Conrad Smith had no idea of the violence to come when he called police yesterday to report a man running across his back yard and looking fearfully over his shoulder -- a three-hour drama that ended with a Randallstown man slitting his wife's throat and hanging himself.
Mr. Smith, a postal service employee who works nights and keeps an eye on the neighborhood during the day, heard gunshots and screams as he was talking to the dispatcher and looked across the street to see his neighbor breaking out a front window with a shotgun butt.
Baltimore County police set up a command post in front of Old Court Middle School, near the home in the 4600 block of Panacea Road, and waited about three hours while trying to make contact with the man by telephone and bullhorn.
Just before 1 p.m., officers broke into the blue, single-family home to find Pamela Jones, 29, dead on the kitchen floor from a knife wound. Downstairs, slumped from a rope, was the body of Dalton Jones, 56, a native of Grenada and an employee of Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Police said the drama began about 9:30 a.m. when Mr. Jones arrived home from work unexpectedly to find his wife, whom he married in March 1990, moving out.
Relatives who were helping her scattered as he arrived, with one of them bolting through Mr. Smith's yard.
Mr. Jones fired a shotgun blast outside the house that wounded his wife's uncle, Daniel P. Sewell, 67, of Baltimore, in the leg, police said. Another relative, Betsy Jester, 64, also of Baltimore, was treated at Sinai Hospital for a cut on the right hand, suffered as she was trying to stop Mr. Jones from attacking his wife in the kitchen.
Because she and Mr. Sewell's wife, Mary, saw Mr. Jones tackle his wife and cut her throat, police spokesman E. Jay Miller said officers believed that Mrs. Jones already was dead and decided to try to get her husband out alive.
He was seen moving in the house by the first officers to arrive, Mr. Miller said. But officers decided to go inside when they saw no further movement.
While the tragedy was unfolding at the home, Mrs. Jones' 8-year-old son was in his third-grade class at nearby Winand Elementary School. He was later taken from school to be with relatives, Detective James C. McAulay said.
The detective, a member of the Critical Incident Support Team called in to comfort the boy and other relatives, said family members wanted privacy in their grief and would not speak to reporters.
During the stakeout, Mr. Smith and other neighbors who were at home waited indoors, as they had been instructed in telephone calls from police.
Because the 875 students at Old Court Middle School noticed the police out front, Principal Carl G. Jackson said the sixth- to eighth-graders were told that there was a hostage situation nearby but that they were in no danger.
Although the school was flooded with calls, no parents came to take their children home, Mr. Jackson said.
When the drama was over, Mr. Smith stood looking at his neighbor's home, wondering how a man he knew as friendly and helpful could resort to such violence.
"This is not like there were any past incidents or anything," he said. "Dalton was a real nice guy, a real nice guy. I never would have expected anything like this from him. I know it's . . . a cliche, but it's true.
"My daughter's at Winand, in the fourth grade, and her son is in the third grade," Mr. Smith added. "They walk to school with several other neighborhood children. They all tramped off at 8:18 . . . like any other day."
Soon after the children left, Mr. Smith saw a U-Haul trailer across the street, the unfamiliar cars and Mrs. Jones giving orders.
For the first time, Mr. Smith said, he wondered whether there was trouble in the marriage, "but I thought it might just be furniture coming in."
He recalled having made small talk with Mr. Jones, who cut Mr. Smith's grass for him while he was on a trip to Oklahoma and shoveled snow off his walk for him while he was at work.
"I never asked: He just up and did it," Mr. Smith said.
Yesterday afternoon, a yellow crime-scene ribbon surrounded the house, the trailer and three cars -- which bore the marks of three separate shotgun blasts -- as homicide detectives combed the yard for evidence.
And neighbors began to drift home from work and toward the Jones house, clustering and murmuring about the nice, quiet couple.