The cover sheet says: "Protect us, please."

Page two of the fax reads: "Eli, I send all of this to you with a mother's sincerity and honor and greatest love ever one can have for her son no matter what." Page three: The mother, Kathleen Territo, tells me about her son's "awful addictions" and says that at the very least he's "safe now, free."

Page four: The toxicology report for William F. Ball, Territo's son, who was stabbed to death on February 21, just after midnight, on the sidewalk of a mostly empty street in North Seattle.

The toxicology report says that Ball's blood, tested after he was killed, showed a level of alcohol intoxication that would have caused most people to pass out. It recounts the additional presence in his blood of caffeine, nicotine, and hydrocodone, the chemical name for the substance commonly sold as Vicodin. In Ball's urine: opiates. His mother believes this was from the methadone he was taking for heroin addiction.

Page five: The autopsy report. "The cause of death of this 30-year-old man is a single stab wound of the chest, injuring the heart."

William F. Ball had a relatively short life, and during it he both suffered and caused tremendous pain. He was loved by his friends and family. He was feared by victims of his rage and violence. He had been in and out of jail. He had been addicted to drugs and alcohol. He had been, for quite a long time, mentally unstable. His mother told me over the phone that she wasn't sure what descriptor to use. Perhaps bipolar. Perhaps schizophrenic.

"When he was on medication, he was okay," she said. "When he wasn't, he was not okay."

Ball had hoped to become a respected artist. Instead, in January, he nearly became infamous for a crime he didn't commit—the slaying of Shannon Harps, a 31-year-old woman who was stabbed to death outside of her Capitol Hill apartment on New Year's Eve.

Ball was eventually cleared of the crime when DNA evidence linked the killing to another man. Then, a month later, Ball himself was stabbed to death.

When Ball died, he was dressed warmly: a gray jacket, a gray-striped pullover shirt, and a white sleeveless T-shirt. Also: jeans, secured with a brown belt, worn over thermal long johns. On his feet: white and gray socks. Almost all of these items, the report says, are now either completely soaked or partially soiled with blood—except, it appears, the white and gray socks.

In Ball's pockets and among his personal effects, the random detritus of a troubled man. From his inner jacket pocket: a package of candy, a pair of eyeglasses, and a white metal bracelet. From an outer jacket pocket: a bottle of hydrocodone (60 tablets prescribed to him in January, with 57 remaining), a blood-covered piece of paper, and three "portions of cigarettes."

In two bags from Harborview Medical Center, where Ball was pronounced dead, more possessions: a key chain with several keys; a mental-health pamphlet from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services; another pamphlet titled "Mental Health Ombuds Service"; a card reading, "Crisis Clinical"; a package of Eclipse gum; and a pill bottle with a label indicating that its original use was as a container for trazodone, an antidepressant that was prescribed to Ball in December. The bottle contained pills of many different shapes and colors.

There is also, in one of the Harborview bags, a brown wallet holding Ball's Washington State ID, a $20 bill, nine quarters, one dime, and several Liberty Bell postage stamps.

"Removed from the right ring finger are two band rings, one yellow metal, one white metal. Removed from the right wrist is a white metal bracelet with a dragon design."

Ball's death is a story that resists narrative and sense-making. Seattle police detective Cloyd Steiger, who ended up investigating both the Harps murder and the Ball murder, said he was surprised and not surprised when he went to Harborview one night, lifted the sheet from a recently deceased murder victim, and saw the man he'd been questioning just the previous month about the murder of Harps.

"I went, 'Holy shit, this is William Ball,'" Steiger told me, and then he added: "I wasn't surprised that he would die this way, knowing what I know about him."

Lack of surprise from a homicide detective looking down on a dead body is not, however, an exploration of the forces that created the dead body. Nor is it an interior glimpse of the man who found himself in front of the knife—the kind of glimpse that people, hoping to gather up some useful cautionary tale out of the painful shards of tragedy, often crave as they try to comprehend why others meet such brutal ends. It's a craving that, fairly or unfairly, tends to be far more acute when the murder of the individual elicits surprise and shock, the opposite of Steiger's reaction to Ball's death.

This is because a surprising murder makes everyone feel unsafe. It leads to the frightening thought: It could have been me. It causes people to want to know more in an attempt to perhaps protect themselves from the same fate.

An unsurprising murder? Well, it's hard to convince the general public that there is much protective value to them in reading about an unsurprising murder. They are not surprised. Therefore, they feel, they are not at risk. It could never have been them. Nothing helpful here.

