SHORTLY AFTER 6 P.M. ON OCT. 22, Joann Reimel and her cousin Shelly Wolfe crossed a small park next to the Susquehanna County courthouse in Montrose, Pa., and headed to the fire station. Accompanying them were dozens of residents of this picturesque town amid the Endless Mountains in the northeast corner of the state. When the women got to the old firehouse bell, rusted from years of disuse, Wolfe, 43, called out, "Let the bell ring for justice." Then she and Reimel tolled it 21 times, calling out each year since 1976. When they were done, Reimel, 49, said through her tears, "This is for him. Marty is smiling down on us."

If so, it is probably more out of relief than joy. Less than a half-hour earlier, Dr. Stephen Scher had been found guilty of the murder more than two decades ago of Reimel's brother Martin. Ironically, after so many years, during which Martin Dillon's family had suspected Scher of the crime and had struggled tirelessly to obtain an indictment, the jury in Montrose took just 26 minutes to convict, once an alternate had been seated. But for the family, particularly Martin's parents, Larry and Jo, this was not a moment for irony. "I prayed this day would come," said Jo, 74. "I'm going to start enjoying my retirement."

The case began on June 2, 1976, when Dillon, a 30-year-old attorney and father of two, went skeet shooting at his family's hunting camp, Gunsmoke, 12 miles from Montrose. His companion that afternoon was Dr. Scher, then 36, a successful allergist at Montrose General Hospital who worked with Dillon's wife, Pat, then 29, a nurse. Within two hours of their arrival at the camp, Dillon was dead of a single shotgun blast to the chest. When the state police arrived, Scher told them Dillon had been running after a porcupine with the doctor's shotgun when he fell and the gun discharged, killing him. Scher claimed he was at least 150 feet away at the time.

From the beginning there were inconsistencies in Scher's story. For starters, police noticed that Dillon's right shoelace was untied, yet the boot was snug against his ankle; it seemed unlikely that he could have been running without having the boot open up. Also, the shotgun wound, dead center to the heart, was too large to have been made from close range, and there were no powder burns on Dillon's shirt. Casting further suspicion on Scher's story was the fact that for a year he and Dillon's wife had been conducting a widely suspected romance. Yet despite doubts among law enforcement officers and townspeople about the circumstances of Dillon's death, coroner John Conarton, after hearing Scher's tearful account of the episode, promptly ruled the shooting an accident.

To the surprise of many, Scher served as a pallbearer at the funeral, at Pat Dillon's invitation. Then, a month after her husband's death, Pat moved out of Montrose with her children, Michael, then 5, and Suzanne, 3. She told friends she was relocating to Philadelphia because of the gossip about her relationship with Scher. A few months after that, Scher's divorce from his wife, Ann, became final and he, too, left Montrose. Two years after Martin Dillon's death, Scher and Dillon married and settled in Las Cruces, N.Mex. Scher raised Michael and Suzanne, and in 1980 he and Pat adopted a baby boy, Jonathan, now 17. Pat maintained that her relationship with Scher had always been entirely aboveboard. "After Marty's death everyone said to me, 'If you need any help, call us,' " she later said. "But he [Scher] was the only one to help us."

The events of June 2 might have become little more than a tragic memory if not for the efforts of Martin's closest blood relatives. Dillon's father, now 77 and a retired car salesman, pleaded with authorities to reopen the case. But he and Jo were careful not to push too aggressively, for fear of alienating their grandchildren Michael and Suzanne, who believed in Scher's innocence. Finally, though, in 1995, several years after Larry and Jo hired a private investigator who discovered evidence that persuaded police to reopen the case, authorities ordered Martin Dillon's body exhumed. By then the family was being torn apart. Pat vigorously opposed the exhumation, and Michael and Suzanne, furious over the suggestion that their stepfather had murdered their father, cut off all contact with their grandparents.

An examination of Martin's exhumed body revealed that, given the size and positioning of the wound, it would have been impossible for Martin to have shot himself. There was also new evidence that Scher's boots contained a high-velocity blood splatter, strongly suggesting that he had been close to the victim at the time of the shooting, rather than 150 feet away, as he had claimed. In June 1995, Dillon's death was ruled a homicide, which suddenly made Scher the prime suspect. At a press conference in Scranton, Pa., that month Pat continued to defend him. "He is a healer," she said. "To think even for a second that something would happen where he would destroy a lifeā€”it's incomprehensible."

At his trial, which began in September, Scher, under direct examination by his attorney John Moses, finally acknowledged he had been having an affair with Pat Dillon at the time of her husband's death and changed his account of the shooting. On the stand, Scher testified that the accident had occurred when he had confirmed the news of the romance to Martin, who in despair had grabbed the doctor's gun. In the ensuing struggle, Scher said, the gun had gone off. He said he had lied about the shooting at the time out of fear of being wrongly accused. "I couldn't face telling the public the truth, so I had to make something up, another accident," he said. "I was afraid I would be convicted, and I'd never be able to practice medicine again."

In his closing argument, prosecutor Robert Campolongo ridiculed the notion of Scher as a victim of circumstance, arguing that the doctor had altered his account to fit the new evidence. "We had him six ways from Sunday, and he knew it," said Campolongo. "That's why the story changed." Among other things, the prosecutor pointed to crime scene photos that showed unbroken clay pigeons near Dillon's hands; he maintained that the victim had been loading the skeet machine when the fatal shot was fired. "It was an execution!" boomed Campolongo, facing the jury.

Immediately after the verdict, Scher was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Inside the courthouse afterward, Pat Scher bitterly cursed when she heard crowds cheering the decision. "You bastards!" she muttered. Now Larry and Jo are hoping to reestablish contact with their grandchildren. "We love them," says Larry. "We'll wait to hear from them." But the prospects for that are not promising. The day before the verdict, Lt. Frank Hacken, a state police officer who had led the investigation, approached Michael Dillon and held out his business card. He told him he had learned a lot about Martin Dillon over the years of the investigation and that if Michael ever wanted to hear about it, he could call. "He shook his head and refused the card," says Hacken, "and walked away."

MARIA EFTIMIADES in Montrose