Betty Willey called it a theft. The Army Reserve called it a legitimate toy distribution. Now police are calling what seemed to be a heist of 5,000 toys as much of a fable as the Christmas tale of the legendary Scrooge.

Willey, director of the Toy Project of Maryland, told police Saturday that a person had impersonated her at an Army Reserve Post and taken 5,000 toys donated to her charity, which for the last 12 years has collected and distributed toys to needy children throughout the state.

Police circulated the report, and Willey went on television and radio to tell of her plight. Money and telegrams began pouring into the volunteer's Baltimore home. Checks for $600, money orders for $100 and donations from around the country began filling her three-story home on Regester Street.

"People have really been beautiful," Willey said yesterday, answering a continually ringing phone.

What the people sending the last-minute gifts and money didn't know, according to the Army Reserve and Baltimore police, is that the Army Reserve toys weren't stolen and no one impersonating Willey took them.

They were given by the Army to another legitimate charity requesting toys, the Harford County Chapter of Radio Emergency Associated Communications Team. The Army distributed the toys on a first-come, first-served basis and the Harford Group happened to arrive first, police and Army personnel said.

"It was probably just a mistake on Mrs. Willey's part," said Army Capt. Phillip Carter. "Fifteen different charity groups picked up toys that day."

According to a report filed by the Army, Willey received "five to six van loads of toys" when she arrived at the Jecelin U.S. Army Reserve Post near Baltimore.

"She did receive some toys, but not as many as she thought" she would be getting, police spokesmen Arlene Jenkins said yesterday. "No one posed as her. The Army is not aware of anyone posing as her . . . and we feel very comfortable with the fact that no theft occurred."

Willey said yesterday that the Army Reserve master sergeant in charge of the distribution had given her an appointment for 10 a.m. to pick up her allotment of toys. She told him she would be driving a 32-foot U-Haul Truck. When she arrived Saturday, she said, the master sergeant took one look at her and said: "I just gave you your load."

"Somebody took the toys that we were supposed to get," Willey said. "That's what he told me. What was I supposed to think?"

Days later, Willey said she had accumulated almost as many toys in new donations to fulfill the promises her group had made earlier this year.

"The police still haven't told me where the first batch of toys went. But as long as they went to another charitable organization, I don't care."