It started in June when 11 parking meters disappeared, their dual heads neatly clipped from steel legs as if some "Son of Cool Hand Luke" were loose on the streets of the nation's capitol.

"We knew right then we were in trouble," said Fred Caponiti, the city's public parking administrator. "We average only 20 meters a year lost for a variety of causes."

Later, nine more meter poles were decapitated, this time along the fashionable sidewalks along Water Street SW. Then seven more in Foggy Bottom. And then, 15 dual meter heads were boldy snipped from their supports in the parking lot next to police headquarters.

By late August, Det. Mike Fenske and Officer Tom Gallogly were working full time on what they termed the "meter caper."

A week and a half ago, they spotted a suspicious car and chased it into Virginia. Wrong car. No meter thief there. They returned to the city, only to find more meters missing from Spur Road SW.

They switched to all-night hours and staked out streets where meters had been left behind. No luck.

They attended roll call for uniformed officers and told them all to look out for the Meter Man. More guillotined meters were found but no executioner.

By now, the number of stolen meters had reached 240 -- 240 meters strangely plucked from their poles, meters whose cost, about $200 per unit, was far more than the average $8 usually collected in a single meter strongbox.

Early yesterday morning, the call came. It was exactly 3:31 a.m.

"Unit with Gallogly, the specialist is at Woodies and is getting one right now," the dispatcher's voice crackled.

The two men raced to 10th and G streets. One suspect slipped away, but the other man was there hiding in a doorway, breathing heavily.

Nearby, the police found the pipe-cutter, its red paint faded, and two more meter heads.

Gallogly arrested Ricardo Dixon of 1458 K St. SE and charged him with four counts of larceny from the District government. The harbor patrol later dragged the Anacostia River under the 11th Street bridge and found several bashed up meter heads.

The second suspect was still at large last night.

"We figure the guy got the idea from the Cool Hand Luke movie which was on TV in June. I missed it," Caponiti said yesterday. "Next time, I plan to see it."