Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs is conducting criminal investigations into a total of six state savings and loans, including two large Washington area institutions under state conservatorship, state government sources said today.

The sources confirmed that Sachs' office has received authorization from Gov. Harry Hughes to investigate the operations of Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda and First Maryland Savings and Loan of Silver Spring. The sources also reported that Hughes approved in August a criminal investigation of Ridgeway Savings and Loan, a small Baltimore County thrift forced into state conservatorship two weeks ago.

Maryland officials had previously acknowledged criminal investigations of three other thrifts: Old Court Savings & Loan Association of Baltimore, where depositor runs sparked a statewide thrift crisis in May; Merritt Commercial Savings & Loan of Baltimore; and Friendship Savings and Loan of Bethesda. The U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore is assisting in the investigations, particularly the one involving Old Court.

Sources familiar with the investigations said today that the First Maryland and Community probes, approved by Hughes around Labor Day, are still in the preliminary stages because the months-long investigation of Old Court has strained the limited resources of the Criminal Division in the attorney general's office.

The general focus of all the investigations is possible wrongdoing involving insider dealing by the thrifts' owners, officers and directors, sources said.

The frequent practice among some of Maryland's 102 state-chartered savings and loans of approving loans to business entities and real estate development projects in which thrift officers had an interest was a major factor in triggering the state's seven-month long savings and loan crisis.

While those "insider loans" are not absolutely barred by state law, prosecutors are investigating whether the solicitation of deposits to fund such activities violates state and federal statutes governing fraud.

The complexity of the often far-flung real estate ventures controlled by some of the larger thrifts, coupled with the limited resources of Sachs' criminal investigation division and the installation of a new U.S. attorney in Baltimore, has forced Sachs to concentrate his department's efforts until now on Old Court, according to sources familiar with the investigations.

The first indictments from the Old Court investigation are expected to be handed down within the next two weeks, sources said, with any indictments involving other savings and loans many months, if not years, away.

"People that can understand these transactions don't grow on trees," said one source, who said that the Old Court investigation alone involves a total of almost 20 state and federal lawyers, accountants, bank examiners and postal inspectors. Some of the federal investigators are also working on related savings and loan probes, sources said, including the investigation into the operations of Merritt.

Sachs' office is hoping that federal prosecutors in Virginia will eventually assume a primary role in the investigation of Community Savings & Loan, whose bankrupt real estate subsidiary known as EPIC was headquartered in Falls Church. Preliminary negotiations for a takeover of the probe by the U.S. attorney for Northern Virginia began in November.

Sachs has assigned just two attorneys to the Community probe, which will probably parallel a $50 million civil suit filed in November by the state against Community's former owners. That suit alleges that Community's former owners bled the thrift to fund EPIC's real estate tax shelter empire that collapsed last summer.

Sachs' office also has just barely begun the investigation of First Maryland, which was put on the back burner until recently when completion of an Anne Arundel County prosecution freed several assistant attorneys general.

The investigations of Community and First Maryland were reported in today's Baltimore Sun. Officials of Community, First Maryland and Ridgeway could not be reached for comment.

The attorney general's office, said one source, "has done a lot of work on Old Court, a respectable amount on Merritt, and the rest are stacking up."

"Each one of these could be a major case," said another source close to the investigations. "The public is entitled to have someone take a good look at the transactions and that is what is being done. The fact is, a criminal investigation doesn't necessarily mean criminal activity has taken place."

The Old Court investigation has all but exhausted a special $250,000 appropriation received in the summer by Sachs' office, and the attorney general is expected to seek further emergency funds from the Hughes administration shortly.