The 45 minutes that begin at 8 each morning are the worst time of day for Nicholas Nee. That is when he is alone with his thoughts as he drives to work on the beltway. In his mind he sees his daughter's heart-shaped face seconds before she was murdered. He sees the intruder in her apartment, the gun and the terror in his daughter's brown eyes. Next, he sees her body as he found it -- in her bedroom, on the floor, face down.
What was she thinking during those seconds? Did she feel the sadness of what was going to happen? Did she feel I had let her down because I chose the apartment? Did she blame me?
And in the privacy of his dark green Datsun, with the windows down and other cars speeding around him, Nee expresses his emotion. At high pitch, and for several seconds, he screams.
"In the traffic, in the car, no one can hear," he says.
Annette Nee, then 19, was murdered almost five years ago. During the weeks after her death, friends promised Nicholas and his wife, Sugi, that time would heal their pain. The Nees say, simply, that their friends were wrong.
The death has changed the family. Nicholas and Sugi Nee rarely speak to each other. Sugi has not seen her mother and sisters since the murder, even though they live nearby. Annette's sister, Jeannette, had planned to become an artist, but because of the murder will now be a doctor. And Nicholas, who spent two years investigating his daughter's murder, still lives with visions of her death.
Annette Nee was a sophomore at the University of Maryland. She lived in an apartment in Hyattsville, about 20 miles from her parents' ranch house in Gaithersburg. She was the oldest of two daughters and her father's favorite. Like him -- and unlike her mother and sister -- Annette was meticulous, precise, logical. She wanted to be an engineer, as her father had been before emigrating from China in 1945.
But in the early afternoon of Oct. 26, 1976, a heroin addict named George Dewey Robinson followed her as she carried her books and a box of Gino's fried chicken into her apartment building on Oglethorpe Street. Robinson forced his way into her fourth floor apartment and struggled with her over her pocketbook. Pointing a stolen .38 caliber revolver, he forced Annette into her bedroom and shot her once just below the nostrils.
Jeannette Nee was a senior in high school in 1976. The day her father discovered Annette's body, she came home from school to find no one at home. Her mother called to say only that she would be late. But she was crying, and Jeannette knew something was wrong. Night came and she went to sleep, only to wake to the sound of her mother sobbing. She followed the sound to her sister's bedroom, where she found her mother sitting on Annette's bed, rocking back and forth, clutching her sister's robe and nightgown in her lap.
"Where's Annette?" she asked.
"Annette," sobbed her mother, "is no more."
During the next two weeks, the Nees had difficulty thinking. When it was time to eat, they ate; when it was time to sleep, they slept. They felt sadness, despair, disbelief, hysteria. Often they felt numb.
Nicholas and Sugi Nee did not go anywhere. They took tranquilizers. Jeannette stopped going to school, and Nicholas and Sugi stopped going to work -- she at their Chinese restaurant in Rockville, he at his job as a Chinese translator for the U.S. Army.
Friends and neighbors came to their house with food, and in the living room, listened to Nicholas describe how he became worried when his daughter did not answer her phone, drove to her apartment and found her body. Jeannette made tea, and Sugi sat without responding to her friends' attempts at conversation.
"Every time the door opened, Sugi would jump up and say, 'That's Annette; she's come home,' " said a neighbor, Mary Ziselberger. "We were very concerned about her well-being."
At night, Nicholas had dreams of Annette. They were in color, usually in shades of red. Two nights after he found her body, he dreamed that she was calling him. In the dream, he woke and opened his bedroom door. Annette was sleeping on the hall floor. A red blanket was over her, and she was wearing her pajamas with the small red rose pattern.
"Daddy, I told you I never could get by Passover," she told him.
Nicholas knew nothing about Passover -- other than that it was a Jewish feast. But his Jewish neighbors later told him that Pass- over celebrates Moses' instructions to the Israelites to put animal blood on their doors to protect their first-born children from death.
Nicholas prides himself on his common sense, but he contacted a parapsychologist to ask if his daughter was in the house the night of his dream. After all, he did not know the meaning of Passover but his daughter, who had Jewish friends, probably did. The parapsychologist told him that it was possible.
"Even now," Nicholas says, "I think it's possible that she did come back."
Two weeks after the murder, Jeannette returned to school and her father returned to work. But Sugi rarely left the house for 10 months. She spent her days sitting in a chair in the living room, watching the ceiling, thinking of Annette growing up and of the murder.
The parents felt guilty, as though they somehow could have prevented Annette's death. They blamed each other and they blamed themselves -- something they do to this day.
"I shouldn't have chosen that apartment," Nicholas told his wife. "You should have been paying more attention to her."
Against the backdrop of previous arguments with Sugi over in-laws, Jeannette says those words meant: If you had been spending less time with your mother and sisters and more time with Annette, she might be alive today.
