updated 9/11/2008 1:50:26 PM ET 2008-09-11T17:50:26

The killer taunted investigators, scrawling in blood on one dead man's wall: "Victem 4 in 2 weeks. Catch me if u can." He lit candles around the body and laughed when the man's daughter called and asked to speak with her father. "You can't," he told her. "I killed him three hours ago."

Investigators said they may never know why Stephen Bryant, who was on probation after 18 months in prison for burglary, started killing in 2004.

He pleaded guilty last month to three murders and a nonfatal shooting in Sumter County, a mostly rural area in central South Carolina. On Thursday, a judge sentenced him to death for one of the killings, and life in prison for the other two.

As relatives and friends of his victims wept, Bryant hung his head — a contrast to earlier court appearances when he stared at prosecutors and mouthed obscenities.

"Maybe now we can begin to get on with our lives," said Teresa Becker, a friend of one victim's family. "Not a day goes by when we don't think about what happened. It's been a long four years."

Bryant's three victims were found over a week, within 5 miles of each other in Sumter County, where dirt and gravel roads crisscross the woods between an Air Force base and a state forest.

One other victim survived. Clinton Brown, then 56, was shot in the back while fishing from a riverbank. He drove himself to the hospital.

"People were very much in an uproar," said retired sheriff Tommy Mims.

Plea to spare his life
Defense attorney Jack Howle has asked the judge to spare Bryant's life, saying he never recovered from sexual abuse as a child. Bryant started using drugs again about a month before the killings, including smoking marijuana joints after spraying them with bug spray. Bryant also wrote a long letter apologizing to one victim's widow.

The most chilling murder was that of Willard Tietjen, 62, who was shot nine times. Bryant confessed he knocked on Tietjen's door and told him his truck had overheated. The two spoke about religion and the Masons for hours before Bryant started shooting.

He spent a few more hours ransacking the home, dipping the corner of a pot holder made by Tietjen's daughter in Tietjen's blood to scrawl messages and using a pen to write other notes taunting investigators.

He even answered Tietjen's cell phone. Tietjen's widow, Mildred, testified that Bryant said her husband was dead and identified himself as the prowler. When Tietjen's daughter, Kimberly Dees, called a few minutes later, she said he told her he was having a wonderful day. When she asked to speak to her dad, Bryant told her she couldn't because he'd killed him, then laughed as he hung up the phone.

Also killed during Bryant's spree was his pal, 36-year-old Clifton Gainey, who was shot in the back on the side of a dirt road as he relieved himself, then again in the head as he raised his hand to shield his face. Bryant drove off in his truck with the steaks the men had just bought, prosecutors said.

Bryant also left Christopher Burgess, 35, on an isolated dirt road. His body was found the day after deputies questioned Bryant because the license plate on a truck making the strange stops around the county was traced back to him.

'We lived in absolute fear'
Bryant told authorities the men threatened him, but investigators said they have no evidence of that. A psychiatrist testified during the sentencing hearing that Bryant suffers from paranoia.

Debbie DuRant, who had her own encounter with Bryant, was one of several people who offered either a license plate number or a description to help track him down.

She figures Bryant is just an evil killer, saying she saw it in his eyes when he drove up the half-mile driveway from a gravel road to her house nestled in the woods, claiming he was a contractor and couldn't find the house where he was supposed to be working.

DuRant said she couldn't help him and asked him to please drive away slowly because her dogs were in the yard. It was a cover story to get his license plate number.

Gainey's body was found about a mile away a few days later. DuRant, her husband and two daughters, then in middle school, lived in fear the next few days, all sleeping together in an upstairs bedroom with their dogs and loaded guns in easy reach. The family packed up and stayed about 10 miles away in Sumter until Bryant was arrested, DuRant said.

Even today, DuRant's oldest daughter, now a sophomore in college, won't stay in their home by herself.

"I'm not scared of very much at all," DuRant said. "But for that week, we lived in absolute fear."

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