The polite note taped to the tiny wooden coffin was odd, but to the point: Enclosed please find our deceased, who has not necessarily agreed to enter this contest. If we do not win ... please return so that we can give Le Roach a proper burial.

That he would have.

Le Roach, his lifeless legs clutching a flower petal, was about to end an odyssey that began months ago beneath someone's shoe. Yes, he fit the qualifications -- dead, big and Periplaneta americana -- but he was no more impressive than Leo or Dennis, who were stuck to torn envelopes that said "BUG ENCLOSED," or a fellow contestant who was sent in overnight mail from Maui, Hawaii, or Rattzo, or the squished pack from Miami, or the pair of mating roaches lying on lace in a purple plastic case shaped like a heart.

All were finalists in The Great American Roach Off, which ended yesterday in the Mayflower Hotel. They all lost. They all smelled. And they all were on display as the so-called largest roach in the country -- chosen from more than 2,000 entries submitted from 40 states -- was unveiled before blinding camera lights, a team of first-class entomologists, and the wide-eyed pest reporters of the nation's media.

The winning roach, one of the few without a name, measured more than two inches head to tail. The average American cockroach tapes out at one. It was found on a beach by 12-year-old Laine Snyder of Hollywood, Fla., who during a three-week period collected and examined 100 other roaches in hopes of finding The Huge Dead Roach of his dreams.

Wayne Snyder, Laine's father, proudly explained the procedure: "We killed them, looked at them, then threw them away. They smelled too much to keep," he said. "But when I saw this one, I kept it, because I thought we might have a winner."

The national contest, sponsored by COMBAT Pest Control Systems and coordinated by roach entrepreneur Michael Bohdan, began in April. It promised the ultimate roach-holder $1,000 and an all-expenses-paid, two-day trip to Washington. And it promised his trophy a shrine in the Insect Zoo of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

Entries were sent to 14 cities in the United States, and were measured by appointed pest control experts. The finalists were then sent to Bohdan, who called in a group of entomologists to analyze the roaches by species and determine the winner. Snyder's roach, which was exactly 53 millimeters in length, won easily. Its nearest competitor measured only 49 millimeters. The contestant from metropolitan Washington was a mere 40 millimeters.

"Roaches have changed my life," said Bohdan, an exterminator who sparked the idea for a national contest with a similar event in Dallas last year that received global publicity. He has since appeared on "The Tonight Show," and has traveled across the country to speak about the prehistoric pests. "I've traveled 50,000 miles in the past three months, and I'm amazed at the response we've received for this contest. But I think I was most surprised at the extremes some people went through to package the roaches they found."

Snyder said he found the winning roach half-buried in sand beneath a lifeguard stand. He brought it home, and decided to enter it into his science class' roach-collecting contest, which was started by a teacher who had heard of The Great American Roach Off. "I sent it in at the last minute," he said. "My teacher saw how big it was and thought I might win, so she drove it right away to the pest control company."

The rest is, uh, history. Standing before a cluster of microphones atop a podium, Snyder shyly accepted the award yesterday. "Do you like roaches?" he was asked. "I like this one," he replied.

He later posed for endless photographs, including a 15-minute session with photographers who had made him place the new biggest roach in the country on his fist. "Smile," they kept saying. But Snyder had trouble shaking off an it-sure-is-disgusting-at-the-top expression.

Entomologist Phil Koehler, who conducts roach research in a University of Florida lab that contains 3 million of his subjects, said he was astounded by the contest. "This is the strangest thing I have ever been involved with," he said. "We had people gluing parts of roaches together just to make their entry appear bigger.".

Koehler attributed the contest's popularity, and the extent of media coverage, to the universal contempt society has for the 4,000 species of roaches, which have roamed the earth for the past 350 million years. "It seems everyone has them," he said. "We just finished up a two-year survey recently showing that almost every apartment in the southeastern United States, for example, has an average of 26,000 roaches hidden beneath floors and behind walls.

"That's a tremendous number," he said, adding reassuringly: "but those are mostly just German cockroaches, and they're pretty small."

The contest was apparently not without precedent. According to the six-page "Roach Facts and Folklore" guide distributed at the press conference, cockroach hunts were popular in Europe during the 17th century. Danish sailors, for example, could earn a bottle of brandy from the cook's pantry with 1,000 roaches. Danish Navy Annuals of 1611 reported sailors once bringing in 32,500 roaches. Modern times may be worse. Roach Facts says 1 million cockroaches were found in 1979 in a single two-family house in Schenectady, N.Y. It didn't say who counted them.

Bohdan seemed content to deal in size rather than numbers. Dressed in a khaki safari suit, he posed and smiled for photographs as six four-inch hissing roaches from Madagascar crawled on his shirt and shoulders. "This is a fun way to draw attention to a serious problem," he said. "I know everyone is repulsed by cockroaches, but I also think a lot of people have this morbid curiosity about them ..." They like to share "their best roach tales, or brag that their city definitely has the biggest, worst, most disgusting roaches on the planet. Maybe this contest has resolved that debate."