Norman "Doug" Norwood, 31, was not a man with a reputation for making enemies. An ex-prison guard turned law student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, he was a friendly sort who divided his time between his law books, classroom lectures and the company of his 29-year-old fiancée, Cathy Smith Gray. His life in rural Arkansas was predictable—even soporific—until the morning last summer when two nattily attired men knocked on the door of his campus apartment, claiming to be private detectives looking for information on a fellow student.

Suddenly, as Norwood sat down to talk in his living room, one of the visitors lunged toward him with a 50,000-volt "stun gun"—a paperback-book-size device that temporarily paralyzes on contact. The astonished Norwood whirled around, and in the melee he and his attacker fell through a glass table to the floor.

"I was getting up and I looked toward the other man, and he had picked up my hunting rifle and was jacking a shell into the chamber," Norwood remembers. "I was trying to get out the door, and he fired at me."

Struck in the side and calf, Norwood staggered downstairs, dashed into a Laundromat and phoned the police. By the time they arrived, his assailants had vanished.

Norwood was treated at a Fayetteville hospital and, fearing another attack, hid out and recuperated at a friend's house. He suspected his fiancée's ex-husband of commissioning the crime, but failed to convince police. "I had a red beard, and I guess they thought I was mixed up in drugs," he says. "I could almost hear them thinking suspiciously, 'Yeah, sure. You got shot for no reason by strangers.' "

The baffling—and terrifying—ordeal continued. In the following weeks he began noticing a sinister figure stalking him as he strolled on campus or drove around Fayetteville. Then, on Sept. 30, Norwood walked to the university parking lot and turned the key in the ignition of his 1982 Ford. In a thunderous flash, the vehicle exploded.

Chunks of metal and glass flew in all directions. Windows shattered in adjacent cars. But the bomb had been placed beneath the hood, not the seat, and Norwood was unhurt. "I was just deaf for a while," he says. "Still, the police couldn't believe I didn't know something I wasn't telling them."

Norwood began carrying a .357 Magnum wherever he went. He begged the University of Arkansas police to protect him, and finally, on Jan. 20, 1986, his nightmare came to an end. Minutes after Norwood spotted his tormentor and alerted campus cops, Michael Wayne Jackson, 38, a onetime Tatum, Texas police chief, was seized in a car stocked with firearms. The arrest came just in time. Two hours later Jackson told police he had intended to pull up alongside Norwood's car and spray him with machine-gun fire.

So who was Michael Wayne Jackson, and what was his grudge against Norwood? It was nothing personal. Jackson was, police say, a contract killer who had been hired by Cathy's embittered ex-husband, Larry Elgin Gray. But this was no ordinary murder-for-hire: Jackson had advertised his services in the classified section of Soldier of Fortune magazine, a macho-adventure monthly (circulation 181,000).

Norwood contends that Gray, 40, head of a financial consulting firm in Tulsa, was obsessed by the breakup of his nine-year marriage and Cathy's impending remarriage to Norwood. Authorities say Gray, a gun collector who claims to have been a paratrooper in Vietnam, had contacted Jackson at the number listed in the Soldier of Fortune ad. He wrote the would-be killer a check for $5,000 as a down payment, say investigators, then sat back to wait for the results. "He failed in everything all his life," says Norwood of Gray, who has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and is now free on $250,000 bond. "He even failed at trying to kill me. In a way, I sometimes feel sorry for him." Gray denies the charges.

The hired hit man—who had never actually served in Vietnam—allegedly had help in his mission from as many as five comrades-in-arms. Investigators came to realize that the aborted hit was no isolated crime, but one more link in a chain of murders and attempted murders committed by a loosely tied gang of hit men who had located each other through the pages of Soldier of Fortune.

So far, the conspiracy features as its cast of characters a half-dozen Vietnam veterans, drifters and gunslinging losers. It has led across Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Texas, Indiana and Colorado. It involves at least two and as many as six murders and a number of botched attempts and has captured the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and local police and sheriff departments across the country. "This is going to be bigger than anyone realizes," says an investigator on the fast-developing case.

As Norwood's experience indicates, however, the Soldier of Fortune trig-germen could hardly be called professionals. "These guys are not mental giants," observes an Athens, Ga. detective, pointing to the botched bombings, the sloppy ambushes, the blizzard of evidence—weapons, telephone records, canceled checks and the ads themselves—that they never tried to conceal. In one attempted assassination, a grenade was thrown at the intended victim—with the safety pin in place. This was, in short, a sort of Gang That Couldn't Shoot—or Think—Straight: a band of nondescript figures on society's fringes, "networking" through a publication that mirrored their own twisted fantasies, gunning down strangers with almost comical ineptitude and chilling nonchalance. "They were practically begging to get caught," marvels one Georgia investigator. "These guys were into something completely out of their league."

