Sixteen people have been charged with felony murder in the slaying of Catherine Fuller, 49, who was walking home before dark one day last fall, carrying groceries, when she became the victim of what authorities call one of Washington's most brutal homicides.

"To the best of my knowledge it is the largest number of arrests in a single homicide in the city's history," said D.C. police spokesman Lt. William White III.

Fuller was followed by a group of young men last Oct. 1 as she walked along H Street NE and turned the corner onto Eighth Street, according to affidavits filed at D.C. Superior Court. It was still light out, about 5:30 p.m.

She was forced into an alley, hit on the head with a board or stick, kicked again and again while she was on the ground, then carried inside a garage, the affidavits state. Some of her clothes were ripped off, and a long metal object was shoved into her rectum, according to the affidavits; the group of assailants allegedly divided up her money and jewelry.

U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova declined to discuss details of the Fuller case, which is the subject of a continuing grand jury investigation. He said that one assistant U.S. attorney, Jerry Goren, has been assigned full time to the case, which is related to a street gang. Goren also would not comment.

The 16 suspects all have pleaded not guilty. Most are being held without bond.

Homicide detectives Patrick McGinnis and Ruben Sanchez-Serrano, who are in charge of the investigation, have been working constantly on the case with eight other officers chosen for their knowledge of gangs and the area.

One person familiar with the Fuller case predicted it will "blow the New Bedford [pool-table rape] case out of the water." That incident drew national attention with reports, later disputed, that patrons at a tavern had cheered on attackers in a rape.

Meanwhile, members of Fuller's family are still trying to sort out what Deputy Police Chief Alfonso Gibson has called "probably one of the most brutal murders that ever took place in Washington." So are friends and acquaintances who knew Fuller only as a familiar figure whom they often saw walking to and from the grocery store.

"Mrs. Fuller had six children . . . the boys that done it had to know her," said Gladys Moore, 66, who lives on the alley. "They must have known she carried money, lured her into the alley and then lowered the boom."

Sitting in his tiny, memento-filled living room, David Fuller, 52, the victim's husband, said police had not informed him of any arrests in the case.

"Every time I call down there [to police headquarters] they say it's under investigation," he said. "Out in the street I hear how many they say have been caught." Fuller said he hasn't slept well since the slaying and is still "angry . . . very angry" about it. He said the last arrest total he heard on the grapevine, which he called better than any telephone, was about 14.

Police spokesman White said the investigation is at a point where any comment might jeopardize the case.

"Mr. Fuller has been advised that numerous arrests in the case have taken place, and there will come a point in the investigation when we will again sit down with Mr. Fuller to discuss the facts and circumstances surrounding the case in its entirety," he said.

The arrests in the slaying have come at intervals. The first arrest warrant was obtained Oct. 4, another Nov. 29, two more Dec. 4, five more Dec. 9 and the rest over the months until the 16th on May 22.

David Fuller, who retired in 1981 after suffering a back injury, said he still can't figure out why anyone would have wanted to kill his wife. "She was friendly with everybody around here," he said, often buying groceries for the neighbors. "I've been in Washington all my life and this is the worst crime I've ever seen."

Since the slaying, David Fuller has been supporting his family on his pension. His wife had three children from a previous marriage: Calvin Milton Davis, Elton R. Davis and Zenobia Sara Ann Jenkins, who are in their early thirties and no longer live with the family. The Fullers later had three children: William, 13; David, 17, and Laura, 18, all of whom live with their father in a K Street row house.

Police officers have said some of the suspects were members of a loosely organized group called the "Eighth and H Street Crew," named for a gathering point on the economically depressed H Street corridor.

David Fuller, the son, who hopes to go to law school after a stint in the service, says he's familiar with the group. "They went to the go-gos," he said. "They would only get together when one would fight and the others would get into it."

Sitting at the corner after which the group was named, Charles Coates, 51, said group members hang out together, steal, break into buildings, "stuff like that. If one gets caught, all the rest will tell."

Sarah Butts, 71, who has lived in the row house next to the Fullers' home for 30 years, said she can't remember anything like this ever happening. "It'd have to be a gang or something to rip a little woman like that," she said.

Catherine Fuller's death was the result of "blunt-force trauma," according to a D.C. medical examiner's report. According to several affidavits filed in court, a suspect was heard to tell another to push the metal object in further.

David Fuller said his wife was just a slip of a woman who "weighed 100 pounds soaking wet." He said she had a night cleaning job but had decided to skip work last Oct. 1 because she had hurt her ankle. She had gone to the drugstore to get something for it, and may have stopped at the grocery store before the attack occurred, he said.

According to the affidavits, a witness was standing with a group of people in the 800 block of H Street NE. The witness said one person in the group saw Catherine Fuller walking on the sidewalk and said, "She got big money, let's get paid," the affidavits said.

Moore, who lives on the alley, said she was home at the time of the slaying. "I heard the noise," she said. "But I hear noise all the time. I heard something like somebody was talking loud."

Glancing at a list of those charged with killing his mother, David Fuller said he used to play basketball with one of the suspects, Alphonzo L. Harris. According to the affidavits, police believe Harris was one of the people who carried her to the garage and one of those who held her legs while she was sodomized.

David said he recognized a few other names on the list and knew the grandmother and other family members of one suspect.

Darryl W. Murchison, another suspect, wrote a letter to a hearing commissioner, filed at D.C. Superior Court, in which he denied taking part in the slaying. "I went to school with her son and he was in my class," he wrote. "I could not do that to anyone because I have a mother and that could happen to her just the same."

The 16 persons arrested, all from Northeast Washington, who have been charged with felony murder:

Russell Overton, 19, of Ninth Street NE.; Timothy Catlett, 19, of Ninth Street NE; Christopher Turner, 19, of 11th Street NE; Levy Rouse, 19, of Hayes Street NE; Alphonzo L. Harris, 22, of 14th Place NE; Calvin L. Alston, 19, of Third Street NE; Roland A. Franklin, 19, of Irving Street NE; Kelvin D. Smith, 19, of Fourth Street NE; Darryl Murchison, 19, of Fourth Street NE; Lamont M. Bobbitt, 18, of I Street NE; James Michael Campbell, 18, of Holbrook Terrace NE; Charles S. Turner, 20, of 11th Street NE; Clifton Yarborough, 17, of Ninth Street NE; Gregory Williams, 19, of Morse Street NE; Harry Bennett, 19, of G Street NE and Steven L. Webb, 20, of Emerald Street NE.

Sitting on a chair in her living room, Butts expressed disbelief that so many could be charged. "My goodness. Sixteen arrests ? She didn't have a chance in the world."

Butts, who retired two years ago, said she and Catherine Fuller used to visit on their front porches, where they could talk to each other without even raising their voices.

"I owed her a dollar . . . . She said, 'You can give it to me anytime,' " Butts said. "I saw her walking that evening. It was raining, and I thought, 'Oh, I've got to give Mrs. Fuller that dollar.' "