At a dramatic hearing Friday, St. Mary's County Circuit Judge C. Clarke Raley unsealed a first-degree murder indictment charging a third suspect in the death of Sara Marie Sapp, over the objections of prosecutor Willard Broms, who had wanted the file to remain closed as the investigation continues.

Sapp was killed in 1992, and the case languished for years before being reinvigorated last year with the arrests of two suspects.

The lawyer for Christopher James Wilson, one of two defendants charged in Sapp's slaying, had asked the court to open the mystery indictment. In the motion decided Friday, lawyer Francis Sauer asserted that the indictment likely charged a third person in the Sapp case and argued that the existence of another suspect would be a fact crucial to Wilson's defense.

The third indictment came to light because lawyers noticed that its case number--99-382--fell between Wilson's Case No. 99-381 and that of the other man charged with killing Sapp, Clayton Victor Kissel, whose case is No. 99-383.

At Friday's hearing, Judge Raley ruled that if prosecutors claimed in the sealed indictment that a third person killed the same victim it would be "extraordinarily important" to reveal that information to Wilson, whose trial is scheduled for March 6.

Wilson, Raley ruled, had a "particularized need" to know the contents of the sealed indictment that overrode the usual cloak of secrecy surrounding grand jury proceedings. It is not unusual for grand jury indictments to remain sealed throughout the course of large-scale investigations into ongoing criminal enterprises, such as auto theft or drug rings.

"Madame Clerk, go get me file 99-382," said Raley upon issuing his ruling. Opening the blue file, Raley revealed that a third suspect had been indicted in Sapp's murder at the same time Wilson and Kissel were charged. Prosecutor Broms had asked that this third suspect's indictment remain sealed while his office's investigators continue examining Sapp's killing.

"It's the position of our office that Mr. Wilson is the person who killed Sara Sapp," Broms said. "But we frankly have always felt that he might have had some help and other people were involved in certain ways we don't yet know about. In that sense the case is not yet closed."

After the judge's ruling, Broms agreed to divulge the name of the third defendant to Wilson's lawyer provided that the indictment remains sealed until the state decides whether to go forward with prosecution of the third suspect.

Raley--who at one point during the proceeding mused that the third suspect was likely an important state's witness--adopted that compromise and decided to release the indictment only to the defense counsel rather than unseal it altogether.

Wilson, 25, of Hollywood in St. Mary's County, was indicted Aug. 6 for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault and malicious fire-setting in the murder of Sapp. Kissel, 40, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, faces the same charges.

Sapp, a 24-year-old California woman, was found dead--her corpse burned--in a field off Route 5 in Mechanicsville on June 26, 1992. Her body lay near her Ford sedan, which also was set ablaze. The state medical examiner's office later determined that Sapp had been strangled before her body was set on fire and dumped by the side of the road.

The case, unsolved for several years, was included on the Maryland State Police's "Cold Case" list before investigators from the St. Mary's County sheriff's office and the state's attorney's office began examining fresh leads in 1998. Last summer, a grand jury was convened and handed up three indictments naming Wilson, Kissel and the third suspect whose charges and identity were at issue Friday. The third indictment was not made available to the public or reporters covering the hearing.

So far Broms and other investigators have not revealed much about their case against Wilson and Kissel, except to say that they believe that Wilson--who knew Sapp through a former girlfriend--met up with the young woman at some point during the night of June 26 and killed her, allegedly aided by Kissel. Kissel moved to Iowa the next year.

Kissel's trial, set for May 1, has been moved to Calvert County after his lawyer moved for a change of venue because of the notoriety of the case.

After Friday's hearing, lawyer Sauer, of Towson, said that he and Wilson were pleased with the partial victory in their effort to have the third suspect's murder indictment unsealed. The day's legal wrangling over the third suspect indicates that prosecutors are still trying to put together a credible case, Sauer said.

"I don't think they know who did it," Sauer said. Wilson has always maintained that he was not involved in Sapp's death and was not in or near Mechanicsville on the evening that Sapp was killed.

His sister, Shawn Marie Wilson, 26, was indicted for perjury in July after prosecutors alleged she lied to the grand jury about her brother's whereabouts that evening. She allegedly testified that she was with her brother at a party in Lexington Park the evening of Sapp's death.

Shawn Wilson later said in an affidavit that her memory of the details of the evening were fuzzy after seven years and that she subsequently recalled only speaking to her brother briefly at the party that evening. Her case was placed on the inactive docket in September.

CAPTION: Christopher Wilson, a suspect in the killing of Sara Marie Sapp, leaves St. Mary's County Courthouse Friday.