WRIGHT CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Shaven facial hair flecked with particles of paint led authorities to suspect Tuesday that a fugitive wanted in a three-state crime spree was still near this small eastern Missouri town.

Michael Wayne Jackson, 41, had gray paint in his thick beard Sept. 22 when he allegedly shot a federal probation officer and store clerk in Indianapolis, then embarked on a series of abductions and auto thefts that ended near Wright City. A third man was killed near here. Jackson was last seen running from a disabled stolen car near here that night.

The hair, found Sunday in a burglarized trailer home outside town, is the only link authorities have obtained in the search for the former mental patient, who has said he would not be taken alive.

''We're treating it as a very good lead,'' Highway Patrol Sgt. Walter Ryan said Tuesday.

The owner of the trailer told police it was broken into sometime between Thursday and Sunday. Officers found used disposable razors, hair, fingerprints and evidence that someone had eaten soup, authorities said. That fit a theory that Jackson was hungry after days on the run and tried to alter his appearance. The fingerprints were too smudged for an identification.

Ryan said laboratory tests on the hair discovered a substance used in metallic paint. While authorities are not saying the tests prove conclusively that Jackson was in the trailer, they say it is a strong possibility.

''It's encouraged us that he is still in the area,'' said Highway Patrol Cpl. Norbert Weidenbenner.

After a week of hunting Jackson, police have run down a number of empty leads.

The latest came Monday, when a police raid on a vacant house in the middle of town produced no trace of Jackson. Bloodhounds had led authorities to the house from the trailer where the hair was found.

Later Monday, authorities reduced the manhunt to 24 searchers from a high of about 100 and removed roadblocks in and around town.

Weidenbenner said residents of the area appear to be less fearful than a week ago, when many locked their doors and armed themselves. He said authorities were receiving fewer reports of prowlers or suspicious noises.

''They're not quite as nervous or they're using a little more discretion before calling in,'' he said.

Authorities believe Jackson was wounded during a shootout with police here on the evening of Sept. 22. But the evidence that he may have shaved and eaten in the trailer altered the assessment of his injuries.

''We're still believing that he's injured, probably not as serious as we thought at one time,'' Weidenbenner said.

Weidenbenner said police are wondering how he could have survived unnoticed for so long in the rural hills of the region.

''He's obviously had some sort of food source or has been able to acquire food,'' he said. ''He may have taken some food from the trailer.''

Police found a pile of clothes that had been taken from the trailer. Weidenbenner said Jackson may have discarded them after finding they were too small.