Keith J. Gardner, who admitted stabbing his mother, father and grandfather to death in their beds in May, was sentenced yesterday to three life terms in what Fairfax police called one of the county's most gruesome murders.

Gardner, 39, declined to explain his actions as he stood before Circuit Court Judge Marcus D. Williams. But in a letter to the judge, the Lorton man wrote, "Due to very heavy drug usage, I was completely out of my mind and out of control."

Before sentencing, Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. reminded the judge of Gardner's lengthy criminal history and of the violent nature of the deaths of Jannis Gardner, 63, Jimmy Gardner, 64, and Elmer Gardner, 90.

Only when Horan recounted the brutal stabbing of Jannis Gardner did Keith Gardner's face redden, tears briefly streaming down his face.

"His mother, who was his protector, went to bat for him every time he got in trouble," Horan said. ". . . She fought him for her life. It took 20 wounds to kill her."

Horan pointed out that after the killings at the family home in the 9200 block of Gilmore Drive, Gardner hid the three bodies in an underground fallout shelter, covered them in lime powder and then lived in the house for nearly two more weeks, "collecting rent money [from other tenants] so he can go and buy more drugs."

The bodies were found by friends who grew concerned after not seeing the Gardners around. In addition to having poured lime on the bodies, Gardner had sealed the shelter with caulk. The combination of the multiple stabbings of each victim, the concealment of the bodies and their subsequent decomposition made the triple homicide one of Fairfax's "most gruesome murders," police homicide Lt. Bruce Guth said.

Williams ordered that two of Gardner's life sentences run consecutively. Under Virginia law governing prisoners 60 and older, Horan said, Gardner would be eligible for parole after 20 years.

Gardner pleaded guilty in September to three counts of first-degree murder and faced a minimum of 20 years on each count. Richard C. Goemann, his attorney, asked the judge to sentence Gardner to 80 years total, so that he would be eligible for work in prison and not locked down 23 hours a day. Goemann noted that Gardner's family, who asked Horan not to seek the death penalty, felt that "despite the admittedly horrible things he's done, he still has the capacity to contribute in some way."

When Williams asked Gardner whether he wished to speak, Gardner paused, then said: "It's almost impossible for me to talk. I don't feel comfortable talking about it at all. I'd rather not say anything."

But in his handwritten letter to the judge, Gardner wrote: "What happened is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I loved my family very much and it's impossible even for me to understand how I could have done this."

Gardner told the judge that he and his mother had been calling drug rehab centers seeking treatment for him, without luck. "Everything just got worse when I realized I couldn't get any help. At some point I just lost touch with reality and went over the edge."

Kim Gardner, Keith Gardner's older brother, did not attend the sentencing but later said he was neither surprised nor upset by the outcome. Joe Piatt Jr., a longtime family friend, said that had Jannis Gardner survived, she would have been in court to support her son: She "would've said to Keith, 'You screwed up,' then she would've said, 'Your honor, give him a chance.' "

CAPTION: Keith J. Gardner admitted fatally stabbing his parents, grandfather.

CAPTION: After Keith Gardner killed his parents, Jannis and James Gardner, above, and his grandfather, he hid their bodies in an underground fallout shelter.