The reunion theme was Caribbean, with cutout palm trees and a drawing of the Bowie Bulldog in a grass skirt on the cover of the memory book. The now graying children of the 1970s grooved to the class song--"Smoke on the Water"--and a banner proclaimed: "Welcome Back Class of '73."

But as the old friends gathered that summer weekend two years ago, three unusual guests quietly surveyed the room. One was a police detective. The other two were private security men, hired in case tension that had roiled just beneath the surface for nearly a quarter century bubbled over.

A ghost haunts Bowie High School's Class of 1973.

It is the ghost of a pretty, vivacious young woman, a long-haired girl in jeans, a child of "Crocodile Rock" and "The Way We Were," who on a Saturday morning the November after she graduated was found nude, violated and bludgeoned to death in the woods two miles from her home.

Her name was Donna Lee Dustin. She was 17. And the person or persons who battered and brutalized her with what was probably a crowbar have never been identified. Nor have the men who had sex with her while she was very drunk right before she died. Nor have those who may have watched.

A web of silence quickly grew around the deed. Although some tried to help, the lips of those who knew most have stayed sealed for more than two decades.

"There is someone in Bowie, probably more than one person, who knows what happened to Donna Dustin and just isn't talking," said Kristin A. Riggin, of the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office.

Now, with the passage of time and advances in science, there are hints that the web may come unraveled, the secret be revealed and the ghost that for 26 years has haunted Bowie and its high school's Class of '73 go free.

A week before Dustin's death, her mother, Delores, crept into her daughter's upstairs bedroom and saw her for the final time.

Her husband, Joe, wanted to get an early start on the family's drive to Florida. Donna was staying behind, and Delores had promised that she would wake her to say goodbye.

Delores pushed aside the giant Snoopy at the foot of the bed, in the room of lavender walls decorated with long chains of pull-off tabs from beer cans, donated by an uncle who owned a bar.

She shook Donna until her eyes opened.

"I still remember this stringy-haired mass, with the mascara running down her face, as she woke up and said, 'Have a good time,' " Delores Dustin said. "I told her to be careful and reminded her that the list of numbers was downstairs on the kitchen counter, and then let her go back to sleep.

"That was it. It was 5 in the morning, and we got in the car and headed off down the road."

Donna Dustin was, by all accounts, the typical, gregarious teenager, from a typical suburban community. She also was a child of her times--of Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War and the start of the oil embargo. The psychedelic age was giving way to the era of "All in the Family" and "The Waltons." But the risk taking and drugs lingered at the edges of teenage life. Even in Bowie.

For generations, Bowie had been a small country town halfway between Washington and Annapolis. But in the early 1960s, waves of development brought tracts of new housing, drawing families from the city. The Dustins were part of that great suburban migration, moving from Washington to the Somerset section of town.

Bowie changed, but not so much that it seemed worrisome in the autumn of 1973 to leave a 17-year-old home alone.

Dustin had grown up with most of her friends, who remained in her circle after high school graduation. But she also knew another group of young people.

Like every place, Bowie had its teenage cliques--the jocks, the brains, the crowd that liked to tinker with cars, called the hubcaps. And there was another group, one known for its drug use and casual sex.

They held parties almost every week in the neighborhood. They lived rough. They got into frequent fistfights. Some bought $50 "hack" cars and engaged in impromptu demolition derbies outside the pizza parlor. "It was really wild," one observer recalled.

But there was a darker sport, too, according to investigators: one in which a girl, often intoxicated, would be lured into a kind of harsh group sex with several of the men. It was called "running a train." Sometimes it was consensual. Sometimes it was hard to tell.

On the morning of Nov. 16, 1973, Dustin and Laurie Greene, her friend from down the street, awoke with high expectations.

Dustin was going out on a first date that night with a boy she had met at the pizza parlor.

"She was really hoping they would have an okay time," said Laurie Greene, now Laurie Minder.

Dustin wanted a new pair of jeans for the occasion, so she and Greene drove into Georgetown to hunt for clothes. There was also an upcoming Steve Miller concert, for which they were planning to get tickets. Dustin loved Steve Miller.

Back home that evening, Dustin came down from her bedroom wearing fresh makeup, her new jeans and a pink sweater. The two teenagers cooked up some alphabet soup and gossiped as they ate. Her date showed up at 7.

"We said goodbye," Minder remembered, "and reminded each other that the next morning we were going to get those tickets, and off she went."

Dustin hopped into a car driven by Christopher Miller, a Class of '73 guy who had a red '68 four-speed Chevelle SS-396 with bucket seats. "I had the car," Miller said in an interview. "It was a hot car."

