Life is just beginning to change for Michael Cosentino, the young, part-time prosecutor in this quiet northern Indiana town.

As he talks, his storefront law offices are being scoured by four men with suitcases full of electronic equipment.

"They're looking for bugs, for any kind of eavesdropping equipment," says Cosentino, who has never had to be this careful before.

But Cosentino and the people of Elkhart County have taken on their biggest and most formidable opponent. They have accused the Ford Motor Co. of homicide in the deaths of three children in a Pinto crash.

After a court ruling last week denying a Ford motion to throw the case out of court, Elkhart is set to become the scene of one of the most dramatic criminal trials in history -- and one in which there is no person in the defendant's chair.

A grand jury in Elkhart set the stage on Sept. 14 when it indicted the Ford Motor Co. for three counts of reckless homicide and one count of criminal recklessness in the fiery crash death of three local teen-agers riding in a 1973 Pinto. Now, Cosentino has the Quixotic task of prosecuting the huge automaker.

"Taking on a company with $1.7 billion in earnings is a monumental task," said the 41-year-old Cosentino, who has requested and received an additional $3,000 from Elkhart County, bringing his total pretrial war chest to $5,000 to take on the huge automaker.

"We have and need a lot of volunteer help," Cosentino adds. Indeed, the affable prosecutor has enlisted three law professors as deputy prosecutors on this case, and gained the services of the attorney for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys' Council, all gratis.

He also has the free help of many others who have a vested interest in civil cases against Ford, like the Grimshaw case in California, where a jury awarded more than $125 million to a Pinto crash victim -- only to have a judge reduce the award to $3.5 million. Both sides of that case are appealing.

And, in a town small enough where it matters, there is public sentiment to bring Ford to account for its role in the deaths of three teen-age girls, two sisters and a cousin.

The local newspaper, the Elkhart Truth, has supported the efforts of Cosentino. The 45,000 citizens of the town, which is the mobile home and recreational vehicle production capital of the world and the leading producer of band instruments, are also behind their popular prosecutor, who is running for reelection unopposed.

Ford, in court documents filed this week, has challenged the indictment on both legal and constitutional grounds. The company asked Elkhart County Superior Court Judge Donald Jones to certify the case to the Indiana Court of Appeals for a ruling prior to the trial.

Ford attorney Richard Steinbronn argued that "the defendant will suffer irreparable damages in the eyes of the public if it is forced to stand trial on charges that may be later determined to be unconstitutional, insufficient or otherwise invalid." Ford has alleged previously that it, as a corporation, cannot be tried for murder.

In addition, Ford contends, a 1977 Indiana Penal Code revision should not apply to a 1973 Pinto.

But a county grand jury felt that Ford did have a role in the deaths of the three young women, whose car was struck in the rear by a van moving about 30 miles faster. The grand jury felt the evidence, including many internal Ford documents, showed that Ford was aware of the potential dangers of the Pinto fuel tank in rear-end crashes. The gas tanks in 1971-76 Pintos are particularly vulnerable to leaks and subsequent fires after rear-end collisions, the federal government has determined.

Ford has recalled 1.5 million Pintos and Bobcats to install a protective device on the car, but the car in question had not been recalled at the time of he accident, and the owners had never been informed of the potential danger. The government accident report states that the three passengers of the car were nearly completely burned within only a few seconds after impact.

Cosentino contends that the motor company is at fault because it never warned the owners of Pintos of the dangers they faced. And he has the shocking photos of the victims that could turn the stomach of any jury.

He also has the kind of witness any prosecutor would dream of: a couple at the scene of the accident saw it happen, went home and wrote it all down. "In all my years in the law," Cosentino said, "that is the first time that has ever happened."

There are three facts Cosentino will have to show in court in order to win a conviction. He must prove that there is a defect in the car, that Ford was aware of the defect, and that it failed to do something about it.

And the burden of proof in a criminal case is much tougher than in a civil action. Instead of just showing something to be true by "a preponderance of evidence," Cosentino must convince a jury of Ford's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

But Cosentino has the credentials to pull the case off, local legal experts say. If Ford does not succeed in having the charges thrown out, the battle will likely be on Cosentino's turf, since a change of venue could only put the case in one of five surrounding counties. Four of the five are smaller than Elkhart county, and the fifth, though larger, is the county from which the accident victims came. It is unlikely that Ford would seek to have the case moved to any of those spots.

And the real fruits of the victory, should Cosentino convict Ford, would not go to the state of Indiana, which stands to collect $35,000 in fines. The winners would probably be the 50 or so plaintiffs presently suing Ford in civil courts around the country for damages relating to Pinto crashes. A criminal conviction in courts could have huge financial ramifications in those cases. It is from those cases that Cosentino has acquired many internal Ford documents.