THE KILLER RIPPED Candido Hidalgo's gold-cross chain from his neck and chucked it into Hidalgo's vegetable garden by his back door.

Then he plunged a knife, over and over, into his throat and chest outside Hidalgo's tidy yellow rowhouse with white shutters on Cottage Street near Devereaux Avenue in Wissinoming.

Hidalgo, 52, tried desperately to escape, to cling to life. He stumbled to the side yard of his house and inched up his walkway as he yelled for help. His wife, Eunice Almonte, who had been asleep in the bedroom above, was jolted awake by his cries just before 4 a.m. yesterday.

Almonte and their 16-year-old daughter, Runilse, said they tore outside and found him crumpled on the ground, his white T-shirt drenched in blood.

Yesterday afternoon, Eunice Almonte's wails could be heard down the block. The sounds of grief made neighbors outside wince.

"He was breathing real hard, but he couldn't say anything," his wife said through sobs in her living room.

Her body shook. She leaned back with a tear-blotched face and pressed a cold, wet washcloth to her forehead. Runilse fanned her mom's face with a magazine. Her mom spoke in Spanish; Runilse translated her mom's words as she fought back tears.

They sat on a couch beneath a huge portrait of Hidalgo's son, Runy, Runilse's stepbrother. Three years ago, at age 21, he hanged himself in the Dominican Republic.

In the stagnant, stifling heat, red-eyed relatives and friends huddled nearby. Outside the open window was the bloodied left handprint of Almonte's husband. Streaks and drops of blood had dried in the baking sun.

Medics pronounced Hidalgo dead outside his home at 4:07 a.m. Homicide detectives continue to investigate.

"He was a wonderful father," Runilse said. "He cared about me. He loved me. He always called to see I was OK. He would always bring me food."

"He was the best guy," said Hidalgo's sister, Maria Tineo. "A good brother, a good friend."

"He liked everybody," his wife said. "Everyone liked him. He had no problem with anyone. I don't know why anyone would do this. I just don't know why."

They had been together 17 years. They met in the Dominican Republic and came to Philadelphia about a decade ago.

Hidalgo had five other children in the Dominican Republic from a previous relationship.

He worked long, brutal hours as a truck driver, traveling all over to support his family. Almonte, 42, said her husband had quit his job about a month ago because the stress of being on the road was draining him, eating at him. He felt sick. But because money was tight, he planned to take another trucking job soon and had recently bought a truck.

On Saturday, Almonte and Runilse were in New Jersey visiting friends. Hidalgo was in New York spending time with other friends.

He hadn't returned home by the time Almonte and Runilse went to bed. But they believe he returned home in the early-morning hours, entered through the back door, took off his green Polo shirt and tossed it on the couch.

Relatives said police told them that he then received a phone call and stepped out the back door. He used to go out there all the time, they said, to smoke his Marlboros.

"I think he got robbed," Runilse said. Neighbors on Cottage Street were reeling yesterday, knowing that one of their own had been slain. They had noticed smaller crimes. Miguel Centeno III said that his van was broken into last week and that graffiti had recently been etched into a garage roof across the street.

But murder was different.

"Things like that don't happen on Cottage Street," said Bianca Galan, 21. "This is a nice block."

She and her neighbors were washing cars yesterday afternoon to raise money for an upcoming block party.

"We're all shocked this happened here," she said.

"Now we all have to look out for each other."

Staff writer Stephanie Farr contributed to this report.