In what has become a gruesome, gather-at-dusk ritual along the ritual along the Chattahoochee River, police tonight recovered another body, that of Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, clad in red shorts, Payne was listed as the 26th victim in the string of slayings of young blacks here since July 1979.

"We will carry this as a homicide," said Atlanta Public Safety Commissioner Lee P. Brown at a news conference. He said the case would be sent immediately to the special task force investigating the slayings, and he cited similarities with other cases.

"We now have four adults [among the victims] . . . and our people have been meeting all evening to see what this means," Brown said.

The victims have ranged in age from 9 to 23, and Darron Glass, 10, has been missing since September. Four recent victims have been young black men, two of whom were mentally retarded. Payne served time in jail for shoplifting and burglary and was described by one corrections officer as "illiterate."

Although Payne fits the profile of other recent adult victims, he was larger than most, standing 5-foot-7 and weighing about 130 pounds.

Brown said the body of Payne, who had not been seen since Wednesday, had been in the river about five days. The medical examiner identified the body from fingerprint records, and an autopsy is scheduled Tuesday, Brown said.

It took rescue workers more than an hour to retrieve the body, which had snagged on debris in the river. They had to tromp about a prickly river bank of thick brambles and kudzu before they could launch a boat.

The body was discovered about 3 p.m. by Tony Gibbs, 23, a house painter who had just downed a few beers on his day off and landed two small catfish when he noticed "something floating down the river that looked like a body," climbed out on a tree limb and saw a pair of shoulder blades bobbing in the water.

Gibbs and his stepbrother, Mark Arnold, 22, ran up from the bank shouting, "There's a body down there," said Jessie Grimes, 13, who took the day off from school to help his father, a welder for a heavy equipment company, on the river.

Jessie reluctantly returned to the river with the pair -- "I was scared because you don't know who you can trust these days" -- and said he saw the body of a black male face down in the water "stuck in the weeds. He was wearing red shorts, nothing else. His back was bare."

Among those the FBI interviewed at the scene was Alvin Scott Jr., 45, owner of a janitorial service, who said that about 1 a.m. 10 days ago he saw two cars cruising Riverview Road, which meanders past the spot where the body was found today.

Scott said that a black male, accompanied by a black girl, drove the lead car, and that a black man followed in the second vehicle.

"They looked suspicious," he said. "They drove real slow, and they were going that way," toward where the body was discovered. "I could tell they were watching me. At first I thought they were cops," he said.

Payne's body was taken to the medical examiner's office where detectives were ready with folders containing vital statistics on Payne.

Brown told the news conference tonight that the fact that the task force had not probed the Payne case before his body was found should not be interpreted as police inaction. He said the missing persons unit made an "intensive" effort to locate Payne.

Eight of the recent male victims were found nude or wearing trunks or underwear, which has led some police officers to theorize that the killer of killers are stripping the bodies and dumping them in rivers to wash off any evidence.

Five bodies -- including the one found today -- have been found in the Chattahoochee; three were discovered in or near the South River.

The 25th victim, Michael Cameron McIntosh, 23, was pulled from the Chattahoochee on April 20. He was buried here today, in a cemetery containing the graves of seven earlier victims.