Darrell David Rice was hitting a high point of his life about the time Julianne M. Williams and Laura S. "Lollie" Winans were killed in Shenandoah National Park in 1996.

In the past, he'd had drug problems and trouble holding jobs, but those seemed behind him. At 28, Rice was into the highest-paying job he'd held, his family said. He was surrounded by a devoted family and good friends who joined him in his love of the outdoors. He had just moved into an apartment by himself, his family said.

The most serious charges he'd ever faced were marijuana and other drug violations.

But last week, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft stood before television cameras and announced that Rice faced the death penalty if convicted of slitting the throats of Williams and Winans in an anti-lesbian rage.

"It just doesn't make sense," said Dawn Metcalfe, his older sister. "He's never expressed any kind of hatred against gays or women in his life. We are just blown away."

The portrait of Rice, painted in detail by court records and federal prosecutors, is of a paranoid, prejudiced man whose misogyny and hatred of gays burned so hot that he slit the throats of two strangers at a secluded campsite in the national park. In a separate case, Rice was convicted and is serving a sentence in a Petersburg, Va., prison for trying to abduct a female bicyclist in 1997 in Shenandoah National Park.

Prosecutors quoted Rice, now 34, of Columbia, as saying that Williams and Winans "deserved to die because they were lesbian whores," and that he had assaulted women because "they are more vulnerable than men."

But Rice's father, Leon, 65, who lives in Satellite Beach, Fla., said, "That's not Darrell -- he couldn't have said those things."

Leon Rice, Dawn Metcalfe and others insist that the Rice they know has always had close female and openly gay friends. While they acknowledge his past problems, they say he's never been confrontational or in any way hostile toward anyone.

Rice was born in Baltimore and grew up in Severna Park in Anne Arundel County. He loved the Orioles as a boy during some of the team's better years. But, his father said, he found that he liked music more than sports, and soon found a niche playing the bass guitar.

He was in several garage bands that played at parties at and near Severna Park High School.

Family members described him as a hippyish, die-hard Grateful Dead fan who was fiercely loyal to his friends -- and whose friends reciprocated in kind.

With the music scene, though, came a drug scene, his family said. Rice struggled, mostly with marijuana, cocaine and LSD -- demons he never completely exorcised -- and suffered from severe depression at times, they said.

But Metcalfe, who lives in Queen Anne's County, said her brother is no killer. While expressing sympathy for the families of Williams, 24, and Winans, 26 -- she said: "I just want the truth to come out. None of us think he was capable of this."

Prosecutors have said they will try to prove that Rice intended the slayings as a hate crime. That would open the door for the death penalty under a never-before-used provision of a 1994 law that enhances penalties for crimes motivated by bias against homosexuals.

With that punishment looming, Rice's friends, mother and sister gathered in Maryland last night to figure out what they should do and to comfort one another.

Rice's father, who divorced his wife in 1988, when Darrell Rice was 21, and retired to Florida last year, took the news of the indictment hard. Although the charges were announced Wednesday, Leon Rice did not hear about them until two days later. When he was told by a reporter, he grew noticeably pale, and his hand trembled.

"It's just stunning," Leon Rice said. "I knew he was a suspect in the crime for a long time. But the way it's being described, it's just stunning."

About the time of the killings, Darrell Rice was seriously dating a young woman he had known for years, Leon Rice said.

Rice added that his son never displayed any misogyny and only a hint of chauvinism, such as the time he quietly tried to dissuade his sister from working after she had her first child.

"He believed woman should stay at home rather than work," he said. "But it's not that he ever got mad about it or pushed it on anyone."

His father recounted that his son loved to bike at Shenandoah and often traveled across the country with his sister to follow the Grateful Dead. But his activities were peppered by drug use -- a habit that had plagued him since high school.

Court records show that Rice was charged with several drug offenses in Anne Arundel and Worcester counties in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Because of the drugs, Rice had trouble holding jobs, his father said. In the early 1990s, he entered a drug rehabilitation program and held a series of low-paying jobs at restaurants and guitar stores. He took classes at Anne Arundel Community College but never enrolled.

In 1994, Rice got a break at the former MCI Systemhouse Inc.'s office in Columbia and was hired to write computer training disks. His father said the whole family was proud of him, believing it was the beginning of a turnaround.

But one of the supervisors at MCI Systemhouse said she began to notice that Darrell Rice had two sides to his personality.

"At first, he was great," the supervisor said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He really didn't talk to people, and he did great work."

But in 1996, Rice began missing work. He told his employers he was seeing a psychiatrist and was taking medication. Later, she said, co-workers complained that he had stopped focusing and often surfed the Internet.

The supervisor said she heard that Rice had made "derogatory comments" to women in the office, but she knew of no formal complaints.

"It's like there were two of him," she said. "Personally, he was always very respectful and very nice to me. I never felt threatened or felt he was trying to intimidate me."

But in summer 1997, Rice was fired after he "flipped out" at work and punched a wall or door in the men's room, the supervisor said.

Rice later told investigators there was tension at work because he had started dealing marijuana, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville. But he also told police he thought co-workers were watching his house, following him after hours and monitoring what he watched on television, according to the documents.

"Maybe I was coming apart around the edges," Rice said, according to the documents. "I would think I was schizophrenic, but actually, there were people behind me, manipulating me."

Rice was arrested about a week after his firing when he tried to run a female bicyclist off the road. The victim testified that Rice yelled at her to get in his truck, tried to grab her and told her to bare her breasts. Rice pleaded guilty to attempted abduction in 1998.

Court documents show that U.S. Park Police and FBI agents quickly focused on Rice as a suspect in the slayings of Williams and Winans, who were last seen at an Appalachian Trail shelter May 23, 1996, and whose bodies were found June 1. They questioned him about his apparent antagonism toward women.

His family said yesterday that Rice had lashed out at the bicyclist because he was upset about being fired, but that it wasn't part of a pattern of abuse against women.

"I do not think he's capable of the crimes they're saying he committed," Metcalfe said.

Staff writers Fredrick Kunkle, Brooke A. Masters, Maureen O'Hagen, Manuel Roig-Franzia, Jamie Stockwell and Josh White and researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.

Darrell D. Rice was indicted in the 1996 slayings of two female hikers.