If they hadn't been convicted killers awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping, armed robbery and assault, the escape this month by the Franklin brothers from a notoriously escapable jail here might have seemed comic.

From their early-morning getaway, using hacksaw blades sent to the jail through the U.S. mail, to a frenetic chase along the Appalachian Trail that left a posse of lawmen lost in the woods, Charles and Warren Franklin -- who have dubbed themselves the "Panhandle Bandits" -- seemed to be following a script written for TV's "Dukes of Hazzard."

But with the brothers still at large, despite a search that has included helicopters, tracking dogs and police from three states, no one in the West Virginia Eastern Panhandle that is squeezed between Virginia and Maryland is laughing.

"Anytime you get a caliber of people like the Franklins on the loose, you can't help but be frightened," says Mary Via, secretary at the local Chamber of Commerce. Since the Franklins escaped three weeks ago she says she has been sleeping with a chair wedged against her bedroom door. "I have two children and they're scared to death."

Charles Franklin, 26, and his brother Warren, 24, have police records that some residents say are violent enough to prompt them to carry loaded shotguns on 100-yard walks to the mailbox. The brothers were serving life sentences for beating a Hagerstown, Md., man to death when they escaped last March from the Maryland Correctional Institute.

They were captured a month later in a hail of gunfire in southwest Virginia after allegedly shooting one man, kidnapping six people and stealing two cars. One of the kidnap victims attracted Virginia State Police by scribbling frantic notes on toilet paper in rest stops.

After the Franklin were tried and convicted in Virginia courts for attempted murder of two troopers during that escapade, the brothers were returned to West Virginia. But it took some time to find a jail that would take them.

Sheriffs in two West Virginia counties refused to take custody of the Franklins, arguing that their jails were no match for such notorious escape artists. Finally Jefferson County Sheriff Don Giardina, in office seven months, accepted the challenge.

His jail in Charles Town does not exactly enjoy an escape-proof reputation. In fact, there were nine escapes from the 62-year-old jail last year and local residents called the three-story, red-brick jail the "Jefferson County Sieve."

Sheriff Giardina, a Connecticut Yankee who worked as the county road supervisor before his election, he conceded his jail is inadequate. But he blames the Franklin Brothers' escape on human error.

"This jail can hold them," Giardina tells vistors to his office, just one block from the courthouse where John Brown was convicted and sentenced to hang for leading a slave revellion in 1859. "One of my people just screwed up."

Of his five deputies, Giardina said, failed to examine a piece of mail closely enough to discover hacksaw blades inside. According to the sheriff, the envelope was addressed to inmate Charles Warnick and carried the bibical quotation: "Jesus said I was in prison and you visited me not," taken from Matthew.

Giardina says Warnick gave the blades to the Franklin brothers, who had assumed their "Panhandle Bandits" nickname in a letter to a local paper and by appearing to a local papepr and by appearing in court wearing a shirt embroidered with the words. On July 10, they used the blades to saw through the metal door of their cell and then used a dislocated iron bar to overpower the lone deputy on duty, the sheriff said. After forcing the deputy to release Warnick, the three inmates escaped in the deputy's pickup truck.

The truck was found in Virginia's Loudoun County two days later. That night police dogs sniffed out Warnick along the Shenandoah River. A Jefferson County man was arrested and charged with sending the blades to Warnick.

But the Franklin brothers eluded police. One group of West Virginia state troopers, disguised as hikers, got lost following the Appalachian Trail and had to find their way back with the help of other officers sounding sirens beside a nearby road. Troopers from Maryland and Virginia had no more luck investigating hundreds of reported sightings in their areas.

In the last three days, the reported sightings have dropped sharply. But Giardina says he suspects the brothers are still in the mountains and he has undercover officers looking for them there.

"We'll stay there until there is some evidence that points somewhere else," says the sheriff, who admits he is bothered by the local publicity given the Franklin brothers.

"There is nothing romantic about them," says Giardina. "They're not very smart. They just want the publicity for their own glory and gratitude."