James Edward Swann Jr., suspected of terrorizing two Northwest Washington neighborhoods in 12 drive-by shotgun attacks, is a twice-fired security guard who, until recently, led an undistinguished life notable only for unpredictable and often strange behavior.

Swann, 29, charged with murder in Monday's fatal shotgun shooting of a pedestrian in Columbia Heights, grew up and attended high school in New Jersey, where he was convicted of a drug offense in 1985 but not imprisoned, according to former acquaintances and court records.

He was discharged from the Navy in 1990 after what a service spokesman described as an unremarkable three-year enlistment, then moved to the Washington area, where he was hired and fired by two security companies in little more than a year, acquaintances said.

In the 2200 block of Alice Avenue in Oxon Hill, where he shared an apartment with his sister and teenage nephew until a few months ago, residents recalled Swann as a tenant they tried to avoid, an odd man who rarely conversed, who frequently paced on the sidewalk, muttering angrily to himself and sometimes shouting threats at squirrels.

"The dude was crazy," said one neighbor, Truman Martin, 22.

As a guard for the MidAtlantic/Area Wide security company of Morningside, Swann's job was to check identification cards at doorways to the Internal Revenue Service's Ariel Rios building downtown. One co-worker, who asked not to be identified, remembered him as the butt of jokes among other guards.

"But it was always behind his back because we thought he was strange," the guard said. He recalled one occasion at work when he saw Swann pretending to drive his desk like a car and "waving his hands around. I couldn't figure out what he was doing."

But after Swann's arrest, "when I saw him on television, I fell off the chair. I said to my wife, 'Honey, that's the man I worked with.' She said, 'Thank God you don't work with him now.' " The guard said Swann was fired about six weeks ago. The company would not comment on his employment.

Appearing in D.C. Superior Court yesterday, where Hearing Commissioner Hugh O. Stevenson ordered him jailed without bond, Swann told Stevenson that he had been unemployed for "a while." The Pretrial Service Agency, which interviewed Swann, recommended a psychiatric evaluation because he would not respond orally to questions, but Swann's attorney, public defender Lesley Zork, did not request an evaluation and none was ordered.

A high-ranking D.C. police official said yesterday that investigators believe Swann began living in his blue 1993 Toyota Tercel earlier this year after his sister asked him to leave the Oxon Hill apartment.

From January to March 1992, he worked for Sting Security in Iverson Mall in Temple Hills, according to Robert Arscott, the company's president.

He said Swann, who was not allowed to be armed, completed 24 hours of training and had a temporary license to be a guard in the District and Virginia. He was awaiting licensing in Maryland.

Sting Security provides nearly 400 guards for retail stores and apartment buildings, among other places, Arscott said, but he declined to say where Swann had been assigned to work.

On March 10, 1992, two months into the job, Swann was fired after a complaint, Arscott said. He declined to discuss the firing.

About a month after Swann was fired, Arscott said, Sting officials received a letter from the Maryland licensing agency advising that Swann should not be employed as a guard pending further development. "They told us to stop working this man," he said, adding that state officials would not say why. It was not clear yesterday when he went to work for MidAtlantic.

Swann attended middle school in Lakewood, N.J., in the mid-1970s. His parents, James E. and June A. Swann, bought the Lakewood house for $34,500 in 1972 and sold it for $44,000 in 1978, beginning a steady financial climb in the real estate market.

In 1978, the Swanns moved about 80 miles north to Ocean Township, N.J., where they bought a house for $73,900 and sold it in 1986 for $183,000, town officials said.

James Jr. attended Ocean Township High School from 1978 to 1982. His academic career was unremarkable, but he played sports, according to Robert Mahon, the superintendent of schools. He was a member of the school's freshman football and track teams and played on basketball teams each year until his graduation in 1982, said Mahon, who recalled him as "a decent basketball player."

Although his report cards carried mostly Cs and Ds, he was not a discipline problem and did not draw attention, Mahon said. "He didn't distinguish himself one way or the other. . . . He was that average."

Vicki Hollander, who lived near Swann, his mother, his sister and his sister's young son in Ocean Township, said James would "always give us a little 'hello,' and it seemed like every time I saw him, he had the little boy on his shoulders . . . His nephew always talked about his uncle. He used to say, 'My uncle's taking me to a ballgame, my uncle's taking me shopping.' That little boy really loved him."

He joined the Navy in November 1987 and, after basic training, was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Midway as a "boiler technician fireman apprentice," said Lt. Robert Durand, a Navy spokesman. Swann helped operate and maintain the ship's huge oil-powered boilers.

Durand said Swann received no noteworthy awards or commendations and apparently was denied even routine promotions. He was discharged in 1990 at the pay grade of E2, the military's second lowest.

It is not clear when Swann's parents separated, but for at least a couple of years in the early '90s, Swann moved back and forth between his mother's third-floor apartment in Iselin, N.J., and an apartment in Rahway about 10 miles away. His father is remarried and lives in Anne Arundel County, a family member said.

Green Hollow Village, where his mother lives, is a complex of three-story brick apartment buildings with a central playground where children romp all day. Everyone speaks, even if it's just "hello."

The beat cop knows most people's faces and many of their names, especially the names of the troublemakers. The officer didn't know James Edward Swann Jr.

"He was clean around here," the officer said. "Otherwise, I would know him."

Neighbors said Swann seldom spoke, even when spoken to. "He wouldn't even nod his head," said Fred Patella, who lives on the first floor of the building where Swann's mother lives. "After speaking to him four times without a response, I felt like a schmuck. So I stopped."

Swann was living with his mother when he registered to vote in Middlesex County on Nov. 27, 1990. But he never voted while at that address, according to records in the county's Board of Elections office. When the board mailed voters a sample ballot in October 1991, Swann's came back, saying he had moved.

Staff writers Keith A. Harriston, Robert O'Harrow Jr., Pierre Thomas and researcher Bridget Roeber contributed to this report.

James E. Swann Jr. has been charged with the fatal shotgun shooting that occurred Monday. He is also considered a suspect by police in previous shotgun shootings in the Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights area. A look at some key dates concerning Swann:

Jan. 7, 1992: Swann starts work for Sting Security, a security guard firm.

March 3: Swann purchases 20-guage shotgun from K mart of Oxon Hill.

March 10: Swann fired from Sting Security.

Feb. 6, 1993: A shotgun is seized from Swann by a Prince George's police officer after Swann is questioned.

Feb. 11: Police are required to return shotgun to Swann because no charge was filed against him.

Feb. 23: First of shotgun attacks occurs in Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights area. Police say Swann is a suspect in those shootings, but has not been charged in them.

April 19: Swann is arrested and subsequently charged with the fatal shooting that occurred in the afternoon. A gun in the car seized by police at the time of the arrest is the same weapon taken away from Swann Feb. 6 and later returned to him.

SOURCE: News Report