Michael Wayne Jackson was, it seems, only a bit player. The driving force behind the Soldier of Fortune killers, police say, was Richard Michael Savage, 38, who apparently met Jackson through the Soldier of Fortune ads and organized the first attack on Norwood. Known to cronies as "Dick" or "Doc," Savage was apparently no stranger to America's twilight zone of guns-and-glory nuts. For nearly two decades the Tennessee native had lived a shadowy life, including a year of combat in Vietnam, a few months spent as a prison guard in Kentucky and a six-week stint as a police officer in Lindsay, Okla.

Last fall Savage leased the Continental Club outside Knoxville—"a nasty, Buford Pusser-style beer joint," says a Knoxville police officer, filled with good ole boys and nude dancers gyrating to jukebox music. It was in this tawdry netherworld, investigators charge, that Doc Savage communed with clients he found through Soldier of Fortune, devised executions for them, then started up his own lethal operation with a private army of cowboy cadres.

"If a person called and said outright that they wanted someone killed, Savage would say something like, 'What? I don't do that sort of thing.' He was always afraid it was a police officer or some kind of trap," says William Buckley, 35, a security guard turned hit man who has confessed his role in the first attack on Norwood in the hope of receiving lenient treatment. "We'd get 15 calls a month. Most of them were from men who wanted to have their wives killed."

Sometimes there were more outlandish proposals. One caller wanted to recruit a small army and raid a gold mine in Alaska; another had a plan to steal an army payroll in South America; yet another wanted to raid Nicaragua and promised to supply guns, camouflage clothing, rubber boats and $50,000 for each mercenary when the raid was completed. Savage, says Buckley, was enthusiastic about every harebrained scheme he heard, but ultimately was persuaded to concentrate on murder. So, if the caller sounded discreet, Savage would ask for a round-trip airline ticket and $1,000; the two would meet face-to-face, then feel each other out in a minuet of death, until each was certain of the other's credentials.

Sean Trevor Doutre (prounced Doo-TRAY), 21, and Richard Savage were two of a kind. A sullen-faced ne'er-do-well with "a strange, unnerving look in his eyes," according to his court-appointed attorney, Doutre had drifted into Knoxville in 1985, probably after reading gun-for-hire ads taken out by Savage in Soldier of Fortune. Before that he had meandered across the continent, according to police, using the alias Peter Tosh Marley, toiling in a variety of dead-end jobs and serving time in Florida for auto theft. "Sean wanted to go to work for Savage," says his friend Debbie Cebula. "He told me, 'I'm going out to kill people for him.' "

Through Savage, Doutre met Linda Smith, 21, a pretty, petite young black woman from Knoxville. Smith—who, according to her adoptive mother, is slightly retarded—had dropped out of high school and lived on her own since she turned 18, working part-time as a stripper at Savage's Continental Club. In September Linda showed up at her parents' home with Doutre. "A lot of things made me suspicious," Mrs. Smith says. "He had a brand-new black Toyota Celica. He had a beautiful gold necklace that must have cost $3,000 said, 'What do you do for a living?' He told me he worked for a security company in Florida."

Six weeks later, over Mrs. Smith's objections, Sean Doutre and Linda Smith were married at her parents' home. Two days later Doutre left his bride with her parents, telling them he had work in Florida. Then, say police, he drove 600 miles south to Palm Beach, under Savage's orders to commit a murder.

Two months earlier Savage had placed an $87 gun-for-hire advertisement in the back pages of Soldier of Fortune. Among the readers of that issue was Robert Spearman, 56, a rugged man with a fondness for hunting and fishing, who ran a boatyard in Palm Beach. Spearman and his wife, Anita, were preparing to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, but behind the facade of domestic harmony, some friends say, was extraordinary tension. Anita, 48, had recently undergone a mastectomy, and Spearman felt growing frustration at his wife's illness. His private life, investigators say, was consumed by flings with prostitutes and a long-running affair. "Most husbands would be really concerned about their wives, but not Bob," said Anita's cousin Dr. Howard Parker, who had assisted in the surgery. "He wanted to know how it was going to look and could she wear a bathing suit....I think he felt her unalterably marred."

Then Spearman, a Korean War veteran, came across Doc Savage's Soldier of Fortune ad—and, say police, he realized that a solution was just a phone call away. Records show that over the next two months, Spearman made 17 calls from his office to Savage's Knoxville home and club. In October, a police informant says, Savage dispatched Sean Doutre and Richard Emert—a petty criminal and Continental Club employee—to Palm Beach to meet Spearman and collect a down payment on the $20,000 hit.

