Among the notable figures who have taken refuge in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, north of Frederick: Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair and every U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad.

Known internationally as the home of Camp David, the presidential retreat, the Catoctins have for decades provided a shield from prying eyes for world dignitaries -- and for those avoiding the law.

Just a 20-minute drive from downtown Frederick, but eerily far removed from civilization, the remoter regions of the Catoctins offer at least one thing both criminals and the media-weary seek: an easy escape from the public eye.

Twice in the past two months, the mountains have played a cameo role in national crime stories: the arrests of Malvo and Muhammad in the Washington area sniper attacks and the investigation of the October 2001 anthrax attacks.

The Catoctins' history of providing an escape for outlaws -- and for hikers, anglers and world leaders -- goes back many years. Whiskey stills were once common in the deep, forested hollows, and bodies turn up with grim regularity.

"There's nothing for miles and miles," said Debbie DeHart, a Virginia businesswoman who visited the area during her investigation of the disappearance of her sister, Ava Marie DeHart, in 1982. "If somebody got left up there, it would be a long way to walk out."

For visitors on the run, that's the idea.

In June, a man walking his dog found the decomposed body of Rodney Cocking, 59, a prominent psychologist and program director for the National Science Foundation, about 100 yards off Fishing Creek Road, in the heart of the Frederick City Municipal Forest -- more than 7,000 acres of city-owned wilderness.

Randall H. Gerlach, 56, a general contractor who had done remodeling work on Cocking's Carroll County home, is awaiting trial on charges that he killed Cocking after swindling him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A few miles from where Cocking's body was dumped, but 20 years earlier, on Aug. 24, 1982, a married couple searching for mushrooms along one of the dirt roads that cut through the municipal forest came across a footlocker. When they opened it, they found the decomposed body of a woman crammed inside. Police later estimated the woman to have been 22 to 27 years old and thought she had been killed several weeks earlier.

The woman has never been identified, and the mystery of her death remains unsolved. Police can't even be sure she was slain, because forensic examinations have not revealed any trauma suggesting homicide.

Investigators concluded the woman was white, with brown hair, and stood 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-5-inches tall. She had distinctive dental work, with two crowns on her upper teeth, one gold-filled tooth and evidence of a root canal procedure.

"This is a person who literally vanished from the Earth, and we just have a body we can't identify," said Lt. Tom Chase, head of criminal investigations for the Frederick Police Department. "If we were to get a tip that would bring an identification to this body, it would bring a whole new life to this investigation."

Police and others often follow cold leads into these hills. After DeHart's visit, her sister's body was found elsewhere, at the bottom of a well in Orange County, Va. A onetime boyfriend, Christ George Patsalos, was convicted in the murder in 1997.

The mountainous area north and northwest of Frederick has remained mostly untouched by the development that has affected much of the county because a lot of it is publicly owned preservation land. The city-owned portion, known locally as "the watershed," contains streams, creeks and reservoirs that provide much of the city's drinking water.

Until the late 19th century, many Frederick residents owned small lots in the forest where they would cut timber to heat their homes. The rutted roads they carved to reach their logging lots have become mountain-bike paths and hunting trails.

One of the city's main water sources, Fishing Creek reservoir, creates a dramatic waterfall at the southern end of the forest; many creeks crisscross the woodland, creating breathtaking vistas. The tallest crags in the municipal forest rise 1,500 feet above the city of Frederick; the highest elevation is more than 1,700 feet.

The city began buying the land that now composes the municipal forest in 1890, intending to protect the creeks and streams for the city's drinking-water supply.

"It's almost entirely woodland," said Fred Eisenhart, the city's director of public works. "That's the beauty of that watershed -- it's virtually 100 percent protected."

Some houses ring the northern and southern edges of the forest, and there are still several undeveloped privately owned lots. But most of the land is city-owned.

North of the municipal forest is the Catoctin Mountain Park, part of the National Park system.

Purchased by the federal government in the 1930s, Catoctin Mountain Park is home to Camp David, the presidential retreat started by FDR, who named it "Shangri-La." Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name to Camp David in honor of his grandson.

The National Park Service maintains an old whiskey still on the park grounds as a reminder of the area's moonshining past. In 1929, federal and local police raided a massive bootlegging operation not far from where Camp David now sits. They destroyed a huge still named Blue Blazes. A Frederick County sheriff's deputy was killed in the raid.

"If you were making [whiskey] illegally, you wanted to be out of sight and out of mind, and hence the remote location," said Roger G. Steintl, chief ranger at Catoctin Mountain Park.

Stills have not been found for years, but the park remains a popular area for parties. Graffiti covers some rocks along the main access roads.

Last month, the FBI roped off hundreds of rugged acres and searched several small, shallow ponds build by the city of Frederick in 1920s. FBI officials have not said publicly what they were seeking, but they told city leaders that the search was related to the investigation of last year's anthrax attacks. After more than a week searching the bottoms of several of the "fire ponds," they departed without disclosing what, if anything, they had found.

Three times in the past year, investigators have searched the Frederick apartment of Steven Hatfill, a former Army scientist whom the Justice Department has named as a "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation.

In October, Malvo and Muhammad were arrested at a rest stop along Interstate 70, on the western slope of the Catoctins, which are part of the Blue Ridge mountain range. The South Mountain ridge, part of the same range and parallel to the Catoctins, defines the border between Frederick and Washington counties. The Appalachian Trail, the 2,100-mile hiking path that stretches from Georgia to Maine, runs through the area.

Perhaps seeking a quiet, remote place to sleep for the night, the sniper suspects discovered the down side of appearing to be so remote from, yet really quite close, to the metropolitan area when a trucker dialed 911 after spotting their vehicle.

Police descended on the scene. Within hours, reporters and photographers from Washington and beyond had staked out a huge swath of nearby woods, putting a quiet, middle-of-nowhere spot at the center of the nation's attention.

The suspects "must have had that perception that if they headed out that way they'd be out of town pretty quick," DeHart said. "They were right -- and wrong."