The assailants in the slaying of a recent Damascus High School graduate attempted to rob the victim before killing him, police said yesterday.

Ezekiel Babendreier, 18, was stabbed several times during a confrontation with three young men near a Germantown birthday party early Sunday. An acquaintance of Babendreier's was robbed at gunpoint but was not injured, police said.

Shortly before the slaying, the two victims and the three other young men had "an exchange of information regarding drugs," said Montgomery County police spokeswoman Lucille Baur.

Investigators were unclear yesterday about who was attempting to buy drugs from whom, Baur said. "As far as who initiated" the conversation about drugs, "we have not confirmed that at this point," she said.

Authorities did not identify Babendreier's acquaintance because he is the primary witness in the case, police said.

Police continued to search yesterday for three people in the attack, relying on witness descriptions. One attacker, who police said was armed with a knife, was described as black and 16 to 22 years old, police said. About 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 160 pounds, he wore his hair in cornrows covered with a black scarf or do-rag, police said.

A second assailant, also black, is about 16 years old with short black hair. A witness told police the second attacker is 5 feet 3 to 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 160 to 170 pounds, police said.

A third young man drove a car described only as a black four-door sedan. Police released no description of him. There is no evidence the attack was racially motivated, police said.

The stabbing was the second instance in eight days of teenage violence near a late-night party in Montgomery. On June 5, two teenagers were shot and injured at a backyard birthday party in the eastern end of the county after uninvited guests began a fight.

The suspects in Sunday's stabbing did not attend the party where Babendreier was a guest, police said. Lt. Eric Burnett, a police spokesman, said there was no evidence of alcohol at the party.

The area where Babendreier died is "a very quiet community, a community that doesn't call the police," said Capt. Evie Cahalen, commander of the police department's 5th District, which encompasses Germantown.

Ashley Boreni, a junior at Damascus High School who attended Lois P. Rockwell Elementary School in Damascus with Babendreier, described him as a funny, friendly guy. He was "a class clown," she said, who was popular and did not get mixed up in fights or violence.

Although several students knew about the incident before the start of classes at Damascus High School yesterday, administrators made an announcement in the morning and dedicated a moment of silence to Babendreier.

A gregarious young man with an impish sense of humor, Babendreier was known to his family and friends by his middle name, Oak. He was well-known at Damascus High and well-loved in his large extended family, relatives said.

As Babendreier's three siblings and more than a dozen aunts and uncles began coping yesterday with his death, one recurrent theme was the incongruity of the violent death and the young man's life.

Babendreier was an honor student planning to start college in the fall at Salisbury University. He was known for his gentle humor. He played football but was not by nature particularly competitive, family members said.

As relatives and friends crowded into the Babendreier home in the 10600 block of Radstock Court in Germantown, stories about the young man's joyous sense of humor provided a counterpoint to the grief, said Gerard Babendreier, an uncle. He was given the middle name Oak by his father, Christopher, who majored in horticulture at the University of Maryland.

Babendreier grew into the name. Standing 6 feet 2 and weighing about 230 pounds, he could have been a formidable lineman for the Damascus football team.

But he did not start for the team, said his mother, Josepha Babendreier.

"His take on football was he played it because it was fun," she said in a telephone interview. "He didn't take it too seriously."

He was a gifted impersonator who entertained family members with impressions of his father, Gerard Babendreier said. He was the third of four children.

His grandparents were raised in the Washington area and remain here, as do most of his aunts and uncles.

Staff writer Phuong Ly and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Ezekiel Babendreier was stabbed to death Sunday.