On Nov. 16, detectives allege, Doutre walked through an unlocked side door of the Spearman home, crept into Anita's bedroom and clubbed her to death while she slept. Then, they charge, he grabbed Spearman's shotgun and a fistful of jewelry and fled. Robert Spearman was suspected from the start, says Palm Beach County Sheriff Richard Willie, but not charged because of a lack of evidence.

Sean Doutre hightailed it back to Knoxville, making no effort to cover his tracks, according to law enforcement sources. Only one day after the murder, police in nearby Maryville arrested him in a stolen rental car with about $8,000 in cash. Spearman's shotgun was resting on the seat beside him. Released after posting $10,000 bail, Doutre went home. "He gave Linda some new bracelets and a beautiful pearl necklace," her mother says. "Later I heard the police were looking for the jewels of the murdered woman. I'm positive they were the same ones."

Neighbors remember Doutre as a paradoxical figure, once helping a neighbor's children escape from their burning apartment, yet openly dealing drugs and insisting his wife "turn tricks" to pay the bills. "Linda used to come crying to me about it all the time," says her next-door neighbor. "She seemed so young and vulnerable. After Christmas I got them jobs, as 'a maintenance worker and maid, at a Knoxville motel."

They lasted there two weeks. Then another assignment came from Savage: According to police, Kenneth Boswell Major, .357, of Athens, Ga. had read Savage's Soldier of Fortune ad in December, contacted him at the Continental Club and paid him $4,000 to kill Bruce Lamey, his partner in a failing charter-fishing operation on the South Carolina coast. In late January, according to the indictment, Savage gave Doutre a .357 Magnum to do the dirty work. Doutre, Linda and 17-year-old neighbor Debbie Cebula took off for Florida in a stolen Ford van. The threesome drifted around the state for days, according to Debbie, passing bad checks, eating in diners, staying in cheap motels. Then Doutre installed the girls in a seaside condominium in Punta Gorda and drove off in the van. Says Cebula: "He told us he had to go up to Georgia to 'do a job.' "

He never made it. Georgia police picked him up outside Athens last Feb. 4, after a local motel manager complained that Doutre had skipped out without paying his phone bill. Doutre soon began to talk. Police quickly swooped in and seized both Doc Savage in Knoxville and Kenneth Major in Athens.

With the two men in custody in the Clarke County jail, the gang's grisly plots unraveled fast. Richard Emert fingered Doutre, spilling the story of the Anita Spearman killing to Knoxville Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. Doutre, Savage and Robert Spearman have since been indicted in Palm Beach County on first-degree murder charges. In Atlanta, Savage and Doutre have been charged in the murder of Richard Braun, 43, an oilman who survived a car bombing in June 1985, only to be shot dead in his driveway, ambush-style, two months later. And they are prime suspects in the attempted murder of Norwood and in several other killings around the nation. Savage maintains his innocence. "I have never hired anybody to kill anybody," he told the Miami Herald in a jailhouse interview. "Anybody who did that job to [Anita Spearman]...ought to get the electric chair."

Linda Smith Doutre eventually made it back to Knoxville, where she moved in with her parents. Then last month she vanished—leaving home without giving a forwarding address. "Sean used her—and now I feel her life is in danger," says Mrs: Smith, fighting back tears. "I know he killed that woman in Florida."

At the Boulder, Colo, headquarters of Soldier of Fortune, Executive Editor Bill Guthrie accepts no responsibility for the wave of murders, which is only the latest in a series of violent crimes linked to advertisements in the magazine. Among the most notorious incidents: three killings carried out by a Georgia truck driver who advertised himself as a "weapons specialist" and a thwarted plot last year to free a convicted killer by storming the Indiana courthouse where he was to be tried on a second murder charge.

"We deeply regret any inconvenience, pain, suffering or injury caused as a result of false, misdirected or inappropriate ads, and we hope these men are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," says Guthrie. "But, for our own responsibility, we're as culpable as any newspaper which accepts an ad from a used-car salesman and doesn't go out to check the condition of his brakes." Citing concern over its image, however, the magazine's board of directors decided last fall to terminate all "personal" advertisements as of the March 1986 issue.

That's small comfort to the relatives of Anita Spearman and Richard Braun—or to Doug Norwood, who this month filed a $4 million lawsuit against Soldier of Fortune and his alleged assailants. "It's amazing," says Norwood, "that here in America you can pick up a magazine and rent a murderer."