It began as a tragic but largely ordinary street crime in a working-class Laurel neighborhood, unusual only in that the victims and attackers were of different races, though investigators would quickly determine that it was not a hate crime.

But over the past 14 months, the prosecution by Prince George's County State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson of three defendants in the Sept. 4, 1998, attack that took the life of Salvadoran immigrant Gilberto Hernandez has grown into one of the biggest controversies of Johnson's five-year tenure.

Johnson finds himself accused by some Hispanic advocates and others of insensitivity toward Latinos, the fastest-growing group in the county. It's a bitter irony for Johnson, an African American who grew up facing prejudice in the Deep South and says he scorns any form of discrimination.

The fury directed toward Johnson was evident at a prayer vigil last Sunday, where 50 Hispanic men, women and children held placards denouncing the prosecutor while the sister of the victims, a Franciscan priest, a prominent African American minister and an Asian appointee to a gubernatorial advisory commission on immigrants criticized him as insensitive to Hispanics.

"It seems like this whole case has been a debacle," said County Council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood), whose district holds the highest concentration of Hispanics in the county.

"He really mishandled the whole thing. He should have been more open-minded, to listen to all sides," said Abdul Bangura, an assistant professor of history and government at Bowie State University.

Johnson did not respond to requests for an interview.

How did a straightforward street crime mushroom into a cause celebre?

In retrospect, Johnson and his prosecutors made a couple of key and unorthodox decisions early in the investigation. Those decisions--to not interview key witnesses and to reject the conclusion of Laurel police that the killing was motivated by robbery--enraged some Latinos and their advocates and breathed life into a story that was dormant.

Factors outside Johnson's control kept the controversy alive: an alliance between the Rev. Brian Jordan, a relentless Franciscan priest and advocate for Hispanic immigrants, and Bill Stagg, director of the Hispanic Resource Center, who publicly questioned Johnson's decisions and, ultimately, his motives.

Finally, Johnson himself supplied ammunition to adversaries with some of his statements, such as his suggestion last March that Jordan may have engaged in witness tampering, a charge from which he quickly backtracked.

Part of the anger stems from dissatisfaction with the outcome of the trials for the defendants in the attack on Hernandez, who was tackled, landed on his head and suffered a fractured skull. Prosecutors say he was then kicked, causing a second skull fracture.

Cochise Iraun "Cody" Queen, 18, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of second-degree assault in the attack on Hernandez and two of his brothers. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Kelly Day Martin, 19, was convicted of three counts of second-degree assault and is awaiting sentencing. Steven Darby, 17, was acquitted of all charges by a Circuit Court judge.

The assault initially drew news media attention because of speculation that it may have been a hate crime, and reports from law enforcement sources--which turned out to be incorrect--that Hernandez was stomped to death. By late September, Laurel police had arrested seven teenagers and charged them with murder and robbery, based on statements by Hernandez's brother Juan and one of the suspects, who said the assault began as a robbery attempt.

Interest in the case had waned until Johnson's Nov. 10, 1998, news conference, in which he announced that he had dropped all charges against four of the suspects, obtained grand jury indictments against three on common-law murder charges and dropped the robbery charges against those three, rejecting the conclusions of Laurel police that the assault began as a robbery.

The issue of motive was crucial: Under Maryland law, when someone is slain while being robbed, his attackers are subject to charges of first-degree felony murder, even if they didn't physically harm the victim.

Common-law murder includes first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder and lesser charges. But with no evidence of a premeditated attempt to kill Hernandez, Johnson's dismissal of the robbery charges virtually guaranteed that none of Hernandez's attackers would be found guilty of first-degree murder. Ironically, in both the Queen and Martin trials, Circuit Court Judge E. Allen Shepherd would rule that there was sufficient evidence of a robbery attempt for the jury to consider felony murder charges.

Johnson said he hadn't brought Tomas or Juan Hernandez before the grand jury, and in fact hadn't interviewed them, because they "had nothing useful to add" to the investigation. Johnson interviewed all of the original suspects in the case.

