22,042.91. The form was dated 6-24-93, but someone had tried to change the date to 6-24-96, the affidavit said.

Police confiscated samples of the apartment's carpeting, a bedroom blanket and a sheet the same shade of blue as the sheet wrapped around Adelman's head. The FBI studied the evidence, along with hair and fibers found in Adelman's car and hair and blood samples taken from Ida and Charles Chase in June 1999.

Among the FBI's findings: Red fibers found on Adelman's shirt and handkerchief match the Chases' blanket. Carpet fibers also match in important ways. Hair found on a towel in the front seat of Adelman's car matches Charles Chase, the affidavit says.

"Ida Chase was in debt to the decedent for a large amount of money which she was unable to repay," Detective Trainum wrote. "Using trickery, Ida Chase made arrangements to ensure that the decedent would have a large amount of money on him . . . and also insured that the decedent would visit with her at her home on the date of his death."

It took three years before the details accumulated, the evidence talked, the FBI did its analysis and the Chases ended up in custody. Steve Adelman recalls times when he felt "very, very frustrated." Now that the case is moving toward a trial, he worries that the only suspects will get away.

"I feel so cheated, so robbed," Adelman said. "Sometimes all I want to do is crawl into a corner and die. Out of depression and sadness. I'll be walking down an aisle and cry."

CAPTION: Julius Adelman, found slain in '96 in Washington, was popular in areas he had worked for almost 40 years.