Sugi stopped seeing her mother and sisters, who had come to this country from Taiwan. She has not seen them since the murder. "I know they can take care of themselves," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Nicholas also believes that Sugi blamed him for choosing Annette's apartment, although she did not say so. "After you live with a person so long, you can tell," he says.
Nicholas blamed himself, even in his sleep. "I would literally jump out of bed," he says. "I would think, 'Why did I do that? If I did this it would be different. If I did that it would be different.' And then I couldn't sleep all night."
Even today he blames himself for not letting Annette go to college in California, as she had wanted; for not making her live at home and commute to college; for not choosing one of the other apartments he and Annette had inspected.
Soon after the murder, Nicholas and Sugi stopped talking and eating together -- a condition that still exists, with some exceptions. When it was necessary to communicate, each talked to Jeannette, who in turn talked to the other. "Ask your mother if she wants to distribute fliers seeking information on the killer in the shopping center," Nicholas would say to Jeannette.
Neither father nor mother talked of Annette's death to their daughter. "She had her own pain," says Sugi.
Jeannette tried not to think of the murder -- and often succeeded. Unlike her parents, she realized she could have done nothing to prevent it. She nevertheless felt guilty that she had not kept in touch with Annette after she went to college.
While Sugi Nee responded to her grief by doing nothing, Nicholas Nee coped with his through constant activity. About five weeks after the murder he began working eight hours each night in their restaurant as well as his usual eight hours a day as a translator. He maintains that schedule to this day to keep from dwelling on the murder.
For two years, Nicholas spent his free days, his lunch hours and several hours after midnight each morning investigating his daughter's murder. He would return home around 3 a.m., collapse into bed, sleep four hours and go to work.
At first, police had no suspects. So Nicholas wrote letters to all of Annette's friends and acquaintances: Did they know of anything in her past that could be connected with the murder? He attended her classes to meet more of her friends -- and ask more questions.
Although Nicholas and Sugi rarely spoke, they retraced again and again their daughter's steps on the Tuesday she was killed.
Every Tuesday during December 1976, and on some Tuesdays for months afterwards, Sugi left Annette's apartment at 9:05 a.m., dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and dark blue corduroy pants -- clothes identical to those Annette had worn her last day. With her husband following, Sugi left the Oglethorpe Street apartment building, got into Annette's Pontiac station wagon and drove the mile to the university parking lot.
Sugi walked to Annette's classes: The 9:30 a.m. chemical engineering class in the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Building. The 11 a.m. math class two blocks away in the Glenn R. Martin Building. During the classes, she waited in the hallway. Nicholas followed, watching for suspicious characters andtiming her movements with a stopwatch.
After math, Sugi left the university and drove to the Equitable Trust Bank, where she waited in line and cashed a $40 check, just as Annette had done. At Gino's, Sugi bought a Coke and chicken special to go. Between 12:45 and 12:55, the Nees arrived back at Annette's apartment.
"I wanted to see who were the people she associated with on that day," Nicholas says. "In the beginning, I cast suspicion on everyone. Gradually, I eliminated the possibilities of certain people. After talking to them, I saw there was no chance of them doing it."
The Nees leased Annette's apartment for two months after her death. They packed away the clothes from her closet, the books from her bookshelves and even the food from her refrigerator -- steak, chicken parts, celery, three oranges, a tomato and a can of Hawaiian Punch. Then they vacuumed her apartment with a new vacuum cleaner in case any evidence was among the dust. They brought everything -- including the dust -- home.
Nicholas visited Prince George's County police stations several mornings each week. He always visited detectives on the midnight shift, because they often had more time to talk than detectives working during the day. Other mornings, he walked the streets of Washington. Tough streets like Seventh and S or 14th and U, where he approached loiterers and heroin addicts.
"Would you like to make some money?" he asked.
None had information to give. One man shrugged and said Annette's boyfriend must be the killer. Another man tried to pick his pockets. One night, a group of teen-agers followed him for blocks, taunting him with a morbid chant: "Someone killed your daughter, someone killed your daughter. . . . "
Nicholas took notes of every conversation, even writing down the words to the sidewalk chant. He made lists of Annette's close friends and acquaintances, eliminating them as suspects one at a time. He kept his paperwork in the bedroom, in neat stacks several feet high. Important notes he stored in a safe-deposit box at the bank. He mortgaged his house and offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the killer.
After Sugi went back to work, she began to tell her husband her own suspicions. She would read about a religious fanatic or see an unsavory-looking man on the street and tell Nicholas that perhaps one of them was the killer.
Nicholas investigated all her hunches, even visiting the church services of a religious sect in Riverdale, but he believed Sugi was being irrational. When her hunches came to nothing, he became angry, telling her she was wasting his time.
