In the early hours of Halloween, a tiny band of University of Virginia students crept into the school's honor committee meeting room and made off with a revered, 140-year-old bust of university founder Thomas Jefferson.

Moments later, as prank escalated into protest, the group decided its next step. They set off by car for New York -- the Jefferson bust wrapped in a black cloak in the trunk -- hoping to interest the CBS news program "60 Munutes" in an expose of the university's controversial honor panel.

But 24 hours later, the "60 Minutes" connection had not been made (not interested) and the bust was in the hands of university police in Charlottesville. The students now face possible criminal charges and an appearance before the honor committee they set out to embarrass.

"Admittedly it was a mistake. Admittedly it was extreme. Admittedly it was an act of frustration. But at the time it seemed like a good idea," said Ronald Friedman, a 21-year-old senior who, while not present when the bust was taken, said he approved of the idea of taking the matter to the network.

Friedman said the whole project was "contemplated at 2:30 in the morning and delivered at 3."

"I believed the [honor] system was so distorted they would be doing Jefferson a service by removing him from the room," added Friedman, a Phi Beta Kappa with a near-perfect grade average. "We weren't assaulting Mr. Jefferson. We love him."

Several editors of the Cavalier Daily, the university newspapers, conceived the prank "on the spur of the moment," according to Leslie Bland, a 21-year-old senior and advertising page editor of the paper.

Bland said she and fellow staff members Richard Verner, Nancy Cook and Kay Bellor removed the bust from its marble stand on the fourth floor of Newcomb Hall where trials are held for students charged with cheating, stealing, or lying.

The bust, done about 1840 by a French sculptor and worth an estimated $5,000, was then taken outside and placed on the steps of the school's Rotunda "so it could get some air" and to give the group time to figure out what they were going to do with it next, said Bland.

The students decided to drive the bust, together with files of local newspaper clippings, to New York hoping to interest "60 Minutes" in exposing what some of them saw as inequities in the school's honor code.

But one of the students who called CBS en route found that CBS wasn't interested. By then the group was in New Jersey and decided to make the best of it.

"We decided to do a little sightseeing in New York City at Greenwich Village and Central Park," said Bland. After a spin through the city, they drove back to Charlottesville and surrendered the bust to university police.

University of Virginia Police Chief Frank Johnstone, who now has the bronze likeness under lock and key, says he is "leaning to looking at this as prank but there are still some unanswered questions."

Johnstone said he has interviewed all of the students involved and will decide shortly whether to recommend to Albemarle County Prosecutor John Deizo whether to charge the students with burglary and grand larceny, both felonies.

"I'd probably cry if I was charged," said Bland in a interview yesterday.

Meanwhile, the school's honor committee and its judiciary committee, which considers less serious infractions, may take actions of their own against the students, according to student spokesmen.

Critics of the honor code say the system violates due process by forcing students accused of wrongdoing to prove their innocence, several students said yesterday.

About one-third of those called before a trial panel -- which has the power to dismiss students from the university -- chose to quit rather than face the rigors of a committee hearing, according to committee chairman Craig Slingluff.

Verner and Hufford submitted their resignations to the university newspaper Nov. 3.

"We resigned because of ethical considerations. We found what we had done was making the news rather than reporting it," said Verner. "We didn't feel as though we could carry out our work."