Friends and neighbors of two white brothers charged with the seemingly random drive-by slaying of an elderly black woman say they don't believe it was about race.

Acquaintances from this tiny, rural community on the Eastern Shore said the Starkey brothers-- David Wayne, 24, and Daniel Robert Starkey, 20--were known as carousers who like to down a few. But the young men whose alleged attack has triggered a FBI civil rights investigation are not serious troublemakers, residents say, and often socialized with black and Hispanic friends.

Today, Millington residents were still trying to come up with an explanation for the highway ambush last Saturday. Authorities say they arrested the Starkey brothers on an anonymous tip. The young men were charged Thursday with stalking three black women who were returning home from a Christmas shopping trip for more than 20 miles before opening fire with a shotgun, fatally wounding one of the passengers.

Some said they couldn't conceive that the Starkey brothers--who they say come from a family of good citizens--were involved in such a senseless attack. Others speculated that if they were, it was more likely the result of alcohol and road rage than racism.

"You had a couple guys who were out deer hunting and drinking and didn't get any," speculated Connie Crossley, manager of a local liquor store who knew the older Starkey brother as a customer. "And there was somebody they could terrorize."

Although local officials said they didn't have a motive for the crime, the FBI has confirmed that it has opened a civil rights investigation into the case to determine if race was a factor.

"Obviously, we're seeing whether race fit in as a motive," said FBI spokesman Peter A. Gulotta Jr. "There is a possibility that it could have been motivated by hate, and we're going to investigate the possibility."

Authorities have been tight-lipped about the case otherwise, and Gulotta said he did not know if investigators have come up with any specific evidence that racism may have played a role.

The Starkey brothers are charged with first-degree murder and other crimes in the death of Germaine P. Clarkston, of Chestertown, who was struck in the hip by gunfire during the attack and died two days later. Clarkston's cousin and another woman who were in the car were injured by flying glass and shrapnel.

Documents filed today in Kent County District Court allege that David Starkey fired a shotgun during the ambush and that his brother was behind the wheel of the Chevrolet pickup truck that they used to trail the women across rural Kent County.

Authorities said the Starkeys started to tailgate the women, who were in a subcompact Plymouth Horizon, for no apparent reason about 6:30 p.m. on Route 291 near Millington and followed them to their home on the other side of the county.

The Starkey brothers grew up in Millington, which sits on a winding stretch of the Chester River. Dominated by a grain mill, the tiny town--population of 409 in 1990--lies about about 40 minutes northeast of the Bay Bridge.

In a brief interview, the Starkeys' younger brother Wayne described his family as close-knit. Both David and Daniel worked for their father's construction company, he said, and the entire family volunteered with the local fire company and met every Sunday for dinner.

Wayne Starkey, a senior at Kent County High School where his brothers both graduated, would not speak of the criminal allegations except to say, "Those guys weren't in the right state of mind." He would not elaborate.

Kent County Sheriff John F. Price said that investigators have ruled out drugs as a factor in the crime. When asked if alcohol may have played a role, he declined to comment.

At the time of his arrest, Daniel Starkey was on probation after pleading guilty in July to a charge of marijuana possession, court records show.

His attorney in that case, David M. Williams, of Chestertown, said he recalled Daniel Starkey as "a nice young man who lived with his parents."

"I was so impressed with what nice people they were," Williams said of Starkey's parents.

David Starkey spent a few years in the Marine Corps before returning to Millington a year or so ago, neighbors said.

"He was a big boy, but kind of quiet," said Howard Burrows, manager of the grain mill, whose stepson was a close friend of the older Starkey brother.

Still, Burrows said he had noticed a change in David's attitude over the past couple of years. "He might have fallen in with some older fellows who changed his outlook," he said, describing a crowd known to hang out at a local bar.

Burrows speculated that the brothers might have been aggravated by the slower vehicle ahead of them and stalked it without even knowing the race or age of its passengers.

Others, too, said they doubt race was a factor. "Because of the friends they kept," explained Joann Wallace, a waitress at a pizza parlor down the street from the apartment shared by David and Daniel. Both brothers ran in a crowd that included blacks and Hispanics, she said.

Many residents worried that the crime would cast an unfair stigma on their close-knit community.

"Once you have two races involved people automatically think it's a hate crime," complained Leon Frison, a local pastor and elementary school teacher, who is African American. "These guys had some problems," he said, but race wasn't necessarily one of them.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and staff writer Steven Gray contributed to this report.

CAPTION: The elder of the two brothers arrested in connection with the murder of a passenger in a car is driven to a Chestertown, Md., detention center.