William Massey had spent 28 years as a probation officer, learning the ways of the street, sorting the true tales of human misery from the phony excuses. And so, when he answered the phone in his office at the First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia, he was certain that the woman on the other end of the line was in real trouble.

It took Massey less than five minutes Nov. 20 to make arrangements to wire $267 of his own money to the woman at the Western Union office in Stoney's Restaurant in Clinton. His concern for the woman's safety was so great that he also called the Maryland State Police and asked them to try to find her.

On Thursday afternoon when State Police finally found the woman, they arrested her and her husband and her sister. The three, according to State Police, were operating a scam through which they bilked thousands of dollars from churches in six states.

As Massey, who is general secretary of his church, recalled yesterday, the woman sounded terrified. She told Massey that her name was Pauline Taylor and that she was a regular visitor to the church. She said she was traveling with her two small children and had transmission trouble in a remote Maryland town.

The mechanic, the woman told Massey, was refusing to let her leave the auto shop without paying the $267 bill, money that she did not have. Massey said he could hear the "mechanic" in the background making racial threats at the woman in a deep Southern accent.

"This was clever, really, really clever. And I bought it," Massey said. "I bought the whole sack of manure."

Maryland State Police have charged Lena Roxie Lewis, 35, and her husband, Gary Patrick Lewis, 31, whose last known address was on Loxbury Court in Landover, and Paulette Williams, 20, of the 7100 block of Joplin Street in Seat Pleasant, with one count each of theft by deception and two counts of conspiracy to commit theft. Evidence is being reviewed by the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office, police said.

"It's amazing what they were doing," said Trooper Richard Barilone. "They were playing on the mercy of these churches, and apparently these churches were vulnerable."

The Lewises and Williams were arrested about 3:30 p.m. Thursday when they tried to collect $300 wired by a Pittsburgh church to the Western Union office at Triangle Liquors in Forestville, Barilone said. The clerk at the liquor store had recognized the people as the same ones who had collected $500 two days earlier from a church in Florida, and he alerted the police, Barilone said.

State Police had been receiving complaints from bilked churches about the troubled "traveler" for about two weeks, Barilone said. Officers had no idea how wide the alleged con game reached, however, until they searched the Capitol Heights motel room where the Lewises had been staying.

There, Barilone said, officers found receipts from money wired to Western Union offices in Prince George's, Charles County and the District from churches in Texas, Florida, California, Tennessee, New York and Pennsylvania.

Typically, Barilone said, a woman representing herself as a member of the congregation contacted the church and said that she had had car trouble in Maryland. Barilone said Lena Lewis made the calls while her husband pretended to be a threatening mechanic. Williams often collected the cash, Barilone said.

The churches apparently did not check their membership roles before sending money, Barilone said.

In Massey's case, the woman who went to the Western Union was unable to collect the money because she did not have the password required for such transactions. Massey said he called Western Union to complain about the mixup.

"I was a crusader for justice. I told the Western Union people I couldn't believe they would let a woman and her children sleep in a car because of some technicality," said Massey. "Oh, man, I bought it . . . . I really bought it."