When Herb Minton sent word that he had been in a car accident and couldn't present $35,000 in prizes at his bowling league's awards banquet, most players just laughed about his bad luck.

But the smiles soon faded after the May 21 banquet when league officials could not find the treasurer at his Greenbelt home or his Baltimore office.

On May 23, Maryland state police issued an arrest warrant charging Minton, 52, with grand theft and embezzlement, but police said yesterday they have no clues to his whereabouts.

"The money's missing, Minton's missing," said Sgt. Steve P. Rupard, an investigator with the state police in Waldorf. He said Minton, who has served as treasurer of the Charles County bowling league since 1980, gave no notice before leaving his job as a pipefitter. Minton's wife, Dorothy, and two daughters are still living at the family's home in Greenbelt. They declined to be interviewed yesterday.

Robert Stokes, president of the Southern Maryland Men's Commercial Bowling League, said he told police that officials of the Citizens Bank of Maryland in Riverdale told him that Minton had closed the league's account on May 15. The account had $35,000 in prize money, he said.

"I've gotten burned. The account was supposed to be in two names, but that changed . . . at the beginning of the 1984-85 season and I never checked," Stokes added.

Stokes said the last word the league had from Minton was a message relayed by Dorothy Minton, who called Stokes the evening of the banquet to say she found a note at home from her husband saying "he'd been in a car accident and would make the payoffs the following week."

Denny Dinsmore, Minton's supervisor at Flippo Construction, said that after 13 years as a "model employe," Minton gave him no indication that he was quitting. The only thing unusual, he said, was that Minton, an insulin-dependent diabetic, had asked for time off to see a physician before his disappearance.

"He just didn't show up" for work May 22, Dinsmore said. "He didn't even bother to pick up his last paycheck."

Minton has been something of a local folk hero in area bowling circles.

"He is a well known local figure . . . . He ran a big summer bowling tournament for years," said Bob Cosgrove, local Bowl magazine editor.

"I've known the man for 20 years," said Butch Luther, manager of the St. Charles Bowling Center, headquarters for the 150-member Southern Maryland league. "We've never had any suspicions before. I mean, the guy was your perfect citizen. A family man who didn't drink and didn't gamble."

Luther said the prize money was part of the $12 collected from bowlers each week during the 35-week season.

"I was completely stunned," said Kenny Mangum of St. Charles, who said Minton was a lifelong friend. "It's really not that much money . . . ."

Robert Langley, 43, of Bryantown said he and four teammates were to get $1,400 each that night. "At first it was just disbelief. I thought this can't be happening."