To his congregation, the Rev. Samuel Booth Jr. was the energetic and gregarious pastor who led them from a makeshift ministry in an old drugstore to a church of their own in Middle River. His slaying Christmas Eve left them looking to God for a reason.
But last night, police were investigating allegations that the 55-year-old minister may have led a troubled double life in his mobile home behind the Christian Faith Tabernacle Church.
Baltimore County police spokesman Cpl. Kevin Novak said that detectives were looking into "rumors" that the pastor was involved with drugs and that cocaine may have been the motive for the killing.
Among those interviewed by police yesterday was Joyce Lee Wood, whose son stands accused of stabbing the pastor to death.
"We've been dealing with this man for six years now, trying to get him to stay away from our son and a lot of other kids," Mrs. Wood sobbed last night. "But they kept going back to him -- and he kept giving them drugs."
Investigators said James Thomas Wood, 24, drove to the Laurel rest stop of Interstate 95 after the killing, called the Maryland State Police and told them he had assaulted the minister in a robbery gone wrong.
"After being transported to the Waterloo barracks, Wood confessed to being the sole person responsible for the murder of Mr. Booth," according to a written account by Baltimore County Detective James H. Diggs Jr. of an interview with Mr. Wood. "He also said he stole $77 or $78 in U.S. currency from Mr. Booth's wallet and $40 of Mr. Booth's crack cocaine after killing him."
Parishioners had found their pastor's body hours earlier inside his trailer behind the church in the 900 block of Middle River Road when he failed to show up for Christmas Eve services.
Police discovered that his wallet was missing. They also found no evidence of drugs in Mr. Booth's home, Corporal Novak said.
"It's not a narcotics investigation," he stressed. "It's a murder investigation."
Last year, Mr. Booth was charged with eight violations -- including possession of marijuana and drug manufacturing equipment -- after a raid by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and police in Bel Air, where he was living at the time, court records show. All of the charges were later dropped by prosecutors for reasons that were not clear yesterday.
Mr. Booth's mother, Marian Green, said her son was cleared of any wrongdoing because the drugs belonged to wayward youths that he had taken into his home.
"Sam has always been a good boy," she said. "All he's done is minister all his life."
Even before her son started school, he aspired to the ministry, she said. "When he was 3 years old, he got his first long suit and said, 'Mommy, me can preach now?' He used to say, 'Let's get our work done, so we can play church.' "
The pastor's son, Stephen James Booth, said his father had been divorced for 13 years and had recently experienced "serious problems" in his personal life, including several run-ins with his house guests.
The minister often invited people to stay with him, his son said. And even when they robbed or mistreated him, he later welcomed them back into his trailer.
But Mrs. Wood said her family fought a six-year battle trying to break a bond between her son and the pastor -- a bond that she claimed was forged and maintained with drugs.
"We put Jamie through rehab and he finally got himself clean," she said. "He was getting ready to start classes at Harford Community College. Then, the next thing we knew, he was back over there again. Back with that man. Back into drugs. We don't know what to say. What can we say?"
Mr. Wood has been denied bail and is being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center.