Tom and Patsy Williams came to Prince William County Circuit Court last month hoping, praying, really, that the drama playing before them as they sat in the back of Courtroom 4 would help in their grief, give them some satisfaction.

Instead, they got more questions.

"The whole thing was nauseating," said Tom Williams, 58, whose daughter Julianne was killed in 1996 in Shenandoah National Park. "The only thing I could do was lean over to put my finger in my mouth" and vomit, he said.

The Williamses came to Manassas from Minnesota to catch a glimpse of the defendant in the case, Darrell D. Rice, and to see him get sent to prison for the rest of his life. They are convinced that Rice killed their daughter, 24, and her partner, Laura S. "Lollie" Winans, 26. And even though this trial in Prince William was for an unrelated case, they thought it was their only chance at justice.

But justice -- for Rice and the victims -- has been elusive in their long and convoluted saga.

The government has accused Rice of some of Virginia's most notorious crimes. But after two indictments against him, one in federal court and one in the state, those crimes remain unsolved, leaving the victims despondent and Rice looking to clear his name.

"In a sense, Darrell Rice has been dragged through the mud and perhaps unfairly so," American University law professor Ira P. Robbins said. "It's an unfortunate situation for victims and defendants. Guilt doesn't mean anything until it's proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Rice's recent journey through the criminal justice system began in 2002, when then-U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced in a nationally televised news conference that authorities had found the man responsible for the Shenandoah killings -- a crime that gripped Virginia in the mid-1990s. The killer's name, Ashcroft said, was Darrell D. Rice, and he was in federal prison for an unrelated crime of trying to abduct a female bicyclist from the same park. Ashcroft said Rice's hatred of women and homosexuality would make him eligible for the death penalty.

Less than two years later, the case began to unravel. The DNA from the crime scene all but eliminated Rice as a suspect.

Just months after a judge dismissed the charges in 2004, Prince William authorities charged Rice in the abduction and assault of a Quantico woman months before Williams and Winans were killed.

At a news conference, Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said the attack on the Quantico woman was linked to the so-called Route 29 Stalker, a man who struck fear throughout Northern and central Virginia in the mid-1990s by trying to dupe more than a dozen female motorists into pulling off the road, telling them there was something wrong with their cars and offering them rides and help.

Two weeks ago in Prince William Circuit Court, prosecutors backed away from any notion that Rice was the Route 29 Stalker and negotiated a plea deal that spared him additional jail time and allowed him to avoid admitting guilt.

The Williamses were stunned by the outcome.

"It's unfortunate he didn't get more time. I feel the guy is a predator, and it certainly would have made us feel more comfortable, but not in a vengeful sense," Tom Williams said. "But at least it goes on his record as a conviction. I think clearly he doesn't keep being brought up as a suspect because authorities feel he's innocent. Clearly he has demonstrated he's a predator."

Rice's mother, Lenna Mays, 66, of Kent Island, Md., sees it another way. "Just reading and hearing all these shocking things was surreal to him," she said. "When we started getting the facts, we wondered, 'How can these people continue to keep making these remarks?' His family and all his friends have known his innocence and have always stood behind him."

Rice, 37, a former computer programmer from Columbia, will be released from prison in less than two years. In the meantime, the hiker killings and Route 29 stalkings remain unsolved.

But like the Williamses, law enforcement authorities maintain that Rice is the perpetrator.

"I think he's certainly a viable suspect for the Route 29 Stalker," Ebert said. "I think I would be concerned about his future conduct in society."

Virginia State Police and the FBI declined to comment because the investigations are continuing.

Making the cases all the more confounding are their ties to another series of notorious crimes during the same period in the mid-1990s. In Spotsylvania County in 1996 and 1997, Sofia Silva, 16, and Kristin Lisk, 15, and her sister Kati, 12, were abducted and killed.

Police in 2002 tied the cases to Richard M. Evonitz, who lived in the area at the time. Evonitz killed himself that year before he could face prosecution.

When Rice's attorneys raised the possibility that Evonitz was the Shenandoah killer, prosecutors ordered new forensic tests from the crime scene. An examiner concluded that a hair under duct tape used to bind one of the victim's hands was not Rice's and was similar to Evonitz's. And DNA tests, while not conclusive, did not exclude Evonitz as the source.

Rice's attorneys contend that authorities botched the investigation by ignoring clues that Evonitz could be the perpetrator. They were flabbergasted, for instance, when an FBI agent testified last month that forensic evidence from the one Route 29 case that resulted in a death had not been compared with Evonitz's DNA. Alicia Showalter Reynolds, 25, a Johns Hopkins University student, was abducted in 1996 along Route 29 in Culpeper County and killed.

"There was a constant assumption and an active effort to stop people from pursuing Evonitz," said Deirdre Enright, one of the three attorneys who defended Rice for free. "It would be shocking to anybody that you wouldn't test against a serial murderer who had been operating in the area at the time. And there is this lock in people's minds that he killed only little girls and not women."

For example, the attorneys point to the story of Ann Ferguson, a mail carrier from Orange, Va. She had told police about being stopped near Route 29. Years later, when Rice's attorneys showed her photographs of Rice and Evonitz, she was certain the man who stopped her was Evonitz. When she saw Evonitz's picture, "I broke out in goose bumps; cold chills went down my spine," Ferguson said. "I'm 101 percent sure."

Lyell Chapman 55, of Petersburg, W.Va., who used to work with Evonitz at a tool manufacturing company in Fredericksburg and was slated to testify in the Prince William case, said Evonitz often spoke of tricking women to pull off the road by telling them they had a problem with their cars.

"When he came into the shop one afternoon, he had said he had been trying to pick up this woman on the highway. But he spooked her out. He started punching the wall and shaking it until it got loose," said Chapman, who said he had not told this story to police because he was asked only about the slain girls.

Samson Newsome, a detective in Prince William, acknowledged that the investigation wasn't perfect. In the abduction of the Quantico woman, Carmelita B. Shomo, he said, too many investigators from too many agencies interviewed her, which could be why she gave inconsistent statements. That was especially damaging because she told defense investigators that Evonitz was her attacker.

"We should have done a better job back then," he said. "But I don't believe to this day she picked out Evonitz [with the defense investigators]. Evonitz was a pedophile. It's highly improbable that you would have two serial killers working in the same area, but it's not impossible."

As for Rice, he now is sitting in the Prince William jail, awaiting his return to a federal prison near Richmond.

One of the most difficult moments for him, Enright said, was discovering that the Williamses attended his Prince William trial and denounced him to the media. "I said to him, 'Did you know that the Williams family was there all week?' And he said, 'Oh my God, oh my God. Why? To see me?' " Enright recalled.

"I said, 'Darrell, I hate to tell you that they referred to you as a predator.' He said, 'Oh my God, how can the feds do that to them? That means they're never going to try and find out who did it.' "