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SUSPECT GOT PROBATION JUST BEFORE SPREE

A man charged with killing his ex-wife with an assault rifle and then going on a three-hour aerial rampage - buzzing buildings and firing at cars - had been placed on probation just hours before the shooting.

Alfred J. Hunter, 42, had been convicted Tuesday of assault and battery and of violating a protective order stemming from a New Year's Eve fight with his wife over which television station to watch.She had first asked for a restraining order in January 1988. The couple's six-year marriage ended in divorce four months later.

Salem District Court Judge John T. Doyle placed Hunter on one year's probation.

The trouble began later that evening when police in Danvers, about 20 miles north of Boston, responded to a domestic dispute call. They found the body of Elvira Hunter, 30, in her apartment, shot several times with an AK-47 assault rifle, state Trooper Mark Lynch said.

Lynch said the couple's 5-year-old son saw his father kill his mother.

Hunter fled, stole a car from a restaurant in nearby Peabody and then commandeered a Cessna airplane, which he flew helter-skelter over a 60-mile area of Greater Boston, dive-bombing buildings and firing the automatic rifle, police said.

He was captured when he landed at Logan International Airport early Wednesday, was charged with murder and armed robbery and ordered held without bail for 20 days' psychiatric observation.

Before the assault and battery conviction, Hunter had pleaded guilty in 1979 to assaulting a group of people with a machete and was sentenced to one year's probation.