Prince William County prosecutors retreated yesterday from their claim that Darrell D. Rice is the "Route 29 Stalker" -- just as Rice's trial on abduction charges was to begin.

The shift in trial strategy came after defense attorneys had said repeatedly that they could prove that Rice had nothing to do with several of the crimes linked to the string of attacks in 1996.

All along, Rice, 37, has been charged in only one attack. But prosecutors have said they believe that Rice is responsible for several attempts to trick female motorists into stopping their cars along Route 29.

During the first day of Rice's trial on abduction and robbery charges, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney James A. Willett said Rice was responsible for attacking just one female motorist near Manassas in February 1996.

"I don't know whether the defendant did or didn't do these things," Willett told jurors, referring to dozens of incidents during which women driving along Route 29 between Culpeper and Madison were flagged down by a man who said the women had car trouble. All of them made it home, authorities said, except Alicia Showalter Reynolds, 25, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student. Showalter was last seen on Route 29 and her killing fueled widespread trepidation among drivers.

"We're not saying he did it. We don't have any idea of how she stopped her car," Willett said.

Prosecutors had been asserting that the man who approached the women on Route 29 by flashing his truck lights used the same method to trick a Quantico woman, Carmelita Shomo, into pulling over on Route 234 near Manassas. They were trying to show that Rice's involvement in the Route 29 incidents proves that he was likely to have abducted Shomo, who was attacked during the same time period.

With his voice rising and softening, Willett told jurors how Shomo was attacked on her way home from work at the Manassas Mall on Feb. 23, 1996. "The sky is leaden with dark clouds. . . . Those clouds are holding a dense fog," he began. Then he alleged that Rice drove up right behind Shomo flashing his lights. After she pulled over, he said her brakes weren't working and offered her a ride home.

After she accepted, the man grabbed her by the head, shoved her into his lap and hit her in the chest with an object that felt like a screwdriver, Willett said. Shomo lunged out of the truck but got tangled in the seat belt, breaking an ankle. She was found 45 minutes later by a park ranger. "She is still to this day suffering the physical and emotional scars from this attack," he said.

Rice, a former computer technician from Howard County, is serving a prison sentence for trying to abduct a female bicyclist in Shenandoah National Park and is scheduled to be freed in less than two years. But if he is convicted in the Prince William case, he could end up with life sentences.

Yesterday, county prosecutors dropped a malicious wounding charge against Rice. They also tried to bar the defense from bringing up the other Route 29 cases, but Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen said defense attorneys were allowed to introduce the evidence.

During his opening statements, defense attorney James G. Connell tried exploiting the state police investigation of the Route 29 Stalker cases. He said that forensic evidence and witnesses in all those cases do not point to Rice and that because the cases are linked, he can't be the man who attacked Shomo.

"That man, the Route 29 Stalker, is not Darrell Rice," Connell said emphatically, pointing at the defense table, where Rice sat impassively in dark pants and a gray button-down shirt.

Prince William County police began suspecting Rice in the Manassas area attack when he was indicted on capital murder charges more than three years ago in the 1996 killings of two lesbian hikers in Shenandoah National Park. The indictment, announced by then-U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, received national attention because it was the first time prosecutors invoked a law allowing them to seek tougher sentences for crimes sparked by anti-homosexual bias. But DNA evidence prompted federal prosecutors to drop the murder charges.