He's as popular as the sheriff of Mayberry, crisscrossing Prince William County almost every night and weekend for ribbon-cuttings, Eagle Scout awards and high school football victory parties.

Sheriff Lee Stoffregen can pack the Manassas Armory with 700 supporters for a shrimp feast. He's a regular at Elks lodge dinners. And sometimes he's the featured attraction, crooning with the Starlights, the swing band he started with his brother in junior high school.

But unlike the fictional sheriff played by Andy Griffith, E. Lee Stoffregen III has no jail to run, no armed robbers to apprehend, no murders to investigate. For three decades, crime-fighting has been the official responsibility of the county police department.

That, however, hasn't stopped the 48-year-old Democrat from building something of an empire, using a once-powerful but now anachronistic job as a springboard to political clout. Stoffregen's prodigious fund-raising machine -- which netted close to $250,000 in campaign cash this year even without strong opposition -- has attracted the notice of top Virginia Democrats. At the same time, questions about his fund-raising tactics have prompted scrutiny by a special prosecutor.

The sheriff has turned the need for more law enforcement officers in the growing suburb to his advantage. He has taken the department far beyond its official duties -- mainly serving legal papers and guarding the county courthouse -- and created a ticket-writing, fugitive-arresting, crime-fighting presence in Prince William. Stoffregen has expanded his reach with a corps of unpaid reserve deputies, many of whom donate to his campaigns. And his widening of his department's role has ignited a turf war with the police department.

What's clear is that the self-made, home-grown sheriff is as engaging as he is ambitious. And many people love him.

"He gets involved. He makes himself visible," Bill Taylor, a Manassas electrician, said last Saturday as Stoffregen, riding on a float in the Manassas Christmas parade, threw him a yellow frisbee emblazoned with the sheriff's seal. "He'll always get my vote."

To keep his $107,000-a-year job, Stoffregen trounced two opponents last month with 78 percent of the vote, the highest of any contested county race. And on his way to victory, he amassed $235,091 in campaign cash.

He's still flush, with $135,931 in the bank -- a sum that dwarfs the campaign accounts of any other state or local politician in Northern Virginia. Some of the region's most powerful Democrats are paying court.

"The sheriff has a tremendous following and a tremendous base," said Steve Jarding, chief of staff for Alexandria businessman Mark R. Warner, the likely Democratic nominee for governor in 2001, who is already building an organization and has lunched with Stoffregen.

Even the GOP has noticed.

"He takes care of every funeral, and anything that's going on, he's there," said county GOP chairman Bill Becker. "He's just smarter than a lot of people that way."

But as popular as the engaging sheriff may be, his critics say he's a man without much of an official law enforcement role who's gotten a little big for his britches.

The county jail is run by a paid administrator -- not the sheriff, as in other counties -- and county police enforce the law, so Stoffregen and his paid staff of 65 have few required duties.

Even so, Stoffregen has beefed up the volunteer deputy force, whose 150 members augment the paid staff. The volunteers carry badges and guns and perform duties from escorting funerals to writing speeding tickets, freeing up staff deputies for other work and saving taxpayers money, Stoffregen said.

The sheriff's relationship with his volunteers is central to the probe of Stoffregen's fund-raising. The investigation followed an opponent's charge that Stoffregen took campaign money from dozens of volunteers in return for badges.

Stoffregen denies that he has traded badges for political contributions. But he does not deny that fund-raising is crucial to his job. "Every time I meet somebody, if I think they can help on fund-raising efforts, I latch on to them in a heartbeat," he said.

About half the 180 current and former reserve deputies or their relatives have shown up on the contributors' list, accounting for nearly $120,000, records show.

Stoffregen acknowledges that after reserve deputies are sworn in to office, he sits them down in his office for a welcome chat.

"They say to me, `Sheriff, how can I help you?' . . . And I tell many of them if we have a fund-raiser coming up, they can participate," he said. "A lot of them know that to keep someone in office, they need to raise money." There is no pressure, he said.

For the undertakers, car dealers, lawyers, pawnshop owners and other business owners who make up the reserve corps, the job brings the prestige of a badge and for some, the security of knowing there is protection, just in case.

"The sheriff keeps an eye on the business," said Woodbridge pawnshop owner Jeffrey Rizer, who has rounded up close to $5,000 from other pawnshops for Stoffregen's campaigns. "You always want to make sure you have some connections."

Thanks largely to the free labor from volunteers, Stoffregen's force has more time to write speeding tickets (1,050 so far this year), sweep for outstanding criminal warrants, stop drunk drivers and, the sheriff proudly notes, help the police capture criminals if they hear on the scanner of a crime in progress and happen to be in the neighborhood. The sheriff even patrols county waterways in a Boston Whaler donated by two of the volunteer deputies.

For four years, Stoffregen's growing empire has rankled county police, who complain that they must compete with the sheriff for salaries, grants and visibility.

Privately, police complain that the sheriff's widening mission is creating confusion for citizens. Although both groups receive law enforcement training, the police get far more.

"Citizens should continue to call the Prince William County Police Department in emergencies, to report crimes, or for police services," said Police Chief Charles T. Deane, who declined to comment further.

Deane can do little to rein in the sheriff, who gets his power under the state's constitution and answers only to the voters.

That's not lost on local politicians, who have received generous campaign donations from Stoffregen and have supported his larger role in law enforcement.

When complaints poured in to her office about speeding cars on a Dale City road, Supervisor Mary K. Hill (R-Coles) called Stoffregen.

"When the sheriff came out there, people clapped," she said. "Any little bit more service you can get, I want."

Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.