Although police say Nicholas' two-year investigation did nothing to advance the case, his face began to gain the color it had lost and his posture once again became erect.
Nicholas' search was motivated by the opposites of rage and love -- rage at the killer, love for his daughter. He also was motivated by his Chinese background.
"In China the children are the future," Nee says. "Anything I didn't accomplish they accomplish. So they are my proxy." Annette was most like him and most likely to accomplish great things in the world, Nicholas says. The artis- tic Jeannette was more like her mother.
"Every morning I have the feeling that I lost half of myself," he says. "I tell Jeannette, 'You are the only bright spot in our horizon.' "
Before the murder, Jeannette expected to become an artist. She had won numerous prizes for her art work, but she and her father argued constantly about her future.
"How many Picassos and Van Goghs are there in the world?" Nicholas asked Jeannette. "It's much harder to accomplish something in art. It's not an exact science. It's expression."
"Do you think I'm going to be a street artist?" Jeannette replied.
But within months after the murder, Jeannette decided she would cause her father no more pain. At Yale University, she studied science and now plans to go to medical school next year.
"I have to achieve," she says.
Nicholas began to worry about the safety of Jeannette and even considered forbidding her to go away to college. But one day Jeannette was followed home from high school by a man in a blue car.
"Then I was one hundred percent for her going away," Nicholas says.
After her freshman year at Yale, however, Jeannette decided to move from a dorm to an apartment -- a first-floor apartment next to an alley. Nicholas pleaded with her to break the lease. She refused.
So her father did things his way. He nailed bars and locks on the windows and put up heavy curtains. He installed an air conditioner in her bedroom window so she would not have to open it. He changed all the door locks and added a dead bolt. He put a doorstop on the front door that was really a siren. And just to be sure, he put another siren in Jeannette's bedroom, under the desk, with a wire running to her bed so she could press a button and produce the sound of a wailing police car.
Jeannette felt as though she were living in a dungeon. To please her father and live without bars on her windows, she leased a second-floor apartment in another building. It did not help much, because Nicholas worried that Jeannette would be trapped in a fire. He gave her a pole to break a window and a ladder to escape. Nicholas or his wife called Jeannette every other night. Occasionally, they would send her a package of tear gas or mace.
"Maybe I overdid it," Nicholas says, "but better all precautions than no precautions."
But the precautions also made Jeannette recall her sister's death, which she had tried to forget: "When he said, 'Be careful,' it just reminded me of something I had tried to sequester off. He was destroying whatever stability I had tried to build up."
In an attempt to regain it, Jeannette began taking risks. She walked home alone from the library at night, instead of taking the shuttle bus. She went to the movies alone at night against her parents' wishes. "I was just trying to negate what they were doing," she says.
During all of this, Nicholas kept his daughter informed of any developments in the murder case of Annette. The break finally came in 1977 when George Dewey Robinson, in prison for burglary, confided his secret to a fellow inmate: "He said the homicide was on his mind," the inmate testified two months ago in a Prince George's County courtroom, "and he could not forget the expression on the girl's face when the pistol went off."
Sugi Nee, followed by Jeannette, left the courtroom in tears.
Nearly five years after Annette Nee's death, Robinson was found guilty of murder. He will be sentenced next month.
At home, Annette's room is exactly as it was when she left for college, with the big red lollipop from Ocean City over her mirror, her slippers at the side of her bed. The food from her apartment refrigerator is still in the freezer. The dust from her apartment is still in the vacuum cleaner.
Annette's station wagon --which won't start -- is in the carport. Monthly statements from her Equitable Trust Bank checking and savings accounts, which the Nees never closed, continue to arrive, and the $1,000 in her savings account has earned $270 in interest since her death.
Nicholas spends much of his free time writing to politicians, urging tougher law enforcement and mandatory sentences for the use of handguns. Sugi goes to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery on all holidays and every July 9, Annette's birthday. She still goes into Annette's bedroom, rearranges the books on the desk, sits on the bed and cries. The marriage of Sugi and Nicholas, wrenched by guilt and obsession, is without affection.
"We stay together for pure economic reasons," Nicholas says, as his wife sits across from him at the breakfast table. "We have to send our daughter to medical college."
Jeannette works as an emergency room aide in a New Haven, Conn., hospital, while she waits to enter medical school. Whenever she sees someone die, she thinks of her sister. Lifesavers, a favorite candy of Annette's, always conjure up her image.
And Jeannette and her father continue to argue about her safety. Last week, she told him she was staying at a friend's house while her friend was on vacation. Nicholas asked her to call. Jeannette refused.
"I don't want to use her phone for a long-distance call," she said.
"Call collect," he answered.
"No, it's more expensive that way."
"Two dollars," Nicholas said, "is worth my peace of mind."