Saturday night, I was shown an ad that had appeared in a small newspaper in West Virginia.

Large letters at the top of the ad said, "REBATE 50 Per Gallon on Gasoline, Diesel Oil, Propane (L-P Gas), Home Heating Oil." In somewhat smaller letters was the message, "Everyone Can Receive Rebate from the Retail Oil Association in Accordance With Official Governing Regulations." Below was a coupon to be filled out and mailed, together with $5 "for postage, processing, instructions."

I thought to myself, "Good heavens, the United States uses billions of gallons of oil products every year. How can any group pay out all those billions of dollars in rebates?"

On Monday, I called Heflin, Ala., and tried to reach the Retail Oil Association, but was told that it had an unlisted number.

I called the Heflin police, who told me, "That office has been closed. Cleaned out. A postal inspector closed them down."

"Which postal inspector? Do you have a name?"

"No. All we know is he was from Birmingham."

Working back along the trail, I next found Clark Evans, a postal inspector in Memphis who is also a lawyer with the USPS inspection service. Evans said, "On Feb. 5 I filed a request in Birmingham for a temporary restraining order and injunction, and on that same date Judge Hancock granted it and ordered us to withhold delivery of mail to the Retail Oil Association pending a hearing on a permanent order scheduled for the morning of Feb. 11th. The information on which I based my request for the restraining order was developed by W. C. Long of our Birmingham office. He's the postal inspector who actually investigated the case."

So the trail finally led me back to the man who knew the most about the case. Bill Long told me that the Retail Oil Association had placed similar ads in "country weeklies and small town daily papers all across the country."

When the ads came to Long's attention several weeks ago, he paid a visit to the Retail Oil Association. There he found one man, "a hired hand," who said he just went to the post office each day and removed the letters that had arrived. Beyond that, he wasn't talking.

He told Long to put his questions in writing and send them to the post office box. Long did.

In a few days, Long was informed that he would get an answer in 10 days. When two weeks went by without a response, Long and inspector-lawyer Evans went to see the United States attorney in Birmingham and asked for the temporary restraining order that Judge Hancock granted.

This afternoon, I'll be on the phone to Birmingham to find out whether anybody from the Retail Oil Association showed up in Judge Hancock's courtroom today to contest the Postal Service request to make the temporary order permanent. Long told me he did not expect such a contest. "We have learned the name used by the man who placed the ads," he told me, "but we have not been able to find him, or even to ascertain whether the name he used was his real name."

Is it Postal Service policy to prosecute when it thinks there is evidence of fraud? "Oh, you bet it is. The problem is in obtaining evidence that will stand up in court -- and in finding the people we want to prosecute." OYEZ, OYEZ!

My hat is off to the Chief Justice of the United States for his vigorous and well-reasoned arguments for a reform of this country's judicial system.

When Chief Justice Burger stated that we have been too much concerned with protecting the rights of criminals and too little concerned with protecting the victims of crimes, he was putting into polite language what many an American has long been saying in grass roots vernacular peppered with profanity.

By coincidence, yesterday's Washington Post told of a citizen who had witnessed a bank holdup, chased the robbers, aided in their arrest and then had given police a statement that could be used in court. When a U.S. magistrate released the suspects without bond, the eyewitness said he feared for his safety. But nobody paid attention to him, so when the trial began, the eyewitness refused to testify. The judge held him in contempt of court!

Will any citizen who read that story fail to remember it the next time he is asked to cooperate with the police and the courts?