Gary Ray Bowles, the Virginia-born drifter linked to the slayings of six men from Maryland to Florida, was arrested yesterday in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., after police found him waiting for a job at a day labor center.

The Jacksonville, Fla., sheriff's office announced last night that Bowles "confessed to killing" a Jacksonville floral designer who was found dead Sunday and five other men killed since March -- a Wheaton credit union employee, two men in Georgia and two others in Florida.

"He has confessed to six and says that is all he did," Jacksonville Sheriff Jim McMillan said at a news conference. "All of us are relieved he is off the street. There is no doubt there would have probably been more."

Bowles, 32, was the subject of a nationwide manhunt that started in the spring; on Saturday, the FBI placed him on its Ten Most Wanted list.

A construction worker and street hustler, Bowles allegedly targeted older gay men he met in bars, police said. He savagely beat, shot or strangled his victims, mutilated or defiled their corpses and then disappeared with their cars, cash and credit cards, officials said.

In April, David Alan Jarman, 39, a World Bank credit union loan officer, was found strangled in his Wheaton apartment after meeting Bowles in a Dupont Circle bar, Montgomery County police said. Bowles was charged with murder in that case.

The Washington gay community expressed relief yesterday over Bowles's arrest. Employees of the Lambda Rising bookstore in Dupont Circle wrote "Captured!" in red letters on the FBI poster of Bowles taped next to the front door.

"That guy is the fear in the back of every gay man's mind," said Laramie Simpson, 22, a bartender at the Circle bar on Connecticut Avenue NW. "Nobody ever totally forgot that he might be out there."

Bowles, a native of Clifton Forge, Va., was arrested at 5:30 a.m. yesterday by a Jacksonville Beach police officer. Bowles stole a Cadillac from Walter J. Hinton, a 42-year-old Jacksonville florist who was slain last week, law enforcement sources said said. Jacksonville police did not disclose what Bowles did that attracted the officer's attention.

Bowles lived briefly with Hinton and disappeared with his car and some cash after killing him, police said. That was the same pattern Bowles allegedly followed in other slayings.

Neighbors told police that Hinton was last seen Wednesday and that he had been living with a man named Tim.

When he was stopped before dawn yesterday, Bowles identified himself as Hinton and then as "Tim Whitfield," officials said. After fingerprinting, Bowles admitted his identity, and teams of homicide detectives from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Montgomery County converged on the Jacksonville jail to begin interrogations. About 6 p.m., police announced that Bowles told investigators he had killed six people.

He admitted to a Mother's Day slaying in Atlanta, but police did not have that victim's name, the Associated Press reported.

National gay rights organizations hailed the arrest. They acknowledged that a gay man preying on other homosexuals created an awkward situation for groups working to prevent bigotry and violence against gay people.

Douglas Hattaway, spokesman for the Human Rights First Campaign, said that the case diverted attention from such efforts and that he found himself talking to the media about gay promiscuity because the men Bowles allegedly killed were picked up at bars.

Bowles preyed on one of the most vulnerable segments of the gay community, older men trying to keep their sexual orientation secret and thus forced to frequent gay bars for social interaction, Hattaway said.

"It just goes to show how trapped some of our community remains because of homophobia," Hattaway said. "If these men were able to live their lives more freely, then this kind of climate for this would not exist."

The Bowles odyssey began March 15 in Daytona Beach, where he lived after his release in December after serving time in a Florida prison for robbery. Detectives investigating the slaying of John Hardy Roberts, a 59-year-old insurance salesman found beaten and asphyxiated in his home, didn't have to look far to find a suspect.

Under Roberts's body was Bowles's identification card. Police said they learned Bowles was living with Roberts before the slaying, and Roberts's car was found abandoned 10 days later in Nashville.

Weeks passed before investigators in Florida and Georgia met with the FBI and shared information on two similar unsolved slayings. When other agencies in the region were asked whether they had similar homicides, Daytona Beach police responded.

So far, Bowles has been charged in the deaths of:

* Jarman, who was found strangled April 14. On the night of his death, Jarman was seen leaving a Dupont Circle bar with a man who resembled Bowles, police said. Jarman's killer disappeared with his car and wallet. One of Jarman's credit cards was used to rent a Baltimore hotel room shortly after the killing. Police said the hotel registration card matched a sample of Bowles's handwriting.

* Milton Bradley, 72, who was found beaten and strangled on a Savannah, Ga., golf course May 5. Bradley, mentally incapacitated by a World War II wound, was seen with Bowles in a gay bar several times in the weeks before he was killed. Police said Bradley's pockets were rifled.

* Albert Alcie Morris, 37, a convenience store manager strangled and shot May 19 inside his Hilliard, Fla., mobile home. Bowles lived with Morris for more than a week and publicly threatened him in a gay bar the night of the killing, police said. Morris's Cadillac was stolen and later recovered in Jacksonville. A man resembling Bowles attempted to use one of Morris's credit cards at a Hilliard area Wal-Mart store but fled when he was challenged by a store employee, police said.

Bowles also has been identified as the prime suspect in the death of Roberts in Daytona Beach.

Henrico County, Va., police have identified Bowles as one of a few suspects in the death of Henry W. Weatherford Jr., 50, an antique dealer whose body was found in his Richmond area home June 12. Weatherford's car was stolen and found abandoned a few weeks later at a Wal-Mart store in Bridgeton, Mo.

The killings were particularly brutal. The killer usually left an object in the victim's mouth. In one case, it was a towel, in another leaves and soil and in a third a dildo.

Investigators were stymied for months in the manhunt.

Bowles was last believed to be in Wisconsin, and federal investigators speculated last week that he might be hiding with friends on the West Coast or with relatives elsewhere.

Relatives said Bowles told them he would rather kill himself than face life imprisonment.

Bowles has said that his father died when he was an infant and that his mother was married as many as eight times. He said he was mentally and physically abused by his stepfathers.

Bowles has a long criminal record that includes sexual assault, robbery and prostitution.

Police and acquaintances said Bowles had worked as a prostitute since running away from home after the eighth grade.

Police and acquaintances said that when money wore thin, Bowles sought older men and sold sexual favors for $10 or $20. But until March, nothing suggested he was capable of killing.

Jeff Ewers, 27, a Dupont Circle area bartender, said Bowles's arrest was "such a relief."

"Everybody knows it can happen again," he said. "Money is so important here, and you always have these rich older guys hitting on younger guys. With that kind of situation, where people are exploiting one another, dangerous things happen."

Members of the victims' families expressed relief that Bowles had been captured.

"Happy isn't the word," said Joy Warshaw, Bradley's sister.

"Milton was a dear soul, sweet, lovable, kind, always giving," she said. "Someone as malicious and vicious as {Bowles} should never be let out, should never be allowed to live. It's very hard for me to think someone has that kind of hate in them."

Staff writer Louis Aguilar contributed to this report.