It was just a rumor.

But it seemed, for a while, like the juiciest scandal ever to hit Oakland, the seat of rural Garrett County, Md., 200 miles northwest of Washington: Several of the town's leading businessmen had been arrested, the tale went, in a major bust involving the distribution and sale of cocaine shipped into the county in coffins.

The purported ring was so tight that local law enforcement authorities were bypassed, for fear of tipping off the targets, and the FBI and state police had had to serve the papers. The local newspaper was implicated, too, for not printing the story of the arrests that allegedly were made last Tuesday.

That the rumor was untrue has made it no less tantalizing.

"It's all people are talking about up here," said Gary Yoder, a usually well-informed resident who lives on the shores of Deep Creek Lake. A teacher said she heard about it in the school cafeteria. A businessman supposedly implicated in the scandal said the story had spread to the nearby coal mines of West Virginia.

The town undertaker was said to be involved, as was the president of the Greater Oakland Businessmen's Association.

It was wild: pillars of the community involved in the seamiest kind of activity, the stuff of old black-and-white movies about two-faced small town America -- publicly pious, privately corrupt. It sounded outrageous but seductively plausible in the Bible Belt county of 26,000 people, which has repeatedly rejected Sunday sales of liquor and is outwardly religious but is also legendary for its mountain moonshine and bootleg ginseng.

The story has become the talk of Oakland, been broadcast over the county grapevine and spread all the way to Washington and Baltimore. But it just isn't so, according to the FBI, the state police, Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer, Sheriff Martin Van Evans, the local prosecutor's office and those individuals allegedly involved.

Local radio station WMSG checked it out and dismissed it as unfounded. Said assistant news director Jack Keller, "We've been upstate, downstate, around state, everywhere, and we couldn't get any confirmation."

But the rumor has gotten so out of hand that Don Sincell, editor of the weekly Oakland Republican, was writing an editorial about it.

"This kind of thing is characteristic of small town living," Sincell said, "but in my 10-plus years in this office and in my whole life in this county, I've never heard of or seen such an incredible spreading or growth of a rumor. In checking it out, we've come up with zero, zip. I plan to put together an editorial this week addressing the problem of malicious rumors, also to defend us as a newspaper because I've been hearing indirectly that the local newspaper won't print it because the people involved are major advertisers."

But not even advertising, it seems, could do what the rumor has done for Marvin (Jack) Jones, 42, owner of Marvin's Men's Wear and president of the Greater Oakland Businessmen's Association. "This is the biggest PR scoop in the history of my advertising," said Jones, who says his store is now busier than ever. "I always wanted to make it bigtime. This is it."

Brad Stewart, 42, the implicated undertaker, said he is involved in local antidrug campaigns and considers himself "a good, strong Christian. Oakland is a great gossip mill, always has been," Stewart said. "If it's not somebody doing this, it's somebody doing that. This rumor's been going around for three or four weeks. It's crazy. I've never been arrested for anything in my life."

Ditto for George Brodak, owner of Brodak's Discount Liquors in Oakland, who said, "They've been talking about me since I hit town 20 years ago. I heard I was flying {drugs} in from Baltimore."

Dallas (Butch) House, an Oakland optician indicted by the rumor, said he did actually serve four months in a work-release program for marijuana possession more than two years ago, but that was that. "You can either laugh or cry about it," he said of the rumor. "I've been laughing about it."