BALTIMORE, FEB. 25 -- A federal jury acquitted four former Merritt Commercial Savings & Loan owners of fraud and racketeering charges today in the only case that federal prosecutors have brought in the wake of Maryland's savings and loan crisis in 1985.

Relatives and supporters of former Merritt president Gerald S. Klein and his three codefendants shouted with joy in the crowded courtroom when the court clerk finished reading a series of "not guiltys" in the 40-count indictment.

The jury "was able to look at the evidence dispassionately and render a fair verdict," a smiling James P. Ulwick, attorney for Klein, said.

Federal prosecutors could not be reached for comment last night.

The acquittals culminated a three-month trial -- one of the longest in Maryland federal court history -- in which the jury heard testimony from more than 60 witnesses and sifted through thousands of pages of documents.

Klein, 45, and former Merritt owners and officers Robert V. Gibbs, 44, Eugene Hettleman, 64, and Milton Sommers, 62, were charged with scheming to defraud Merritt depositors by luring them with nationally advertised promises of high-interest rates, but concealing that much of the money collected was siphoned off for insider loans for shaky business ventures controlled by the four defendants.

Ulwick and other defense attorneys countered that Merritt was in fact financially stable until the collapse of the state savings and loan industry in Ohio in early 1985, and other events triggered a run on Maryland thrifts three months later.

The defense also contended that a local news account in early 1985 erroneously created doubts about the Baltimore thrift's stability.

"We were most concerned," said Ulwick today, " . . . that the savings and loan crisis wouldn't infect the {Merritt trial} and cause the jury to think that, because there had been a crisis, therefore a crime must have been committed."

He said the case turned on whether prosecutors could prove that Merritt's public financial statements were inaccurate and, if they were, whether the four defendants believed they were inaccurate. "The government didn't even prove the first part," Ulwick said.

Prosecutors Robert J. Mathias and Charles P. Scheeler contended that the four Merritt owners plowed $45 million of depositors' money into several Klein-related farming and other business ventures on Maryland's Eastern Shore between 1982 and 1985.

Lavishing "insider loans, exorbitant fees . . . and expensive perks" on themselves, Mathias argued to the jury, the four men drained depositors' accounts, "finagling, cheating . . . and lying to make it appear that Merritt was financially healthy, whereas in reality it was nothing more than a black hole."

Merritt entered into voluntary conservatorship in May 1985, and was later bought by Chase Manhattan Bank. The Merritt case is the only one brought so far by federal prosecutors. State prosecutors have obtained convictions against seven former savings and loan officials, including Jeffrey A. Levitt, who pleaded guilty to stealing $14.7 million from Old Court S&L and was sentenced in July 1986 to 30 years' imprisonment.

While state and federal probes into the savings and loan crisis are continuing, officials said they are beginning to wind down.