The decision by Johnson and Assistant State's Attorney Fran Longwell, the lead prosecutor on the case, to not interview Juan and Tomas Hernandez shortly after the attack dumbfounded many veteran defense attorneys and prosecutors, who said that interviewing all known witnesses is basic and crucial to any homicide investigation.

The decision to not interview Hernandez's brothers also lit the fuse for the anger that would build against Johnson on the part of the Hernandez family, Jordan, Stagg and others. They saw Johnson as dismissive toward the brothers.

"He did not want to listen. Willfully and deliberately, he shut us out," Stagg said.

It is impossible to say whether the case would have turned out differently if Johnson had also pursued robbery charges against the defendants.

Juan Hernandez, 22, told Laurel police that Martin demanded money as the attack began. Juan also told The Washington Post in an interview a little more than a week after the attack that the assault began as a robbery.

Last April, seven months after the attack, Johnson's office interviewed the Hernandez brothers. After interviewing them, prosecutors added assault charges against the defendants.

As tension between Johnson and the Hernandez family and its advocates grew, Jordan and Stagg raised broader questions about the way the state's attorney's office handles cases involving Spanish-speaking victims, witnesses and defendants.

In an effort to defend his office, Johnson gave conflicting answers that emboldened his critics.

In December, Johnson said in an interview that the fact that he does not have Spanish-speaking lawyers was not a hindrance because his office spends as much as $200,000 a year for interpreters.

Four months later, in April, Deputy State's Attorney Mark K. Spencer told a County Council subcommittee hearing that the office had six Spanish-speaking prosecutors. Spencer and Johnson refused to identify them, and Jordan, Stagg and some council members were skeptical that they existed. The next month, Ralph Moultrie, office manager for the state's attorney, told the County Council that the office spends only about $40,000 annually on interpreters.

Some prosecutors at times have resorted to using relatives of victims and witnesses to translate, which experts said is a well-intended but dicey way of investigating crimes.

Shapiro, the council member, believes the swirling controversy heightened sensitivity to Latino concerns among some county officials.

For example, since the council questioned Johnson about how many Spanish-speaking lawyers his office had, the council has contracted with a Spanish-speaking interpeter to help produce county literature in Spanish, Shapiro said.

The issue of Hispanic representation in county government "is a problem we have to address countywide," Shapiro said, noting that the next U.S. Census is expected to count as many as 8,000 Latinos in the county, which would be about 10 percent of the county's population. No council members are Hispanic.

County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro) said he hopes officials learn from the controversy.

"I think we should reach out to [Hispanics] with more sensitivity at all levels of government," Estepp said. "I don't think we can do that if we reject their concerns out of hand."

Johnson, who is expected to run for county executive in 2002 when County Executive Wayne K. Curry vacates the post, all but stopped commenting on the Hernandez case months ago.

Credited even by his political adversaries with being a skillful politician, Johnson is active in meeting with civic groups and appears at several majority-black churches each Sunday.

It is unclear whether the Hernandez case will have an effect on his anticipated run for the county's top elected office.

The Hispanic population, while growing, is relatively young and does not represent many votes or campaign contributions. Shapiro and others said they believe the Hernandez controversy could galvanize county Hispanics to organize themselves into a political force.

Bangura, the Bowie State professor, said the Hernandez case may be hard to shake in the 2002 campaign. He noted that criticism over Arthur "Bud" Marshall's handling of the 1986 grand jury investigation into the cocaine overdose death of former University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias contributed to his defeat that fall by Alexander Williams Jr., who is now a federal judge.

"People right now aren't too happy with how he's handled this, especially progressive blacks," Bangura said.

"Local issues usually stay in people's minds much longer than national issues. People will remember this. This is a very local, very close-to-home-type issue. I don't think it will disappear overnight."

CAPTION: Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's County state's attorney, angered Hispanics.