"I've handled thousands of homicides, but this is one of the ones that hurt the most," said Lt. Richard Gallagher, a middle-aged New York City detective standing in a midtown Manhattan station house.

"If she were in the business with the broads, and silk suits and Cadillacs, if she were on the other side of the fence, it would be one thing. You live that way, you pay the price. But she wasn't, she was a total innocent. She had no right to die."

Outside, a block away, a light rain was falling on 53rd Street, slicking a barren block of backstage exitways and sooty brick. Horns blared and cars sped west toward the Hudson River. Strangers hastened past a row of Broadway billboards where three spots of blood lay all but worn away by rain and passing feet.

And while the new day unfurled last Thursday in that vast city, folding chairs filled up in a small basement church, 200 miles south in Maryland. Mourners stood before an altar of priests and chrysanthemums to bury a young woman who had gone to New York for one night, bargaining only for a lark.

For many of the people who dwell on the outskirts of the still-rural mill town of Ellicott City, for the friends of the family and the faithful parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the skyscrapers and the teeming avenues of New York will be remembered not as the splendid light-spangled metropolis, but as a place that stole the life of a freckled 21-year-old German-Irish woman named Colleen Marie Wall.

"I hate New York," a curly-haired youngster blurted as he left the wake held in Ellicott City the day before his cousin was buried. "I'll never go there."

Even in New York, where five people are murdered every day, where many eyes are boiled hard and faces shut, where news of violence and inhumanity are as much ingrained in life as neighborly good turns in the quiet suburb-and-farmland communities of Howard County, the death of Colleen Wall, who was stabbed in the back as she strolled with a friend down 53rd Street toward Broadway, stood out.

"I couldn't believe it," said a man at a cab stand.He shook his head and brushed his hands together. "You come to New York for one night and wham you're dead. There's animals out there."

It was a collision of innocence and fate that occurred on Sept. 20 not 100 feet from the flickering marquees of Broadway. Colleen Wall was a country girl who had been in New York for the first time only four months ago. She had taken a self-defense course in college, survived a test in the woods as part of a wilderness course, but she was not practiced in the ways of the city. pWhen three teen-aged hoods tried to snatch her purse she didn't know to yield as most New Yorkers know.

"She was spunky," said her mother, Mary Wall. "She wasn't afraid of much." When she resisted, one of her anonymous attackers plunged a knife into her back. All three fled while Colleen lay dying, still clutching her pocketbook.

It was a lithe and brown-eyed woman who became the tragedy on 53rd Street. Colleen Wall had grown up with six brothers and sisters in the white frame house at 4957 Montgomery Rd., where she still lived with her parents. The neighborhood had once been a peach orchard in the land that rolls away from the gorges of the Patapsco River.

Colleen had gone to the school run by the Our Lady of Perpetual Help church, Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, and then two years at nearby Catonsville Community College whose white roofs were visible across the valley of trees from the church where she regularly attended mass.

Hers was a spirit of cheer and celebration, by many accounts. "She preferred the country life," said her mother Mary Schatz Wall. "But she was interested in photography and dance, anything that was happy. Colleen had no prejudice. She had friends like the U.N., girls of every faith and race."

Such was her propensity to help others that she led a troop of Girl Scouts and sometimes babysat for free. And, she was a woman who was drawn to the woods. She had backpacked with her family and was planning to enroll in forestry school.

When she set out early that Saturday morning on her trip to New York, Colleen was accompanied by a friend from nearby Randallstown named Helena Scharf. Helena worked at the Sir Speedy Printing Co. in Columbia where Colleen was a receptionist. The pair had been to New York four months ago on a trip that was Colleen's introduction to the city. This time they planned to stay one night in the Ramada Inn on 8th Avenue and 51st Street. They would shop, sightsee, and best of all, go to a Broadway show. They had tickets for Saturday night at the Minskoff Theatre at Broadway and 45th, and the play they planned to see was a slice of New York itself, "West Side Story."

"She was very excited about the trip," said Colleen's older sister Theresa. But at home, her father worried. "I had bad feelings," said James Wall, a burly bespectacled man who works as an insurance broker in Ellicott City. "I prayed for Colleen Saturday in my morning prayers."

The two women drove into Manhattan in Colleen's Datsun, and registered at the Ramada at 4:11 p.m. Colleen went to mass in New York's most magnificent Catholic shrine, St. Patrick's Cathedral. Her hotel was only six blocks from the Minskoff, Colleen had seen West Side Story once before, but that was on television, and this time she would watch the story of hot-blooded New York gangs and teen-age love, on Broadway, on the West Side of New York itself. For the show she carried a purse and dressed in a beige skirt and jacket, with a gold chain around her neck that a friend had given her at Christmas two years ago.

At 10:45 p.m. the theater let out and the two women joined the restless tide of tourists, sharpies, hustlers, whores, big ladies and sophisticates sweeping up and down Broadway beneath the vaulting architecture of midtown Manhattan.

According to police, the two women headed north intending to go to Roseland, the famous ballroom on 52nd Steet they had read about in the Playbill magazine distributed at the theater.