Miller, then 18 and a volunteer Bowie firefighter who lived at the Pointer Ridge fire station, already had picked up a friend of his, who was to be Dustin's date, and two other young people.

Miller, now 44 and a retired Alexandria firefighter, recalled that it was a cool, clear evening as they cruised out Route 450 toward Lanham, listening to Jimi Hendrix and Elton John tapes on the eight-track. They stopped at one point for two six-packs of Budweiser, then stopped again at a Farrell's ice cream parlor because the girls wanted cones.

Miller warned them not to let the ice cream drip in his car.

They went to a party in Bladensburg that was big but "unremarkable," Miller recalled. They left after a few hours and drove around a little more before Miller dropped Dustin and her date off at her parents' home.

Now, Dustin and her date were alone. In an interview last week, he agreed to recount what happened next under the condition that his name not be used.

"She was a very beautiful girl," with long, light brown hair, he remembered.

They went inside the Dustin home, listened to music and had sex on the family room couch, he said. Dustin produced a pipe and filled it with what she told him was marijuana, he said.

"When she lit it, I tried some and told her, 'This doesn't taste like pot,' " he said. "Finally, she admitted that it was PCP."

PCP, phencyclidine hydrochloride, is a potent, widely abused tranquilizer known to have psychotic side effects. Extremely popular in the Washington area in the 1970s and '80s, it was sprinkled on oregano and smoked like marijuana.

"I took one toke of it and I told her, 'No,' " he said. "She took another toke or two of it and put the pipe away."

It was late, and he worried about chores and the pizza shop shift that lay ahead the next day. Dustin, who had no such worries, changed into fresh clothes.

"She just said she felt like partying more," her date said. "She didn't say where."

Although Dustin's blood-alcohol level would reach .19 percent, almost twice the legal intoxication level, before she died, when she parted company with her date she seemed under control.

"I wouldn't say she was impaired," he said. "But she was feeling good."

She dropped him off at his house about 1:30 a.m., saying she had enjoyed the night.

"She wanted to see me some more," he said.

In the anguished days that followed news of her death, he talked with police and felt an obligation to call her parents.

"I just couldn't bring myself to call . . . and say I was the one who had been with her. I couldn't bring myself to do that," he said.

Ever since, he said, he has been haunted by the words of a song with which she was especially taken. It was from a new album by the Steve Miller Band. The mischievous lyrics:

I'm a joker

I'm a toker

I'm a midnight smoker

I sure don't want to hurt no one.

The final hours of Dustin's life remain a puzzle to detectives.

Investigators say three people told them they saw her shortly after 1:30 a.m. outside a house in Bowie where the rougher crowd was having a party.

It was, by all accounts, a crazy scene. David H. Cordle, Anne Arundel County's lead investigator on the case, said he believes there were upward of 100 people coming and going.

There was beer, marijuana and PCP, according to some who were there, and music and dancing and people passed out inside the house and outside on the lawn.

Sources familiar with the investigation say they believe that at some point a group of men--perhaps four or five--met Dustin at the party and they all went back to her house to drink more. Somewhere her clothes came off, and later tests indicated that several men had sex with her.

Did she consent? Did she fight back? Did something else happen? Detectives aren't sure. Christopher Miller, who took Dustin and the pizza shop guy on their date in his hot car, counts himself among those haunted by that last night of her life.

"It never went away," he said. "The brutality of the whole thing--you don't just forget it."

The decades-old carving in the beech tree's gray bark says "Bowie."

The tree stands in a wooded area across the Patuxent River and the county line in Anne Arundel County. It is just north of the Bowie Race Track and about two miles from the Dustin house.

In the 1970s, the 130 acres of pine woods and clearings were a raucous, rural playground for the young, a place to escape the reach of parents and the police.

"I remember one time there must have been 200 kids down here, some of them buck naked," said Buz Meyer, 69, who still owns the property. "They were chasing and screaming and hollering."

An old track bed running through the property once carried the long-defunct Washington-Baltimore and Annapolis trolley past a forlorn place in the forest called Meyer's Station. Many weekends, passersby would find stolen cars, burned, stripped or just dumped. For the teenagers of Bowie, this was a place to party, to make love, to make noise.

It was also a perfect place to dump a body.

It was one week into rabbit season on Saturday morning, Nov. 17, 1973, and the woods around the old Meyer's Station were peppered with hunters.

Buz Meyer was out with his three boys, gunning for small game, kicking the underbrush with their feet, trying to flush out their prey.

As they approached the old rail bed, which carved a sandy boulevard through the forest, another hunter emerged from the trees.

