Maryland's top independent prosecutor said last week the investigation into the disappearance of up to $80,000 worth of property seized by the St. Mary's County sheriff's office from a Lexington Park man is taking more time and resources than he anticipated.

Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli would not confirm statements that the investigation has expanded to include as many as six other cases of missing property.

"When we started the investigation, we've gone wherever the investigation leads us. You can interpret that the way you want to," Montanarelli said.

He added, "The investigation is a lot more work than I thought at first."

A. Shane Mattingly, an attorney for Wendell I. Ford, the Lexington Park man who says the missing property belongs to him, said he knows of at least six cases of missing property that state investigators are looking into. He declined to discuss the specifics of the cases.

Montanarelli also said the probe, which has gone on for four months, has been delayed by requests to investigate election violations, including allegations that Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign offered teenagers money to pass out literature at polls and then never paid them.

"We're concentrating on these election law cases that we think are important to get done," Montanarelli said.

"It's not suspended at all," he said of the St. Mary's probe. "I just had to use the main investigator for something else." He said investigators should resume interviews on the St. Mary's case next week.

Mattingly said St. Mary's sheriff's deputies recently stopped Ford's car, illegally searched him and seized $5,000 in cash. Mattingly said he has filed a motion in federal court asking that any investigations against Ford be handled by the Maryland State Police, not the sheriff's office.

Mattingly said he is preparing to file a motion in Maryland District Court seeking the return of the money.

Officials at the sheriff's office did not return calls for comment on Friday.

Montanarelli began investigating claims that Ford's property was missing in July after Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar (R) said an internal investigation was stalled by reluctant deputies.

The property was seized from Ford in 1999 during an investigation into a series of thefts for which detectives believed Ford was responsible. The property included lumber, construction materials, a refrigerator and a safe, according to court documents.

The charges against Ford ultimately were dropped because no victims could identify the seized property as their own, said St. Mary's State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz (R).

Mattingly said Ford tried unsuccessfully for two years to get his property back. In March, District Judge John F. Slade ordered the sheriff's office to return the property to Ford, but Voorhaar said the department could not do that because no one knew where the material was.

Ford and another man sued the sheriff's office in September, alleging that 10 unnamed deputies violated their constitutional rights by taking the property without due process.

The probe and lawsuit resulted in the suspension and demotion of Steven M. Doolan from captain and second-in-command to lieutenant. Doolan was put back on light administrative duty in September. No charges have been filed in the probe.

The lawsuit alleges a sheriff's office commander with access to the department evidence room illegally removed Ford's property with the help of nine other deputies. Gary Dicks, the crime lab technician in charge of the property room, said in an interview that a commander told him to release the property. He would not name the commander.