AT THE MOMENT CATASTROPHE OVERTOOK HIM LAST MARCH 14, Claude Hawkins was a contented man. Fishing in Ohio's remote Wills Creek, 120 miles south of Cleveland, the 49-year-old father of four had already caught two plump walleye. But as he cast his spinning lure into the rushing tailwaters of a nearby dam, his luck ran out. A motorist quietly pulled up 200 feet away, took out a high-powered 6.5 x 55 millimeter Swedish Mauser rifle and shot Hawkins in the back. He died instantly.

For the sheriffs office in rural Coshocton County, it was an unusual—and seemingly inexplicable—murder. Six detectives spent a week in Hawkins's hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, questioning family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. They discovered that Hawkins was a solid citizen with no known enemies and no bad habits. He was a steady worker who had operated a glass-tempering furnace at PPG Industries Inc. for 26 years. He and his wife, Marilyn, had been married 29 years and had four grown children. "I can't believe this happened," says Marilyn. "We live such quiet lives. He wasn't involved in anything that' would cause him to be killed."

The detectives went back empty-handed. Then, during an impromptu skull session about the case, Coshocton County Chief Deputy Dane Shryock suddenly remembered a 1989 random shooting in a neighboring county.

"What about that homicide in Tuscarawas?" he asked.

Within an hour, Shryock found that the earlier murder—of truck driver Donald Welling, 35, who was shot as he walked down a rural road near his trailer home—was unsolved. Shryock soon discovered a third case: On a Sunday morning in November 1990, deer hunter Jamie Paxton. 21. had been slain in Belmont County, 50 miles east of Coshocton. Paxton's death was no accident; he had been shot three times, once at close range, with a .30 caliber rifle. Shryock barely had time to digest this information when, last April 5, there was yet another random homicide. Fisherman Gary Bradley, 44, a steel-worker from Williamstown, W.Va., was shot with a Swedish Mauser, this time in Noble County, south of Coshocton. "The similarities in I he cases were unbelievable." says Noble County Sheriff Landon Smith. "There was no question these were the work of the same man."

Each of the four murders had taken place on weekends, on or near county roads. All four victims were alone. All were shot from a distance with high-powered rifles. None was robbed, mutilated or sexually assaulted. There were few clues, no witnesses, no obvious motives—and no suspects. The police realized they were on the trail of a serial murderer who preferred hunters and fishermen.

A special task force was quietly formed, consisting of investigators from the FBI, local sheriffs' offices and two state agencies. The group conducted a detailed record check, uncovering a fifth unsolved homicide in southern Ohio that seemed to fit the pattern. In November 1990, Kevin Loring, 30, of Duxbury, Mass., had been shot in the face in nearby Muskingum County after he had wandered away while deer hunting with his wife's father and uncle. In addition, six other cases in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana seemed to bear intriguing similarities to the first five (two were later ruled out). The task force also linked a rash of animal slayings in southern Ohio—as many as 1,000 cows, horses, dogs and cats—to the serial killer.

In August the task force went public, issuing press releases and setting up a toll-free number (800-860-1804) for tips. News of the killings sent shock waves among the area's main hunters and fishermen. "We initially got a lot of inquiries," Smith says. "We suggested they go out in pairs. We hadn't experienced anyone being shot at when there was more than one person."

The task force received perhaps its biggest break long before the group was even formed. It came from Jean Paxton, whose son Jamie had been gunned down while he was crossbow-hunting for deer a few miles from his home in Bannock, Ohio. After Jamie's death, Paxton began writing letters to his killer. Some were posted in a simple wooden frame in the field where Jamie was shot. Others were published by the local newspaper, The Times-Leader of Martins Ferry, Ohio. The letters mentioned her son's good-natured grin, his job making steel bands, his fiancée and his love of "anything mechanical." They listed his various boyhood collections—arrowheads. baseball cards, stamps—and made note of his perfect attendance record in the Bannock Methodist Church.

In one early letter, addressed to "Someone out there [who] knows this letter is directed to them," Paxton asked, "Have you noticed anything different about your hands in the past 12 weeks? They've changed, as now they are the hands of a murderer. You can't wash Jamie's blood from them. It will be there till the day you die."

