Why Steven E. Williams stole the snakes was the subject of some controversy yesterday. It was not the kind of dispute that courts are equipped to resolve. Snake crime, indeed, seemed so trifling an offense in a courthouse full of mayhem and murder that no judge could even be located to take a guilty plea.

But the case, like most cases, meant a great deal to those it affected: the defendant, his girlfriend and the owner and manager of the pet store. An observer in search of light anecdote ("Python pilferer pleads," perhaps?) found deep reservoirs of complexity and rage.

Even with 59 judges, the D.C. Superior Court is drowning in criminal cases -- most of them more serious, and certainly more conventional, than the misappropriation of two large pythons and four exotic birds. Cases like Williams's, if they are noticed at all, make for a moment's sardonic humor in the jaded courthouse fraternity.

But around the corner, at the Pets Plus store at 704 Seventh St. NW, there was nothing to smile about on Sept. 23, the night that Williams, by his own account, took six animals from their shattered storefront habitats and sold them for $50 apiece.

"He sold all those birds and animals in the street so he could get a fix," pet store manager Blake Grobe said, furious. "He's an admitted pipehead. They were really shook up when we got them back."

Williams, for his part, agreed he does have a drug problem.

"I used to be real heavy with cocaine," he said. "Now I'm easing away from it."

But the 31-year-old District resident said drugs were not the issue at the pet shop. He professed a lifelong dread of animal confinement and said he regarded himself at the time as a kind of liberator for the animals.

"I felt sorry for everything that was in there that was in cages," he said. "The only thing I'm ashamed about is stealing."

From the time he was young, Williams said, his mother learned not to go into the basement, "because she knew somewhere, something was down there."

"I had lizards, snakes, birds, fish, frogs, turtles, newts, spiders, ants, bees," he said. "I would not put them in cages."

The details of the pet shop incident are contested, but a consensus emerged yesterday on its outlines. Williams, drunk, he said, on cognac, crawled through a shattered door and pulled a 13-foot reticulated python from its cage. Then, he said, he played with the $399 reptile -- "let him wrap all around me, petted him."

"I know about snakes," he said. "I watch 'Wild Kingdom,' 'Nova.' They're smooth. It's about the smoothest animal there is. They're graceful. It's one of the best pets you could have."

Williams said he was angry, "because it looked too big to be in that little bowl." He felt the same way about a 9-foot Burmese python ($450), an Amazon blue-and-gold macaw ($1,700), an umbrella cockatoo ($249), a blue crown conure ($125) and an African gray ($299).

The natural thing to do, he said, was to take the animals home. Hilda Durham, his girlfriend, said she had the following reaction to his arrival: "I barricaded myself in the bedroom."

Williams reconsidered. He sold each of the animals for $50, but "the people I sold them to, I made them swear they wouldn't put them in a cage." He denied that the cash was his primary motive.

Grobe, the store manager, expressed nothing but contempt for Williams's story. If the defendant was such a humanitarian, he demanded, why was the umbrella cockatoo's leg so badly broken that it had to be amputated? Why did the pythons, also retrieved by police as part of a restitution agreement, come back traumatized?

"He kicked the glass in . . . he grabbed the bird with his bare hands -- a macaw, which is capable of biting off a finger," Grobe said. Police arrested Williams shortly after the incident, and he faces charges of second-degree burglary, a felony. (He denied breaking the store window, saying it was broken when he entered.)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Pat Brown, in a standard plea offer, told defense lawyer Stephen F. Brennwald that she would accept a guilty plea to second-degree theft, a misdemeanor, if Williams made restitution to the shop.

Brennwald was unable to find a judge with time to take the guilty plea yesterday.

Williams said he will return to court when he receives notice.