A Charles County woman who sought court protection from her abusive husband was shot and killed by him yesterday morning in their rural home, police said, as a judge's Dec. 29 order for the man's arrest lay unprocessed in the District Court clerk's office.

Police said that James Steven Lancaster Sr., 36, went to the Faulkner home of his estranged wife, Janice Michelle Lancaster, 34, about 6 a.m.--in violation of a Dec. 28 order barring him from contacting her--and began arguing with her as she worked in the kitchen.

Lancaster pulled out a shotgun, shot his wife in the upper body, then went to the front porch and fatally shot himself, police said. The couple's 17-year-old daughter, a La Plata High School student, saw her mother shot and called 911. Her brother, 12, had left for school.

Among the court documents reviewed by the District Court judge who had ordered Steve Lancaster's arrest was a copy of a handwritten letter Lancaster had left for his wife in November.

"Time is getting short for me and you," Lancaster wrote in the letter, which was left on his wife's chest of drawers. "I'm ready to go any time, to lay my body to rest. And me is not going to be the only one. . . . "

"It's a real tragedy," said the Rev. Stephen M. Garrity, director of the Loyola Retreat House, a Jesuit prayer retreat near Janice Lancaster's home where she worked as a cook. "It has hit us hard."

Charles County District Court Judge Gary S. Gasparovic had signed a bench warrant for Steve Lancaster's arrest Wednesday, after prosecutors filed charges that he was harassing his wife. But the order was not processed the next day before the courts closed for the long New Year's holiday. Gasparovic, along with the 4th District Court's administrative judge, Stephen L. Clagett in Calvert County, said the delay was due to short staffing and the holiday weekend. Gasparovic said the arrest warrant would have been processed sooner during an ordinary workweek.

"It's very sad," Clagett said. "But from my review of the file, the judge and clerk's office carried out their duties properly and within an appropriate time frame given the information they had." Clagett said that a bench warrant in Southern Maryland is normally ready to be served within 48 hours.

The case is the second incident in Maryland since September in which a law-enforcement paperwork foul-up failed to prevent the subject of a restraining order from allegedly killing someone.

Richard Wayne Spicknall II, of Laurel, was charged with murder after police said he used a handgun Sept. 9 to kill his two young children on the Eastern Shore. Authorities said Spicknall was mistakenly allowed to buy the gun because of a clerical error in the Howard County Sheriff's Department. He was legally prohibited from buying or possessing firearms because his wife had obtained a restraining order against him.

Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth in Baltimore, an advocacy group for victims of domestic violence, yesterday decried the latest killing.

"It again calls into question whether there is any real protection when women do take action to protect themselves," she said.

Maryland State Police said they were helping Charles County officials trace the shotgun used in the Lancaster killings. Spokesman Pete Piringer said that the gun was "an older weapon" and that investigators were trying to determine how Steve Lancaster obtained it. Lancaster was legally prohibited from buying, owning or possessing firearms because of a 1988 burglary conviction.

Nearly everyone who knew Janice Lancaster was aware of her ongoing troubles with her husband, a sometime waterman. The relationship of the couple, who had been married since 1987, had declined precipitously over the past year.

Janice Lancaster first filed for a temporary restraining order against her husband in February, after the two had brawled in front of the children, according to court records. She withdrew her request at a court hearing the next week.

But she later turned up at work with scratches and bruises on her face, and her disintegrating marriage was a constant source of strain, according to her co-workers. They said that work was a refuge for Janice Lancaster over the past year and that she had helped her daughter get an after-school dishwashing job there.

"She was very upset a lot of times," said Mary Wells, 43, of Newburg, who worked at the retreat as a housekeeper. "You'd go into the office and find her crying. . . . She was tired of all the fights and arguments." In August, Lancaster filed for divorce, alleging that her husband had been unfaithful.

In September, Charles County sheriff's deputies were called to the home again, after another argument--Steve Lancaster had allegedly tried to pull his wife into the house after she began sleeping in a toolshed--and he was charged with second-degree assault. He was ordered to stay away from his wife until the outcome of his trial.

On Dec. 20, after another screaming match with her husband at her home, Janice Lancaster went to the state's attorney, writing in an affidavit, "I am afraid of him since he has threatened to kill me in front of our children." That day, Assistant State's Attorney Jerome R. Spencer requested a bench warrant for Steve Lancaster on the grounds that he had been "harassing" Janice. Gasparovic signed the warrant Wednesday.

In a Circuit Court hearing a day earlier, Steve Lancaster was served with a protective order barring contact with his wife for a year.

Amid the strife, Janice Lancaster and the children spent the Christmas holiday week with Wells's extended family.

Later, Lancaster confided to Wells her New Year's wish.

"She said she didn't have anything against her husband," Wells recalled yesterday. "She just wanted peace for her and her kids. Let her have some peace. That's all she wanted for the new year to come."