Apparently the letters reached their intended audience. On Nov. 4, 1991, just six days before the first anniversary of Jamie's death, The Times-Leader received a typewritten letter signed, "The murderer of Jamie Paxton." It contained enough unpublished details about Paxton's death for authorities to conclude the letter was authentic. "Paxton was killed because of an irresistible compulsion that has taken over my life," the killer wrote. "I knew when I left my house that day that someone would die by my hand. I just didn't know who or where."

He blamed his compulsion on alcohol: "I was very drunk, and a voice inside of my head said, 'Do it.' I stopped my car behind Jamie's and got out. Jamie started walking slowly down the hill toward the road. He never looked directly at me or said a word to me. He appeared to be looking past me at something in the distance. I raised the rifle to my shoulder and lined him up in the sights. I took at least five seconds to take careful aim." Afterward, the writer said, he felt nothing. "Five minutes after I had shot Paxton I was drinking a beer and had blacked out all thoughts of what I had just done out of my mind. I thought no more of shooting Paxton than shooting a bottle at the dump."

The letter was a treasure trove for the FBI's behaviorial-scienees unit in Quantico, Va. Analysts deduced the killer was a white male over the age of 30 who was of above-average intelligence and probably lived in the vicinity of the murders. They theorized that he was a loner who relieved stress by shooting at people, animals or objects. The FBI profile gave investigators a way to screen the many tips they received. From a list of approximately 100 suspects discovered largely through tips, says Dave Hanna, head of the FBI's Columbus office, "12 were fell to have some merit or potential. Our resources were directed toward those.

Investigators were winnowing the list down when events forced them to show their hand. Last month, assistant U.S. attorney Marilyn Bobula told a federal magistrate in Akron that Thomas Fee Dillon, 42, an engineering technician in the Canton City Water Department, was "the prime suspect" in the homicides. Her startling revelation came during Dillon's bail hearing in a gun-possession case that did not involve any of the weapons used in the serial killings. The prosecutor explained that, while under intensive surveillance by the task force, Dillon had been spotted buying guns illegally. Authorities decided to arrest him on the gun charge on Nov. 26, fearing that if he were the killer, he might claim another victim. Dillon was soon to be sentenced on a 1991 charge of possessing an illegal silencer, and such stress, Shryock testified, seemed to provoke the killer. And Ohio's deer-hunting season was about to open, drawing thousands of potential targets into the woods.

Dillon was held without bail and pleaded not guilty to the gun charges. So far he has not been charged with any of the homicides, although Noble County Sheriff Smith says he expects to indict him "soon" for the murders of Hawkins and Bradley. Dillon's attorney, Roger Synenberg, insists his client is innocent of all charges. In court he argued that thousands of people could match the FBI's profile and likened the government's case to an empty freight train. "There is a lot of steam, a lot of smoke," he said, "but very little cargo here to support the government's position."

During the unusual bail hearing—and in affidavits for search warrants—Shryock said the task force had been following Dillon regularly with cars and planes after getting a lip in late August from a man describing himself as "Dillon's only close friend." The unnamed informant called Dillon "a loner, abrasive, antisocial, a coward, a 'gun nut' " who spent his weekends driving lonely roads near the murder sites. He admitted shooting numerous animals, the informant allegedly told police. Dillon, a 1972 Ohio State journalism graduate, read books about serial killers, said the informant, and at one point asked his "friend" if he thought Dillon was capable of killing someone. And, Shryock noted, Dillon, whose wife, Cathy, works as a nurse's aide, was able to get away by himself on weekends.

Following Dillon on his weekend drives, Shryock said, authorities watched him buy large quantities of beer "as early as 7:15 in the morning" and fire pistols at electrical meters and traffic signs. Further, a ballistics check revealed that a handgun bought from Dillon by the informant had been used to kill a dog in September. And records of one area gun dealer showed Dillon purchased 18 guns, including four rifles that could have been used in the killings.

A search of Dillon's properly failed to find any rifles. Police believe Dillon may have sold them at Ohio's many gun flea markets, where records are not kept. So far one rifle—a Swedish Mauser that may have been used in the Bradley a in Hawkins shootings—has been found. Jean Paxton is hopeful that eventually others will be located too. "If word of this gets out far enough, maybe somebody is going to pick up on it," she says. Meanwhile, she and her husband, Mickey, a retired coal miner, are trying to cope. "My husband is not the person today that he was when we were looking forward to Christmas and birthdays and holidays and the hunting season—things that were fun," she says. "There's nothing fun anymore."