It started with a tip to the Talbot County state's attorney late last week: an informant said a body was lying in the thick Eastern Shore woods near Trappe, Md.

State troopers found the body, and left it right where it was, beginning a tense 14-hour stakeout in the woods by the Choptank River, near tiny and normally somnolent Windy Hill, a village of crab fishermen and produce farmers.

At 6 a.m. Saturday morning, when three men approached the site, unrolled a bedspread and started to put the corpse on it, police officers emerged from the shadows and placed the men under arrest.

The plan had worked.

Maryland State Police yesterday said the men have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder of James Robert Whitley, 30, who police say probably died of multiple gunshot wounds.

Police identified the suspects, former associates of Whitley, as Robert Simpkins, 36, a self-employed aluminum siding contractor, and Steven H. Shores, 27, and Ricky L. Strickland, 21, both employes of Simpkins.

State police spokesman Bill Clarke said that when the body was located last week, Easton police decided to call in extra help from the Pikesville Special Forces Division.

The two agencies concluded that "it would be fair to assume that whoever was responsible for the murder would be back to try to dispose of the body," Clarke said.

Accordingly, a first three-man shift was assigned to watch the body at 4 p.m. last Friday.

The second shift was just getting ready to go off duty at 6 a.m. Saturday morning when the three suspects appeared, state police said.

"It was incredible luck," said Clarke. "The officers never thought things would happen so fast," he said.

Yesterday, police divers located a new, unrusted 12-gauge shotgun on the bottom of the Choptank River near Windy Hill, where the victim lived.

Windy Hill is a community of no more than 15 houses about 10 miles from Trappe, itself a small town between Cambridge and Easton.

An autopsy is scheduled to determine the exact time of Whitley's death, which is believed to be around July 18, and what kind of weapon caused his death.