Ralph Fields says he found the unsigned petitions stacked neatly on the seat of his pick-up truck parked behind his restaurant, the Round Hill Diner. In terse legal language the petitions call for the removal of Loudoun County Sheriff Donald Lacy for "incompetency, neglect of duty and misuse of office."

"I wish I knew who left them because I'd like to shake his hand," said Fields, a blunt-spoken man who didn't waste much time wondering about the identity of the originator. Instead, he plunked them beside the cash register and fashioned a sign out of a piece of yellow construction paper: "Sign up here to help Loudoun get rid of a lemon. Registered voters only." Fields says he has collected more than 400 signatures so far.

The petition drive, apparently the first attempted under a 7-year-old Virginia law governing the removal of public officials from office, is the latest development in the saga of Loudoun's embattled 35-year-old Republican sheriff. Elected in 1979, when he ousted an entrenched Democratic incumbent and pledged to turn the "country" sheriff's department into a professional law enforcement agency, Lacy has spent much of the last seven months defending himself against accusations of mismanagement and personal and financial improprieties.

Those accusations--leveled first by members of his own department--sparked a probe by a special investigative grand jury, represented by a special prosecutor, Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Aubrey Davis. Last February the grand jury issued a strongly worded eight-page report, citing Lacy for misconduct and urging him to resign. The grand jury, which cannot issue indictments but can make recommendations, did not recommend that any criminal charges be filed against him.

The seven-member panel did find, however, that Lacy had misused county funds, "made a fool of himself" by drinking in public, intimidated members of his own department, helped cover up improper information in a search warrant and agreed to drop criminal charges at the request of friends. Although the grand jury said it probed "numerous charges of sexual misbehavior" it doubted any could be proven in court. The report said "there is certainly enough testimony to leave little doubt in our mind that these things are not without credence."

Lacy's defenders, among them Republican Supervisor Andrew Bird, say the grand jury report unfairly besmirched Lacy's reputation and denied him a chance to clear his name. "That report was hogwash," said Bird. "It was full of all sorts of supposition, things like, 'Well, we can't substantiate this, but. . . . ' What it did was give official credence to rumors. I blame the court for that."

Lacy himself has denied the allegations, vowed to serve out his four-year term and issued a press release branding efforts to oust him a "Latin American-style coup d'etat." He has declined through a spokesman to be interviewed on advice of his attorney but, according to a friend, has said that he should have fired his entire staff when he assumed office and that he believes his troubles are politically inspired.

Fields, who talked his wife Connie into voting for Lacy in l979, doesn't see it that way. "If the grand jury says he should resign, then he should, especially after all this other mess," said Fields, who hauls cattle and sells vacuum cleaners in addition to running the diner.

Many here say it was not the grand jury report--which even Lacy's critics say is vague and lacks documentation to substantiate its charges--that triggered the recall movement. Last month a Virginia judge convicted Lacy of assaulting a 20-year-old Leesburg woman in a hotel last New Year's Eve, following a dispute over whether he would be photographed. Lacy, who was fined $100 on the misdemeanor charge, has appealed his conviction.

Three weeks ago the county's Board of Supervisors also announced it would pay $5,211 in legal fees to Alexandria attorney William Cummings. Cummings represented Lacy in a grievance procedure against chief investigator Jonathan M. Sheldon, whom Lacy fired last October and reinstated shortly after the release of the grand jury report which called his dismissal "without sound basis."

"I've had it with this man, especially when the taxpayers have got to foot the bill," said Connie Fields, whose squat, mustard-colored cinderblock diner is decorated with a giant flyswatter, deerskin, deer antlers and hoofs and a wooden plaque above the screen door that says, "We're Country and Proud Of It."

Connie Fields' sentiment is echoed by others, particulary those who live in western Loudoun's rural hamlets of Purcellville, Round Hill and Hillsboro, where petitions have begun appearing in food markets, restaurants and gas stations.

No one knows for sure how many petitions are circulating because the originator's identity is a closely guarded secret. Many suspect that a Leesburg lawyer helped draw up the petition, which mirrors the language of Virginia's recall law. Others say they believe some of Lacy's own deputies may be behind the petition drive.

Connie and Ralph Fields, whose diner has become a center for the recall movement, insist they don't know who is responsible. "I know people think I'm lying but I don't know who's doing this," said Connie Fields. "When we need more petitions, we just call a phone number and talk to the anonymous voice on the other end." Neither will disclose the phone number.

Petition organizers must secure at least 1,243 signatures, 10 percent of the vote cast in 1979. The petitions then would be submitted to the county Circuit Court, and Lacy then would be required to file a document outlining why he should not be removed from office. He then would be entitled to be tried by a jury, whose decision may be appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

While the anti-Lacy forces are scrambling to collect signatures, Lacy's defenders, many of them his neighbors in the suburban community of Sterling Park in eastern Loudoun County, have formed the Lacy Legal Aid Fund to help pay the sheriff's legal bills.

Last Saturday, the fund sponsored a $25 per couple dance at a hotel near Dulles Airport. It was attended by about 200 people. Lacy attended the dance, accompanied by two privately hired bodyguards. Sheriff's department Capt. Leonard McDonald said Lacy occasionally employs guards because he has received threatening phone calls.

Recently a group of Loudoun Republicans attending a mass meeting passed a resolution supporting Lacy, who reaffirmed his innocence and said, "I'm not giving up yet."

It is not only Republicans who are critical of the grand jury report. Leesburg attorney Joe Ritenour, who says he was consulted by a person whose name he will not reveal several months ago seeking advice on drawing up petitions, is critical of the grand jury report. "They spent too much time on matters that weren't sufficient to force the sheriff to resign and didn't deal much with the more serious charges like switching evidence."

Arlington Sheriff James Gondles, a Democrat and friend of Lacy, is critical of the grand jury's effort also. "That report just muddied the water and did a great disservice to all of Loudoun. It made people think there was all sorts of corruption going on, and they essentially say Lacy's guilty but don't recommend any indictments. It's a little ridiculous. I don't think they knew what they were doing."

Special prosecutor Davis, who questioned the 35 witnesses who testified before the grand jury but did not help the grand jury draft the report, disagrees. "Those who criticize them do a great disservice without knowing what the special grand jury heard. There was no provable criminal conduct on his part. You can't indict someone just for the purpose of indicting them."

At the Round Hill Diner, Connie Fields says she doesn't think the recall effort will succeed. "Even if we get enough signatures, I don't think anything will really happen," she says, surveying the regulars, many of them farmers who are seated at gray-speckled formica tables eating Today's Special--a hot turkey sandwich with gravy, mashed potatoes and dressing.

"I don't want to hurt Lacy or his family," says Connie Fields. "I'd just like to see this thing cleared up somehow."