A faded, timeworn sign taped to the window of the town clerk's office in Quantico seeks applicants for the job of town sergeant, an all-around law enforcement post that involves heading up Quantico's six-member police force.

The job's been empty for most of the past 15 months, thrown into dispute when the Town Council fired Richard A. Gabriel last August after he was arrested on a sex solicitation charge.

Gabriel was exonerated a year ago when a grand jury found no basis for the charges. Now he wants his job back, but the council adamantly refuses to reappoint him.

The trouble is, Gabriel's the only one who wants the job.

Last month, 89 of the approximately 170 registered voters in Quantico signed a petition asking the council to reappoint Gabriel as town sergeant, a $12,750-a-year job that legally must go to a town resident. But the council ignored the petition. Although the matter has been on the agenda, the members have not discussed it.

"They took the petition, looked it over, shook their heads and nothing was done with it," said Mayor T.A. "Phil" Giannopoulos, who has pitted himself against the rest of the council by backing Gabriel.

Meanwhile, this little town encircled by a huge Marine base is without a police chief. Gabriel, 45, is suing the council in federal court, demanding his job back. And a nasty political dispute is swirling around the mayor, the council and the townsfolk who have taken sides in the affair.

To hear Gabriel and his supporters tell it, the trouble started in the summer of 1979 when Gabriel, the town sergeant since 1976, asked the mayor for an independent audit of his department. Gabriel and his attorney, Ervan Kuhnke of Dumfries, said Gabriel was concerned about the accuracy of records involving parking meter monies and fines.

Gabriel, a former Washington, D.C., policeman and White House guard, also contacted Paul Ebert, Prince William County commonwealth's attorney, about possible irregularities in the town's books.

The council fought against an outside audit and, according to Giannopoulos, "This blew up to be something terrible in our little town. The more they fought back, the more the suspicions rose."

Eventually the council allowed an audit by the state, and no wrongdoing was found, according to Ebert.

Attorney Kuhnke said Gabriel continued to be "a thorn in the side of the council." In July of 1980, when it came time for the council to elect new town officers, including the town sergeant, it voted to keep Gabriel on a temporary basis until a "qualified successor" could be found.

On Aug. 1, 1980, Gabriel was arrested by Prince William County police and charged with "criminal solicitation." Four days after Gabriel's arrest, the council held a special meeting and fired him.

Last October, a Prince William County grand jury found no basis for the arrest and threw out the charge. Gabriel maintains that he was the victim of a conspiracy, and his attorney has used an affidavit from Giannopoulos to back up this point.

In a sworn statement filed in federal court in February, Giannopoulos said that at a council meeting shortly before Gabriel's arrest, "a member of the council asked me the question, 'How do we get rid of the town sergeant?' The town attorney responded to the effect that it would require proof that he had committed a crime." Gabriel's court papers do not specify who might have been involved in any alleged conspiracy, however.

After being cleared by the grand jury, Gabriel began a fight to get his job back. In January, he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, charging that the council had denied him due process when he was dismissed.

The council members responded that Gabriel had no legal claim to the job because they had not reelected him after his two-year term expired but only had extended his job temporarily. Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. agreed, and in March the case was dismissed. It is now on appeal before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

Gabriel said he filed the suit to get his job back and he is keeping up the fight for the sake of his reputation, even though he has finally found a new job with the D.C. Department of Corrections after more than a year of unemployment.

"It would be nice really just to clear my name, which they have ruined and drug through the mud," he said. "I'm going to pursue this in the court as long as I can to get justice."

Because Quantico's charter requires that the sergeant live inside the town limits, the job was vacant until March, when William Applegate was hired to direct the police force. But Applegate moved out of town in August and again the job is empty.

Calvin Johnson, a corporal in the police department, is acting as chief, but he and other police officers aren't eligible for the sergeant's job because they don't live in Quantico, Giannopoulos said.

Gabriel is the only person who has applied for the job.

The council members refuse to discuss the situation, except for Councilman Herbert J. Saunders, who said he doesn't want to act on the issue until more applicants are found for the job.

"I'm not unhappy with the person who's applied. I just would prefer a choice," he said.

While the council is silent, a number of townspeople are getting restless. Lt. Col. Harry Winfree Jr., a retired Marine Corps officer, spearheaded a petition drive asking the council to appoint Gabriel because "he is the best-qualified person available."

"Everybody's scared to do a damn thing against them (the council), except me," Winfree said. If the council doesn't do something about the sergeant's job at its November meeting, Winfree said, his next step is to ask the Prince William County Court to order the council to fulfill its duties by electing a sergeant.

And when next May's town council election rolls around, the longtime council members, including some who have served since the 1950s, may see a political challenge like they've never seen before, he warned.

"The council thinks they are the town, rather than the representatives of the citizens," Winfree said. "We're gonna win this thing, and the town council's gonna be so sorry."