The pair stopped at a soda shop, continued walking and then, they saw R-O-S-E-L-A-N-D, red capitals big-as-life halfway down 53rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. It was nearly 10 minutes to midnight. At Don Alvaro's on the corner of Broadway and 53rd there was a window full of $4.99 T-shirts that said "I Love New York," "I'm Crazy About the Big Apple." They sauntered along the side of the white-brick Broadway Theatre where the Tony Award winner of 1980, Evita, was playing. There were 18 billboards in red frames mounted on the windowless sidewall of the theater, all the hits, all the stars: "Annie," "Mornings at 7," "Dancing," "Death Trap," "West Side Story."

The women had walked nearly to 8th Avenue when they realized they had found the locked back exits to the dance hall, that they were on the wrong street. They turned around and started back toward Broadway. Then it happened.

"They were confronted by three males who made their intentions known," said Detective Richard Chartrand. "They went for her purse. She resisted, there was a struggle and one of the men stabbed her in the lower back with a knife. Her friend didn't know she'd been stabbed. Miss Wall never cried out that she'd been stabbed." She staggered toward Broadway and the crowds passing on the street. It was 11:50 and she sank down to the sidewalk hard enough to cut her knees.

The attackers fled empty-handed and Colleen Wall collapsed by a stoop of two concrete steps underneath the uplifted arms of Evita star Patti LuPone, who smiled unflaggingly from her billboard.

Last rites were administered to Colleen Wall at St. Clare's Hospital, four blocks away where doctors had labored in vain to revive her.

Her name clacked over the teletype machine in Howard County where the shocked dispatcher called his priest, the Rev. Daniel Lindsay. Lindsay knew the victim: she was a parishioner in his church. At 6:15 a.m. Sunday the white-haired priest knocked on the door at 4957 Montgomery Rd. with two county policemen to tell James and Mary Wall that their 21-year-old daughter was dead.

At 8 a.m. Sunday Father Lindsay was driving the Walls up to New York to identify Colleen's body. He had grown up in the city and he negotiated the back streets to the city morgue at 30th Street and First Avenue.

"Waiting to identify her was the hardest part," James Wall said.

"That was the most horrible experience I've ever had," said Mary Wall. "We had to go, but to us it was another world. We've never lived in a violent world."

There were photographers waiting at the morgue to take news shots of the couple who had come from Maryland. That day, and the day later, the residents of the city heard about the country girl who had been murdered off Broadway on her second visit to the Big Apple. Jimmy Breslin wrote about Colleen Wall in his column. Last Monday's New York Times ran a front-page story attributing Colleen's death to the latest fad in city crime -- chain snatching -- of which there had been more than 500 incidents in the last two months in the area where she had been killed.

The detectives of the midtown North Precinct insist that the evidence says that the people who killed Colleen tried only to wrest her purse away.

In a city where there are more than 1,800 murders a year, where it would be hard to find a street where someone's murder would not have ironic overtones, this one seemed different. "This happened to be the culminating point," said one man. "The purse and chain snatchings are beginning to affect people. A girl who was probably taught all her life to stand up, and she gets killed . . ."

"We get more upset when it's an out-of-towner," Lt. Gallagher said. "It gives the whole city a black eye. We love New York even though we have to work in this s -- hole."

The station is painted two shades of municipal green, and you could hear someone playing scales on a trumpet, and the rumble of traffic. A much younger detective named Michael Hanley said, "The average age of the New York City cop is 40. These guys were really upset. They got daughters her age."

The Rev. Albert Riesner said mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on the Sunday morning that Father Lindsay and the Walls drove to the city. "There was an awful gasp when I announced that Colleen Wall had been murdered in New York," the priest said later, standing out front of the two-story brick school and church perched on a hilltop outside Ellicott City.

Mike Carroll, an old teacher of Colleen's at Catonsville Community College, came by to find what day the funeral was. "She was a gentle person," he said. "I have trouble understanding how this could happen."

"A good girl," said Father Riesner, "why did they have to pick on a good girl?"

Jeannie Everett pulled her United Parcel truck into the half-moon driveway of the church. "If those guys knew there were six other kids in the family, if they knew she was just a country kid . . . but I guess they didn't think about that. Oh New York, New York, what a beautiful place, but keep me out in the sticks."

Colleen Wall was buried last Thursday at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City near the graves of paternal relatives. Her friend Helena Scharf was still in trauma over the incident. "She's upset," said her father, Edward Scharf, "and we don't want to upset her any more."

Over the week the Walls had gotten dozens of phone calls and more than 150 letters of sympathy from New Yorkers and people from all over the country who had heard about Colleen. The basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Faith swelled with more than 600 people at a funeral mass the morning of her burial. There were 10 priests and a bishop and the altar was thick with flowers.

"It was the most beautiful funeral, and the most soothing mass," said Mary Wall."I have no doubt Colleen's in heaven because of the way she lived. This is the beauty of faith. You don't have a child for 21 years and lose her without being changed. We'll never be the same, we've never had any tragedy. But I feel very sorry for the people living in that animal world who have to live by robbing and beating. I can feel great compassion and pity for them. They only have an existence of violence and hatred. They have no life."

It was raining on 53rd Street the day Colleen Wall was buried. There was an empty rum bottle by the concrete stoop where she died. Ten feet away a wire barrel brimmed with trash. At the top lay a three-day-old copy of the Times that said "A visitor from Maryland was slain Saturday night . . ." and the ink was blearing in the rain.