"You don't want to bring those kids back there," the hunter called out. Meyer noticed a police car parked nearby.

"What's happening?" Meyer asked.

"There's been a murder back there," the other hunter replied.

After Meyer sent his sons away, the hunter told him what he had seen.

"It was a horror story," Meyer said.

A young woman lay naked in the brush just beyond the old station, her head smashed in, her body desecrated in ghastly ways.

"Sick, sick," Meyer recalled. "Absolutely sick."

The people who dumped Donna Dustin at Meyer's Station left two sets of boot prints behind.

The investigation into Dustin's slaying went nowhere fast. Lie detector tests were given without yielding firm suspects. Scores of interviews with people who had been in contact with her that night provided no real leads.

Within two weeks, police admitted they were at a "standstill."

Detectives couldn't determine for certain where she had been between 1:30 a.m., when she had dropped her date off, and about 9 a.m., when her body was discovered, according to newspaper reports at the time.

They had been unable to find the clothes she had been wearing. Rumors surfaced that drugs had been involved, but there was nothing solid. A reward was offered. Still, nothing.

"We have no suspects, no clothing, and haven't gotten many phone calls on the emergency phone number," a county police lieutenant was quoted as saying shortly after the slaying.

By December, things were no better. "We are still hoping and praying that someone offers some information," another Anne Arundel officer said.

A year later, the case was cold. Police were working on it in their spare time, but as one said, "We're grabbing at straws."

There was renewed attention on the fifth anniversary, and on the 10th, and still there was scant progress.

Each year, though, Dustin's parents would hang her Christmas stocking, as if the girl with the Snoopy on her bed was still in the lavender room upstairs. To this day, her mother weeps to speak of her.

More than a quarter of a century later, it still isn't hard to find people who think they know who was at the early-morning party on Nov. 17.

The Post reached two of the men commonly mentioned as part of the small group Dustin is believed to have met at the party. They would not discuss the events of that night. One, who still lives and works in the area, said it was "too emotional" to talk about.

The other man reached by The Post now lives in Syracuse, N.Y. Police said a third member of that group lives in Orlando. One could not be located, and another has died. None of their names is being published because none of the men has been charged in this case.

Police, who say they have been checking into fresh tips, have contacted four of the men recently. At least two have hired lawyers. Investigators used a court order to obtain blood samples from the Syracuse man. They have gathered similar samples from others in the group, for the purpose of comparing their DNA against DNA recovered from around Dustin's body.

Police would not say whether they have matched any DNA to the evidence from the crime scene.

The Syracuse man, in a brief interview, sought to explain why he fought the court order.

"If it was just me, I would say fine," he said. "But I have a wife and three daughters to worry about."

Standing in front of the cable company where he fields customer service calls, wearing casual clothes and a Mickey Mouse watch, the man wanted to relate his situation out of earshot of co-workers. He said he was innocent of wrongdoing.

"I'm not trying to hide anything," he said. "Nothing is weighing on my conscience. I'm not waking up in a cold sweat. I didn't change my name or go on the lam. I just don't trust them to take my blood and handle it properly."

The man said he cooperated with investigator Cordle for more than a year, telling him everything he remembered about the night of Dustin's slaying. But then, when Cordle asked him for a blood sample, it dawned on him that he might be a suspect.

"I watched the O.J. [Simpson] trial like everyone else," he said. "I'm not a legal expert. I don't know what they can do with this stuff."

A high school reunion is a sea of memories, a junction where people gather to revisit the events of their teenage years. And so it was for the Bowie Bulldogs of '73 when they returned two summers ago for their 25th reunion.

There was no avoiding the recollection of Donna Dustin's unresolved slaying.

"It never went away," one said.

Police were worried that friends of Dustin's might confront some of the men suspected in her death. One man who made people feel uncomfortable was asked to leave. But otherwise, it was a peaceful night. There was lots of talk about Dustin--speculation about who killed her and about the life she might have led.

Like many of them, she would have been 42. Married, probably, with children, and all that the untapped years might have given her.

And maybe, under the banners and balloons--in the school colors of navy, burgundy and white--at the Comfort Inn that Saturday two years ago, they might have played her a Steve Miller tune, and she might have thought about those crazy old days, when she was young.

CAPTION: Donna Dustin, pictured when she was 16 and when she was a baby.

CAPTION: Buz Meyer, who owns the secluded land where Donna Dustin's naked and bludgeoned body was found, talks to investigator David H. Cordle.

CAPTION: The body of 17-year-old Donna Lee Dustin was found in a remote, abandoned quarry near Odenton, about two miles from her parents' home in Bowie. (This graphic was not available)