ELK CREEK, Va. (AP) _ Smoke from the burning body and the sweet smell of gasoline filtered up through the trees. One woman saw the flames and heard the moans. She fled, stumbling through thorny brambles, running for her life.

It had sounded like horseplay. Those boys liked to tease. ``We're going to take G.P. out there and put him on that white cross and burn him,'' one said.

Three weeks after Garnett Paul ``G.P.'' Johnson, a black man, was doused with fuel, burned alive, then beheaded, a witness who stayed behind has told The Associated Press what she saw that night.

Now Hazel Louise Anderson is frightened.

``Lord, I wish I had never been there,'' she says, then adds, ``He could have killed me. Then there would have been nobody there to tell.''

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Sheriff Jerry Wilson saw the smoke when he pulled off the two-lane highway at 6 a.m. and drove up the steep, dirt driveway to the trailer on the hill. Off on a rise, he saw Johnson's still-smoldering remains.

A short distance away lay Johnson's head.

Walking steadily away from the body and toward the sheriff was Louis Ceparano, a newcomer to the county.

Just hours before, Ceparano had invited Johnson, a slight, 40-year-old handyman, and three white friends to an impromptu birthday party. But sometime before dawn, Johnson was hideously murdered.

Locals, black and white, insist such a crime could not happen amid their own. Only an outsider could wreak such havoc and heartbreak.

``As far as the racial, it's not the community,'' says Mary Thompson, a black woman who works in a jeans factory and whose sister dated G.P. ``It's what moved INTO the community.''

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When party guests Christy Harden and Emmett Cressell Jr. reached the sheriff's office in Independence, they reported Ceparano had dragged Johnson into the yard, set him on fire ``then bragged about it.''

Three days later, Cressell, 36, was himself charged with first-degree murder, accused of helping Ceparano, 42, carry Johnson outside. Late last week, Ceparano's charge was upgraded to capital murder. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations.

Cressell denies the charges, says Sheriff Wilson, and Ceparano refuses to talk, except to tell The Roanoke Times he downed the anti-anxiety drugs Valium and Xanax along with bourbon, beer and moonshine the night of the party.

``I was pretty out of it,'' Ceparano says. ``I was there, but I really wasn't there.''

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Just 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds, G.P. Johnson is described as lovable, sweet, helpful _ and a talker.

Johnson shared a tidy, white-shingled house with his 77-year-old widowed father, Garnett Sr. Among family photographs on shelves is his formal portrait in a Marine Corps uniform and a snapshot of G.P. in his high school football jersey.

Garnett Johnson's soft, sad eyes brim. ``He was a good boy,'' he tells anyone who asks. ``He drank. But he never did bother nobody.''

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Junior Cressell is a raw-boned 6-foot-2, with cropped blond hair and blue eyes. His bulging back and arms are splashed with tattoos.

``He's dangerous, to tell you the truth,'' says Horace Hensley Jr., one of the few willing to be quoted by name talking about Junior. He lives in Speedwell, where Cressell keeps a trailer,

At 19, Cressell was put away two years for burglary. Ten years later, he was convicted of fraud for keeping a rented video camera. Last month, he was charged with assaulting a man who had to be hospitalized with a broken nose and a minor stroke.

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When Louie Ceparano moved to Elk Creek, a town of 500 in the southwestern wedge of Virginia, he brought more than the usual baggage.

In trouble with police much of his life, he had arrests for burglary and shoplifting and served two years for sexually abusing a child, say probation officials in Suffolk County, N.Y.

When his widowed mother died in April 1995, he turned the family home into a crack house. That July he was evicted, the house boarded up.

A month before the murder, deputies raided Ceparano's trailer and seized a small amount of marijuana and a shotgun _ not allowed because of his felony conviction for sexual abuse.

Lina Miller watched Ceparano grow up _ and go bad _ from a house across the street in North Babylon, N.Y. He dropped out of high school, washed out of Marine Corps basic training, put in two years in the Army and failed twice at marriage. Along the way, he fathered two sons and a daughter, teen-agers by now.

Told of the murder charge, Mrs. Miller, 64, lets out a sad sigh. ``I would think it was the drugs. It destroyed him.''

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Louise Anderson met Louis Ceparano about five months ago. Louie and Louie. She liked him. He needed her. She drives a car and Louie had sold his. He took to relying on her to get around.

On the evening of July 24, he wanted some beer. They drove to a shop in Speedwell, where they found Junior on the phone, Christy Harden looking for action on her 21st birthday and G.P., already intoxicated and buying more beer.

At Louie's place, everyone drank hard but Louise, who says she diluted her liquor with Mountain Dew, and fell asleep one by one.

Around 4 a.m., Louise heard Louie rousing Junior. What he said brought her into the living room: ``We're going to take G.P. out there and put him on that white cross and burn him.''

In an instant, the white men were carrying G.P. into the yard. They returned, reeking of gasoline.

Through the kitchen door, Louise saw something burning. Louie grabbed her by the chin and warned, ``If you don't tell the story like I tell you, I'm going to have you killed or I'll do it myself.''

Christy, meanwhile, spotted G.P. from the living room. He was sitting upright, burning in the dark.

``I seen him on fire. He was moaning, like he was in pain,'' she says.

Junior and Christy ran. At the highway, they flagged a car and headed for the sheriff.

Louise, terrified and unable to run on crippled legs, concentrated on cooperating. Louie was back in the house with blood on his pants. He pulled on camouflage coveralls and rubber surgical gloves.

``I was scared, T-total to death,'' she says.

When the sheriff arrived, Miss Anderson gave him Ceparano's lie, that they met G.P. in Speedwell, took him home and hadn't seen him since.

But her mother later urged her to go back and tell the truth.

``I thought they was good friends,'' she says. ``They talked like they was good friends.''

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EDITORS _ This story was reported with assistance from investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York.