Bill Helms, a respected merchant here in a town known as the moonshine capital of the world, insists he doesn't know what his customers do with all the sugar and plastic jugs he sells at his farm supply store.

But a federal and state investigation, dubbed Operation Lightning Strike, found that Helms Farmers Exchange sells an average of $1 million a year in supplies to moonshiners as part of a sophisticated criminal enterprise similar in makeup and scope to those employed by major drug dealers.

"This isn't Snuffy Smith puffing on a corncob pipe making a little whiskey for his friends," said Bart McEntire, head of the Roanoke office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

ATF agents, along with state and local law enforcement officials, confiscated 80,000 pounds of granulated sugar, 58,000 one-gallon plastic jugs, nearly 50,000 pounds of wheat, rye and barley and 338 pounds of yeast in raids on Helms's warehouses last month.

The raids were the culmination of an eight-month investigation into an illicit liquor industry that has prospered for decades here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Federal and state officials hunt down moonshine makers because they avoid paying the federal and state taxes on liquor. In addition, Virginia loses the 20 percent markup it adds to booze sold in its state stores. Purchase orders for about 554,000 one-gallon containers were recovered in the raids; officials say that translates to about a $7 million loss in federal taxes and more than $12 million in state taxes and markups.

More than half of the "white lightning" is shipped out of state, according to J.E. Beheler Jr., who has been bashing or exploding stills in the hills here for 19 years as the head of a five-member task force of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Beheler said about 90 percent of the sales take place in major cities--particularly Philadelphia and Washington--in nip joints and shot houses where bootleggers often pay for the booze with drugs or weapons, which then are resold by the moonshiners.

"The taste is not inducing to anyone I know, but people buy it because it's cheaper," thanks to the tax avoidance, Beheler said, although the street-sale price often isn't substantially less than legitimate, taxed liquor.

Today's entrepreneurs, McEntire said, "operate like drug organizations, although they are less dangerous. They share information with other criminal organizations, divert money to conceal assets and develop their trusts and friendships in the criminal world."

They could apply for permits to make the stuff legitimately, like the microbreweries that are springing up everywhere, McEntire said, "but I don't think they'll ever do it. There's a folklore about it. It has the mystique of delivering a powerful punch, but [180-proof] grain alcohol sold in state stores will get you just as drunk" as the clear, 90-proof homemade liquor.

The tactics of Lightning Strike's "revenuers" which included employing informants, tapping phones, dynamiting stills and confiscating $38,000 in cash, 50 guns and 25 vehicles, aren't popular with many here, where making a batch of brandy in the back yard has been a winked-at tradition since the American Revolution.

The Helms store, where farmers bought seeds and tomato plants, has been padlocked since the raids.

At the Firestone store next door, employee Eddie Young described the Helmses as "real nice fellows." As for their activities, Young shrugged, "I try to keep my nose out of everybody's business."

W.Q. "Quint" Overton, who has been the Franklin County sheriff 24 years, didn't participate in the investigation. "I'd rather be laying on [watching] a drug house than a still," he said.

Overton, who was an agent of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control before being elected sheriff, repeats a complaint heard often here that despite all the fanfare of the raids, no one has been charged with a crime.

"Why take everything and no charges?" the sheriff asked.

Soft-spoken Bill Helms, 54, said: "I can't see where we've done anything wrong. I've never been to a still in my life."

About a week after the May 7-10 raids, Bill Helms's brother, Ramsey , 56, committed suicide.

"I'm so upset over all of this. Ramsey was worrying about it all the time," said Helms, who confirmed that their father also killed himself after Internal Revenue Service agents began snooping into their affairs in the late 1980s.

"We are in the business to buy and sell," Helms said. "What they bought it for, we didn't ask."

A court affidavit alleges that the brothers operated a used-car dealership, a taxi service and a waste disposal company as fronts to launder money from illegal business activity. The used-car business, H and H Sales, reported selling four vehicles in three years.

The affidavits contend that state income tax returns in which Bill Helms reported income of $10,000 and $11,000 in 1994 and 1995, and Ramsey Helms reported losses of about $200,000 a year from 1994 to 1996, "are not a true reflection of income generated in criminal enterprises."

In the 13 months preceding this February, the affidavit said, the Helms brothers deposited $1.2 million in a bank account and may have stashed more cash in a safe deposit box.

Although no one has been arrested, law enforcement sources said up to 15 people could be indicted on charges that carry sentences up to life in prison.

Such charges considerably raise the stakes for moonshiners, who traditionally have faced wrist-slapping penalties.

Typical, said 71-year-old Cecil Love, was the choice he faced in the early 1950s, when a federal judge told him the penalty for getting caught cooking whiskey was to join the Army or to go to jail. Love chose the military and was wounded in Korea.

Love had learned moonshining from his father, who was caught a couple of times, once by a town police officer as he was making a delivery to the grocer.

"But the grocer told the cop: 'You don't want to stop him. That's what I'm going to use for your Christmas brandy,' " Love said.

After he returned from Korea, Love, with a $110 loan from an older brother, set up his own still in the woods behind his house.

"We took pride in it," said Love, a toothpick whittled from a gum tree dancing across his teeth. But Love's wife forced him to quit.

Today's moonshiners sacrifice quality for a quick buck, Love said.

"We used copper barrels. Dad had a 65-gallon one, shaped like a turnip, that was 200 years old," he said. "Nowadays, they make the stuff in galvanized tubs or old truck radiators," and the end product might contain rust or lead from soldering or even dead animal parts.

CAPTION: Cecil Love, 71, learned moonshining from his father. His wife forced him to quit the business. He said moonshiners today sacrifice quality for money.

CAPTION: J.E. Beheler Jr., a Virginia alcoholic beverage control agent, said more than half of the moonshine made in and near Rocky Mount, Va., is shipped out of state.

CAPTION: Authorities say Helms Farmers Exchange in Rocky Mount, Va., sold $1 million a year in moonshine supplies.