The rumors swirl like steam over their early-morning coffee as regulars gather at the Berryville Pharmacy. Workers whisper the stories at White Post Restorations as they bring antique cars back to life. Even the United Parcel Service deliveryman says he's heard the buzz all along his route.
This tiny Virginia Blue Ridge mountain town and much of surrounding Clarke County (population 12,779) are awash in rumor -- of drug use by the mayor! a county zoning official! an assistant commonwealth's attorney! a state trooper! and others!
Swiveling in her chair at the plastic pharmacy coffee counter one recent morning, Henri Whiting, 78, delivered the dirt: "I hear somebody had a 50th birthday party and it got a little out of control. . . . I understand they did P-O-T."
One problem: It never happened.
Yet in this little town 70 miles west of Washington, the rumor that top officials did drugs together has taken on a life of its own. Now the flood of innuendo and scandal has engulfed Berryville and threatens to sully the reputations of its most prominent residents.
So far, efforts by the sheriff and Virginia State Police to quash the gossip have come to naught.
In fact, official denials and an editorial in the paper condemning the rumors have fueled the fire -- "proving" to the town's most enthusiastic scandalmongers that there's been a big coverup.
Most recently, the Clarke County commonwealth's attorney is researching whether the person who originated the rumors could be charged criminally.
But so far, nobody has been able to finger the culprit or the motive.
"It's bad enough when you do do something and it's spread," said Clarke County Sheriff Dale Gardner, who has been questioned by dozens of residents about the stories. "But to have something that's not true of this magnitude. . . . I'd hate to be in their shoes."
In typical small-town fashion, the subjects of the rumor are either kinfolk or longtime friends. When the first whispers surfaced, some of them were amused. Now they're anything but.
Berryville Mayor Richard Sponseller's 16-year-old son has been confronted by a steady stream of classmates asking whether it's true.
"It's out of control," said Sponseller, who manages the family flower shop on Main Street. "You have no idea how pervasive this rumor has become."
Clarke County Zoning Administrator Jesse L. Russell lies awake almost nightly contemplating whether his reputation is ruined.
"It blossomed from hundreds of people to thousands of people," Russell said. "It's like a feeding frenzy. The blood has infested the water, and the sharks are feeding hard. . . . Forever there will be some doubt when people see me and talk to me. How can I work effectively with the public again?"
As Russell spoke, a resident walked by and told him: "Good luck to you!" After the man passed, Russell was wary: "Is he wishing me luck to stop this rumor? Or beat this rap? I don't know."
Denice Cather, Russell's secretary, said she had recently been to a tanning salon and overheard customers saying, "It would serve the county officials well to be brought down."
Rumors often fly around Clarke County. Gossip, after all, can be a staple of life in a small town where people have deep roots and know all their neighbors. And in this hunt country enclave, there's a certain willingness in some quarters to believe that the elite can get away with murder.
Northwestern University sociologist Gary Alan Fine, who studies the role of rumor in society, said that rumors often spread fast in close-knit communities.
"It is assumed in a small town . . . that everyone would want to hear it," Fine said. "If we both were neighbors, I would assume you would want to hear this."
Whatever the motivation, the rumors show no sign of dying.
"All I know is the rumors are flying," said Billy O'Bannon, a UPS driver. "I don't know what to make of it. I see these people every day."
W.R. Thompson III, who works in his father's business -- White Post Restorations, in nearby White Post -- said he had heard the rumor from nearly 10 people.
"Somebody told me three of them got out of a car in handcuffs in Berryville," Thompson said. "You don't know if it's true. You never know."
Nor did Thompson know that his own father, Billy, has been included in at least one incarnation of the rumor.
For Billy Thompson, that's deja vu of sorts. About 20 years ago, the Clarke County rumor factory churned out a bogus explanation for Thompson's wealth: that he got his money from smuggling drugs.
Some longtime residents say they still hear people repeat that tale.
CAPTION: Berryville Mayor Richard Sponseller manages the family flower shop on Main Street. The rumor is "out of control," he said.
CAPTION: This Virginia Blue Ridge mountain town, 70 miles west of Washington, is awash in rumors of official misdeeds.