In the 200-year history of this small, quiescent town tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, no police officer had ever been gunned down trying to do his job. Then last week Sgt. Dennis Smedley was ambushed as he left for work, and the killing was so sudden, unexpected and brutal that it has left many of the 11,000 people here numb with disbelief.

Smedley's 22 fellow officers and deputies in the Warren County sheriff's department stripped black tape across their badges, while his colleagues at the Front Royal Volunteer Fire Department draped black bunting across the front of the stationhouse and hung his yellow fireman's hat atop a door. Local businessmen pledged $1,200 as reward money to catch the killer.

On Friday, several hundred law-enforcement officers from throughout the state gathered to pay their respects to Smedley, filling a small funeral home chapel while others stood outside under gloomy skies and listened to the service over a loudspeaker. Then, more than 200 police cars escorted the hearse to a nearby cemetery for his burial.

"Everybody's hurt," town manager Walter Duncan said simply, echoing the sentiments of many.

But Smedley's killing--"an assassination" in the view of his fellow police officers--has evoked more than shock. Some people are puzzled by the slaying, others openly skeptical that the police have the right suspect. Some recalled their own dislike of Smedley, a man deemed to be a tough cop, too tough in their view.

Some emotions, perhaps, are only evinced in small town America, where everyone seems to be acquainted, if not personal friends, with large numbers of their neighbors. Such is the case in Front Royal where long-held feelings run deeper than the nearby Shenandoah River and memories of years-past events are etched in minds as if they occurred just yesterday.

More than a few Front Royal residents say they personally knew both Smedley and the man accused of shooting him to death, Kenneth Allen Foster, a 37-year-old carpenter whose arrest record dates to the time he broke into the Skyline Gift Shop when he was just shy of his 10th birthday in 1956. For such people, the Tuesday morning killing, which occurred just as Smedley opened the door of his pickup truck outside his home, and Foster's subsequent arrest at a downtown cab stand a few hours later have generated a tangle of emotions.

In the aftermath, no one voiced any sentiment that might remotely be construed as justification for the killing. Still, some said in no uncertain terms that the 28-year-old Smedley was not exactly their favorite Front Royal police officer.

Big and burly at 6-feet-2 and more than 250 pounds, Smedley possessed a reputation among some townsfolk as a short-tempered officer who tolerated no nonsense and was not averse to using his physical strength, and maybe the business end of a flashlight, to force a rowdy miscreant into submission during an arrest. Four times in 1979, Smedley was accused by those he arrested or on whom he tried to serve papers, of assault and battery, although three of the charges were quickly dropped and he was acquitted of the other by a local judge.

"Ain't no one like him around here," Norvel Johnson, a retired construction worker and once a coworker of Foster, said of Smedley. "He treat people dirty and people got tired of him."

For Tony Lamb, a 19-year-old tree trimmer, the assessment of Smedley was equally simple and pointed: "He didn't make no friends on the street."

Aside from their negative feelings about Smedley, a town policeman for the last six years and a sergeant for the last two, Johnson, Lamb and others said they were skeptical that Foster was capable of the killing.

Foster's arrest record is substantial, court records show, and includes convictions for a host of traffic offenses, public intoxication, assault, forgery and arson in connection with the 1980 torching of a car. In one 1979 case, Smedley accused Foster of assaulting him, in the terse language of the arrest warrant, "by striking D.M. Smedley with fists, kicking and threatening" him.

In a plea bargain negotiated by his attorney, Foster was found guilty of the assault on Smedley, but given only a 10-day suspended jail sentence.

The one thing that Foster's lengthy record apparently does not include is a gun-related offense, leading several of his acquaintances to question whether he would ever contemplate killing someone.

"I feel Kenny Foster is not the type of guy to do it," Lamb said. "He was a good street-fighter, one of the best in town. I've seen him in several fights, but never with a weapon."

Cab dispatcher Jeff Henry, who witnessed Foster's arrest, said, "I think if he was going to kill someone, he would have done it a long time ago."

Police Chief Milton Robertson dismissed such talk, saying, "We're pretty positive we have our man." Both he and assistant commonwealth's attorney William W. Sharp said there was an eyewitness, apparently someone who saw part of the shooting.

Robertson declined to speculate extensively on a possible motive for the killing, but acknowledged that he thought "it could be" revenge related to Smedley's 1979 arrest of Foster.

The police chief also discounted the negative assessments of Smedley's work. "The only time he used force was when it was necessary to make an arrest," he said. "I view him as an outstanding policeman."

Foster asked to take a lie-detector test shortly after his arrest and the Virginia State Police obliged, but the results have not been released.

Kaye Foster, the suspect's wife for the last 10 years, once accused him of assaulting her, but later decided not to press the case against him. On Wednesday, with her hands trembling, she nervously told reporters outside a courtroom that she believed her husband's claim of innocence.

"He said he did not do it," she said. "I believe him. He was home in bed."

Smedley's fiancee, Tammy Williams, 25, is as perplexed at the killing as many others here. "I find it hard to believe he died," she said.

"Nobody really knows why," she said almost inaudibly, as she stood in the kitchen of the two-story row house she has shared with Smedley since last December. "I've known Dennis four years. Dennis wasn't afraid. He loved his work. He took his job with pride."