An 11-year-old boy and two Northwest Washington men were arrested early yesterday and charged with selling heroin to an undercover police officer in one of the city's main heroin and cocaine markets, D.C. police said.

The boy, who a police officer said weighs about 50 pounds and "didn't even look like his head was above the desk" at the station house, was allegedly the "holder" of the heroin, police said. They said one of his alleged accomplices was a "money man" who held the cash, while the other was a dealer who negotiated drug sales with customers.

Police said the operation, in which the dealer allegedly communicated with the boy and the money man through hand movements and other signals, illustrated how drug dealers in the city are using children as a way to protect themselves from arrest.

Dealers employ children because they believe they will not be prosecuted, and because many times the dealers have previous drug convictions and would face stiffer penalties if convicted again.

Police said the 11-year-old boy and the two adults were arrested around 1 a.m. in the 1400 block of W Street NW. They said the boy, a Northwest Washington resident, was charged with distribution of heroin.

The arrests marked the second time in three days that an 11-year-old was arrested for distributing drugs. On Monday, a Southeast boy was arrested and charged with distributing PCP. Police said no adults were arrested in that incident, but their investigation is continuing.

The adults arrested yesterday and charged with distributing heroin are Eric C. Johnson, 18, of 2220 12th Place NW and Richard Shorter, 32, of 410 Florida Ave. NW, police said.

According to records in D.C. Superior Court, Johnson has been arrested three times since February on charges of distributing heroin, all of which are pending. Each time he was released on personal recognizance, the records show.

Shorter also has a heroin distribution charge pending, according to Superior Court records.

In a presentment hearing yesterday, Superior Court Commissioner Evelyn C. Queen ordered both men held without bond for five days pending a preventive detention hearing.

"You have violated every single order that the court has given you," she told Johnson, who after an arrest May 1 was ordered to observe an 8 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. curfew and not to go within five blocks of 14th and V streets NW.

Inspector Kris Coligan, director of the D.C. police Morals Division, said the arrests were made after an undercover officer from the Narcotics Task Force approached a dealer and asked about making a purchase of heroin.

After negotiating to sell a gram bag for $40, the dealer signaled to a money man inside 1400 W St., which Coligan described as "an apartment building dealers use as a refuge."

The man came out and collected the money, Coligan said, and the dealer then signaled to the boy that he should give a package of heroin to the money man, who passed it along to the undercover officer. Shortly thereafter, Coligan said, a second undercover officer made a heroin buy from the dealer.

Coligan, saying it was "very unusual" for a child to be charged with distributing heroin, said that the boy apparently believed he was holding cocaine.

Another official said the boy apparently did not know the men and had been offered $20 to work for them.