-- The Village Laundry is shuttered, a hastily written closed sign taped to the front window since it happened.

The shattered glass is gone now, and the owner has told friends that the coin laundry might never reopen.

Locals know the story, but they come anyway, pressing against the front windows to see the place, to try to relive the moment when Rebecca Billings Wagoner attempted to save her child from the centrifugal grip of a commercial clothes washer.

She "had so much blood under her fingernails, she still can't get it out," one woman said, explaining to friends how Wagoner walked into the laundry the night of June 17 to find her daughter, Hope, 5, tumbling inside an air-locked washer filled with water. There was no visible electrical cord to yank out of the wall.

Using a rock from the parking lot, Wagoner bashed through the washer's front window, clawing at the glass to free the child. Friends said her arms were cut to ribbons as she fought to pry her daughter from the machine, but it was too late. Rebecca "Hope" Wagoner was pronounced dead an hour later.

Now the question facing the tiny Appalachian town in southwest Virginia is why she died.

"We just want to know," said resident Sandra Griffin. "How did it happen?" Tears streamed down the cheeks of her son, Brandon, 15.

Police and prosecutors have spent the past week narrowing that down: Hope's death was a prank gone wrong, a malicious act or a mechanical failure.

Police said the girl and her 14-year-old half brother were the only people in the laundry when she got inside the washer by herself or was put there. What happened next is a mystery. Police said they are examining security tapes from cameras inside the laundry and will fingerprint any coins they find inside the washer.

Operating properly, the Milnor Automatic Washer-Extractor has a 31-minute wash cycle, its inside drum making 451 revolutions per minute during a high-speed spin cycle. Officials said the door's heavy snap-latch must be shut before the machine will take the 11 quarters it needs to run. Then it locks air-tight and won't open again until the wash cycle is complete.

Engineers from Milnor have been in town all week trying to determine whether the washer malfunctioned, perhaps starting without coins being inserted, as some residents who used the machine speculate might have been the case.

"That thing has been eating money," said one woman who spoke on condition of anonymity. It might have just taken off and started when the door shut, she said.

The Wagoners live two doors from the Village Laundry. Rebecca Wagoner told police she had gone there to use the pay phone to call her husband, bringing along her daughter and son. She told police she was outside when things went wrong.

Hope's father, William Wagoner, in a brief interview Thursday insisted that there is "more to the story than you know." Although residents in the town portrayed the Wagoners' relationship as on-again, off-again -- they share children from previous marriages -- William Wagoner said they are very much together as a family. He said he was reluctant to go into details until he spoke with his attorney, but he portrayed the facts underlying his daughter's death as "a story you are never going to believe."

"We're a happy family," he said. "No abuse. . . . But let me ask you, do you believe one turn of events leads to another?"

Wagoner didn't stay on the phone long enough to answer his own question.

Police Chief Dwayne Sheffield runs a five-man department in Chilhowie, whose police blotter is filled almost solely by reports of domestic violence and alcohol-related crimes. Hope Wagoner's death has been anything but routine for Sheffield, whose phone has barely stopped ringing since Monday, when word of the unusual death reached the media.

Residents said they feel the same kind of pain they felt eight years ago, when a man shot and killed his girlfriend, his son and then himself. The shootings devastated the town.

"Please, please, I beg you," Sheffield drawled as his cell phone continued its ringing. He had tried fruitlessly for an hour to fill out his department's payroll. But it would not happen. He said the medical examiner's office had released its preliminary results that suggest Hope died of asphyxiation, but the chief wants more concrete answers.

"This little girl deserves the truth to be found out, and that's just what I'm going to do," Sheffield said. Until the investigation is complete, he said, he would not risk a misstep or misspoken word.

Asked whether Rebecca Wagoner could be charged with neglect, he said only that he will examine every possibility.

Outside a relative's home, Hope's uncle, Chris Breedlove, said it has been hard on the family. "All the hugs and donations of food people bring you won't fix nothing."

Hope was buried Wednesday. That night, two dozen mourners gathered outside the laundry with candles to talk and weep. They tried to be supportive of the family, but talk among them quickly turned to issues of responsibility.

Regardless of how Hope Wagoner got into the washer, no matter how it got turned on, most who gathered agreed that someone should have been keeping an eye on the girl.

"That child should have been watched," Marie Keesee told the crowd before joining in a verse of "Amazing Grace."

Down the street at the Speed Wash Laundromat, George Crabtree was stuffing wet clothes into six dryers. He had grown accustomed to using the Village Laundry to run giant loads of jeans and towels. He said he didn't have the heart to do laundry after Hope's death.

Thursday, he dismissed any notion that Hope closed the door on her own.

"That little kid didn't shut that door from the inside," Crabtree said, plunking quarters into the dryers. "Someone shut that door."

Keesee doesn't know what to think, but she's sure of one thing: Tragedies such as Hope's death don't happen in small towns like Chilhowie. "No," she said. "Not here."

Jennifer Gibbs, 15, and her brother John Hood, 10, stop at the closed coin laundry where their neighbor Hope Wagoner, 5, was killed.George Crabtree of Saltville, Va., does six loads at a laundry near Village Laundry, where he used to do his wash.Marie Keesee, 41, of Chilhowie, shown with her husband, Alan Keesee, 39, joined two dozen people Wednesday to mourn Hope Wagoner's death.Hope Wagoner, 5, died

June 17 after becoming trapped in a washer at a coin laundry.