WALDORF -- Christopher Mader slowed his low-slung silver sports car in front of the local elementary school, not far from the giant water tower, to make the turn into the suburban housing development where he lived with his parents and younger brother.
It was just before 3 a.m. -- a fairly typical and quiet commute time when you're a bartender who closes the place down.
Mader, 23, didn't make it home that morning. Shot dead with a single bullet that sailed through his open window, he was killed instantly, before his car veered into a pole and an embankment with his foot still on the pedal. When he was found, his wallet still held his cash and credit cards.
The Thanksgiving morning killing has not been solved -- nor has it gotten a lot of publicity. It was the seventh homicide in Charles County last year and is the only case that remains open.
Mader's parents -- his mother, Samantha Payne, and his stepfather since the age of 3, Phaon -- are doing everything they can to bring the spotlight back on their son. They want the attention in the hope that it will help them find a killer, although there are few clues, few suspects. They have taken out an ad in the local paper asking for donations to a reward fund.
"It's just a true whodunnit," Charles County Detective Keith Moody said.
Mader had no criminal record, "not even a speeding ticket to his name," Moody said. "He's absolutely one of the rarities when it comes to a victim."
Christopher Mader wanted to be a sportscaster and graduated in 1999 from Shippensburg High School in Pennsylvania, where his family lived. They moved to Southern Maryland while he was attending a two-year school in Pittsburgh.
But his mother had a heart attack, and he moved to Waldorf to be near her. He took classes at the College of Southern Maryland and started applying to journalism school. He had internships with a cable channel in Fairfax, at Fox 5 in Washington and at a radio station working for the Sports Junkies. All that and his bartending gig.
Last fall, he learned he was accepted at the University of Maryland, and he and his mother had just picked out an apartment for him. Mader would have started at College Park next week.
Mader closed Bennigan's Nov. 25 with two buddies. As they stood together in the parking lot, the other two decided to go to breakfast at Denny's. Mader decided instead to go home and sleep. The guys were supposed to play football at 10 a.m. against the employees of Red Lobster. He wanted to be rested.
"He made a right. They made a left," said Steve Urso, the general manager of Bennigan's. "He never made it home."
Samantha Payne has become fixated on all the details she knows of that night. It's hard not to be. She talks about how the person who shot her son must have been in a car that sits high off the ground because of the trajectory of the bullet. Perhaps Mader had slowed to a stop. She wonders whether he saw the shot coming or whether he had his head turned away, maybe turning down his blaring music to talk to someone who had pulled up beside him.
Payne calls her son's cell phone just to hear him speak on his voice mail. Sometimes she'll talk to him that way. His friends do the same.
Sometimes, Mader's mother is convinced the shooting was random -- "a hell of a lucky shot," she says. That comforts her, thinking there was no way she could have prevented it from happening.
But sometimes she thinks maybe it was personal. She points to a letter that threatened his friends and family, found later at the spot where Mader died. The police came and took it away in a plastic bag. It remains unclear whether it was a hoax or real.
The police, for now, suspect that the killing was random.
Some neighbors are fearful, knowing that someone was killed at the entrance to their subdivision and no one has been caught. There will be a community meeting next month with representatives from the sheriff's office and County Commissioner Allan R. Smith.
A neighbor wrote to the community association's board of directors, concerned that people are being asked to go about their business -- with children routinely walking by the cross that stands where Mader died -- without answers. The person didn't want his or her name publicized, afraid of becoming the next target.
"I know they're wondering if someone is out there lingering, if something will happen again," Smith said. "It's tough to work on things when you have no leads and you have no actual evidence. ... I think this is an isolated incident, a tragic incident. I don't sense that there's a reason for our community to suddenly feel it's not safe to live in Charles County."
Hundreds came to Mader's viewing. In the days after his death, they left checks -- $500, $200 -- at the bar. The money went a long way; funeral expenses were close to $20,000, squeezing the family financially. A child's funeral is something that isn't usually planned for.
The Paynes started their reward fund thinking that money could break open the case, figuring it didn't hurt that more than $80,000 was offered by local merchants and police to solve the $10 million arson that destroyed or damaged dozens of homes under construction in an upscale development nearby just 10 days after Mader's death. In that case, six suspects have already been arrested.
"It really pushed us onto the back page," said Samantha Payne.
The Paynes have raised just a few thousand dollars for their reward fund. And they're grateful for every penny.
"Generally there's no honor among thieves," Moody said. "Money seems to bring out people who have information. As time goes by, someone will slip up and say something."
Samantha Payne manages the La Plata Wawa store but has been on disability for months. She lives with multiple sclerosis, diabetes and that heart problem. She is in therapy, trying to come to terms with her loss.
"You lose all of your friends. No one talks to us. No one knows what to say" when there's a murder, she said. "Kids get into car accidents, and you always think, 'Thank God it wasn't mine.' ... I'm trying to get across to the public: 'It could have been your child.'"
Mader was nearly home that morning when he was killed. Every day when Phaon Payne heads to work at a Waldorf Wawa store -- and again when he returns -- he has to drive past the spot where the child he raised for 20 years took his last breath.
"We'd like to move," his wife says.
"I'm not going to move until we figure out what happened," he replies.
"I don't want to see it every day," she says, fighting back tears.