Ball had hoped to be posthumously helpful. Perhaps sensing he was on a dangerous trajectory, he once gave his mother instructions on what to do if he died before her. "I want them to please study my brain," he told her. He imagined that the study of his mind, which had so often failed him, could somehow be of service to others.

"Maybe if they found out what was wrong with him, then they could help other people," his mother explains.

Unlike the murder of William F. Ball, the murder of Shannon Harps horrified the public, and therefore demanded both a clear narrative and a fast, firm response. A young woman who worked as a Sierra Club organizer, Harps was excited about her new place on Capitol Hill and had a life full of friends and opportunity ahead of her. She had been stabbed, repeatedly, for no apparent reason, as she tried to enter her building on New Year's Eve, then left to die.

Under pressure to find a suspect—to offer some sort of explanation for this seemingly random and exceptionally brutal crime—the Seattle police briefly, and mistakenly, took Ball into custody and investigated him as a "person of interest" in the slaying. It was an error and an investigative dead end, but given Ball's history, it's not surprising that someone who knew about him called the police and anonymously suggested they bring him in for questioning.

On paper, Ball was a man who had a record of violence and threats against women, who lived in a run-down Capitol Hill apartment building on a block full of squalid halfway houses, and who bore a loose similarity to the police department's sketch of a person seen running away from the scene of the Harps murder—"a bearded man in a stocking cap."

Ball's mother doesn't try to whitewash her son's criminal history.

"Some of these people, maybe they can't help the crime," she tells me. "Maybe they really, really, truly can't help it. And that's a possibility with my son."

At the same time, she tells me that becoming a suspect in the Harps case made Ball feel like "the scum of the earth."

He was hauled in and jailed for four days on unrelated charges of violating his parole by drinking. Meanwhile, his life was explored in private by investigators and in public by local media—although the newspaper articles did Ball the courtesy of leaving out his name since, at the time, he was only a "person of interest."

There was much, of course, to suggest Ball as a possible suspect. There was his arrest record dating back to his teenage years in Florida—driving under the influence, resisting arrest, burglary, grand theft auto, possession of marijuana, possession of methamphetamine, possession of cocaine.

More ominously, Ball had a history of violence against women. A restraining order granted by a Tacoma judge in 2005 had prevented Ball from going near the mother of his child. She told the court that Ball threatened variously to kill her, kidnap and then kill her, stab her (said while they were eating in a restaurant), or kill her and then kill himself. In 2003, this same ex-girlfriend reported, Ball hit her and then said, "I want to finish you up in the woods." In 2004, she wrote, Ball "chased me down the hallway while I carried my infant son in my arms."

In November of 2005, Ball was found guilty of felony assault for attacking another woman, a female former roommate whom he met in Alcoholics Anonymous. The two of them had been at a party where Ball began drinking and then, according to a police report associated with the case, "became agitated and hostile."

The report continues: "His hostility wasn't directed at anyone specific, but he yelled that he wanted to kill someone as he punched his fist into his other open hand." People at the party became alarmed, but Ball's former roommate stayed with him even after the party ended, hoping to get him home safely. While they were walking to her car, the report says, Ball "went literally crazy. He ran into traffic and challenged motorists to a fight. He yelled racial obscenities at passing pedestrians. He even attacked a black male pedestrian after yelling, 'Nigger!' and running at the man."

When the two finally arrived at the woman's car, she told Ball that she wanted to take him somewhere other than her apartment, no doubt because of his behavior, and this enraged Ball, according to the report. He then "pulled the rearview mirror from the windshield and began striking the victim in the head with it. He then punched the victim in the face and head several times causing bleeding. Blood dripped into the victim's eyes and she was forced to stop her car in the roadway, exit, and run. The suspect chased the victim down and pushed her to the ground. He then grabbed her by the neck and began dragging her back to her car."

The attack stopped only because two police officers arrived and intervened.

By the next winter, Ball was out of jail and at the Capitol Hill dance club R Place, where he caused trouble, was asked to leave by security, and responded by pulling out a box-cutter-style knife and threatening to cut one of the club's security guards. He swung the blade at the guard, there was a tussle, and Ball fell down a flight of stairs and lost the blade to his knife. He was eventually hustled outside and arrested—but not before biting the security guard on the shoulder.

