W. Stewart Connard, an agent with the Internal Revenue Service, may owe his life to some stolen steaks and lamb chops.

Robert Lee Smithson, a 37-year-old Gaithersburg man who was arrested Thursday and charged with shoplifting from the meat counter of the Aspen Hill A&P, told Montgomery County police about an alleged murder-for-hire plot that resulted in the arrest of Douglas L. Sanders the next day.

"Sometimes things like this come out of the blue," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Rothschild. "It's just luck; the police got a little opening . . . . Were it not for the arrest of the other man, the IRS agent might be dead today."

Sanders, a 43-year-old Wheaton businessman who owns construction and towing companies, was arrested Friday afternoon at his Dial Tow office in Silver Spring and charged with conspiracy to murder, a federal crime punishable by life in prison.

Since his arrest, Sanders has been held at the Baltimore City Jail in lieu of $250,000 bond. U.S. Magistrate Paul Rosenberg declined to reduce bond at a hearing Monday.

According to an affidavit filed by IRS investigators in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Sanders contacted Smithson during the first week in March. The two men are "long-time associates," according to authorities, and the affidavit states that they had known each other since serving time together at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup.

Arrested Thursday, Smithson was charged with theft under $50 for allegedly carrying steaks and lamb chops out of the A&P under his coat. As he was being questioned, Smithson revealed a murder-for-hire scheme in which he was to be the gunman.

According to the affidavit, Smithson told police that when he met Sanders, Sanders told him he wanted Connard killed because the revenue agent had recently notified Sanders that he was under investigation for income tax evasion.

Sanders then offered Smithson $5,000 to murder Connard, according to the affidavit. The document also states that Sanders showed Smithson a page from the Maryland telephone book with Connard's name and address listed, gave him information about the agent's daily routine and urged Smithson to reconnoiter the agent's house and car, which he subsequently did.

After his arrest, Smithson again met with Sanders and during that meeting, according to the affidavit, Sanders told him he wanted Smithson to use a "silenced weapon" and preferred that it be a shotgun.

The next day, with IRS inspectors listening in, Smithson phoned Sanders and set up a meeting that afternoon at Dial Tow. As IRS inspectors observed, Sanders handed Smithson a .38-caliber revolver and some ammunition, according to prosecutor Rothschild.

"Sanders was arrested after giving Smithson a .38-caliber revolver and ammunition with the expectation that Smithson was going to Connard's house and blow him away," Rothschild said.

Louis Fireison, Sanders' lawyer, said yesterday: "My client categorically denies that he was ever involved in any attempt on anybody's life. The government has conceded he is not under investigation or audit. To the best of my knowledge he has not been contacted by the IRS in the last few years. He's being used as a pawn."

At Monday's bond hearing, Rothschild suggested it was not Sanders, but a business associate, who was under investigation. He declined further comment yesterday.

A preliminary hearing in the case is set for Monday in federal district court.