For this attack, Ball was convicted of fourth-degree assault and sentenced to nine months in jail and two years probation, during which time he was not to consume alcohol or controlled substances. This was the probation that he was arrested for violating when investigators wanted to talk to him about the Harps murder—a murder he seemed, on paper, to be perfectly capable of committing.

Ball was, it turned out, the wrong guy. He was released from the King County Jail on January 9 and fully cleared of any suspicion when, in late January, DNA evidence tied the stabbing of Shannon Harps to another man, James Anthony Williams, who had a history of violent threats and extreme mental instability.

Ball was off the hook, out of the pages of local newspapers, and back on the street. A few weeks later, on February 21, Seattle police received a report of a homicide in the Greenwood neighborhood.

They found Ball.

Then, in early March, a man named Rickey Trotter called police to confess to the murder, saying he had acted in self-defense.

Detective Steiger, the investigator on both cases, tells me that Trotter's claim is "consistent with the evidence at the scene and the statements of witnesses who didn't know either of these people." Trotter and Ball were apparently both out that night, but not together. They'd never met before their altercation. They were seen arguing about 20 minutes before Ball was killed, but there is no evidence that this was a drug deal gone wrong, or any other kind of unusual encounter. Steiger can't say exactly what he believes transpired, but he tells me not to read much into the absence of an explanation. "From the way I'm talking to you, it makes it sound like there's a lot more there," he tells me. "There's not."

The King County Prosecutor's Office is currently deciding whether or not to charge Trotter with a crime in Ball's murder, but Steiger tells me: "They've given every indication that they're not going to charge."

I ask Steiger what it might mean that a man who was suspected of stabbing someone to death in cold blood was then himself stabbed to death. Nothing, says Steiger, who has worked as a homicide detective for 14 years. "Most murders are stupid."

It's in the nature of writers, however, to search for a story—a narrative that offers some explanation, a string of logic and events that point toward some cause and effect. There may very well be such a narrative in the death of William F. Ball, but all I have been able to see so far are fragments of a fragmented life. All I can offer is pastiche.

Ball's mother does not have a single narrative to explain her son's death, either. But she has some ideas. She blames the police for wrongly suspecting Ball in Harps's murder, an experience that she says destabilized him. In addition, she has a dark theory about what transpired the night Ball was killed, but it could not be verified. Looking back further, she wonders whether her family's travels all over the world during Ball's youth (he was conceived in Iran, born in North Carolina, and raised all over the Middle East because of his mother's work decorating Arab hotels and her two husbands' military tours) somehow affected his development.

She believes, with something approaching absolute certainty, that all the intoxicating substances he took into his body beginning as a teenager—the substances already mentioned, and also the crack, the huffed gas, and the mushrooms—precipitated his mental fragility.

"He hurt himself with the drugs mentally," she told me. "Something damaged him."

She remembers a psychiatrist in Washington State once telling her that her son had drug-induced schizophrenia, and it's true that psychiatrists believe some drugs, used in some ways, can have serious long-term effects on a person's mental health. This is not the much-mocked "reefer madness" stuff from the 1930s, but the very current idea that you simply never know how your own mental chemistry is going to react with the chemistry of the drug—or drugs—that you're taking. But there were other psychiatrists with other theories about Ball, and ultimately it's impossible to untangle whether his drug use led to his mental distress or his mental distress led to the drug use. It probably doesn't matter much now; it's clear that the two combined in him to form an extremely unstable element.

There was a time before all of this that Kathleen Territo can talk about with much more ease and warmth, a time before her son was "a cuckaboo." These are his much younger years, when he showed an ability to play music by ear, an impressive facility with languages, and a pool-sharking talent that earned him money from unsuspecting older kids wherever the family traveled.

"He was a really different kind of kid," Territo told me. "I think he was too much for us... We were just regular middle class."

Another fax arrives from Kathleen Territo. It's a photocopy of the guest book from her son's memorial service, held at the coffee shop on Capitol Hill where he once worked.

There is a sunflower on the cover and inside there is page after page of kind words and testimonials.

"Will was a force of life," says one. "Compassionate, warm, genuine, and completely honest."

"I met Will in recovery," says another. "Worked side by side with him for more than a year. I offered him my home, argued with him—pissed him off, made him laugh, and in the end he was in my heart. I'll never forget him."

They hint obliquely at his troubles: "You were nothing but a gentleman to me."

And they express the hope, just as his mother does, that this at least brings a measure of relief.

"Peace now," writes a friend. "You had too much turmoil." recommended

Ryan S. Jackson contributed research to this story.