The $500,000 in the reward fund in the Washington area sniper case likely will not be distributed until after the suspects' trials, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said yesterday, meaning that it could be more than a year before the money is doled out.

At a news conference, Moose said police have just begun combing through the 60,000 tips received during the October investigation to see who would be eligible for the reward. The money will go to people whose tips led to the arrest and indictment of the suspects.

Even though John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, have been charged with capital murder in the case, Moose warned that divvying up the reward could take a long time as police try to avoid "a lot of potential missteps" that could lead to a nasty court battle among would-be reward recipients.

Police already have received phone calls from attorneys for tipsters who think they should get at least some of the money, Moose said. He would not say whom the attorneys represent or how many people have laid claim to some of the money.

"I would beg of you not to be surprised, not to be upset if the process takes a while," Moose said.

The chief said he is especially concerned that if any reward recipients are called as witnesses in the trials, defense attorneys could try to impeach them by making it appear that they were being paid for their testimony.

Muhammad and Malvo have been charged with murder in several jurisdictions in sniper attacks in which 13 people were shot, 10 of them fatally, in the region. Muhammad's first trial will be in Prince William County, and Malvo's will be in Fairfax County.

As prosecutors build their cases, a committee headed by Moose is deciding which tips helped investigators the most. Moose said he will ask prosecutors and investigators from the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to rate the tips by importance and help determine how the money should be distributed.

So the questions remain: Will the money go to Ronald Lantz, the Kentucky truck driver who spotted Muhammad's Chevrolet Caprice at a rest stop in Frederick County and called police from his cell phone? Will Whitney Donahue of Greencastle, Pa., who also reported the Caprice at the rest stop, get some of the reward?

Then there is Robert Holmes, a Tacoma, Wash., auto mechanic, who called the FBI and said he thought the sniper was Muhammad, with whom he had served in the Army. One of Muhammad's neighbors in Tacoma told authorities that Muhammad used a tree stump for target practice. And there were also witnesses who reported seeing a Caprice driving away from the scene of a sniper shooting in the District.

With so much money at stake, and with so many witnesses, deciding who gets the money is going to be a tricky and controversial exercise, said Margaret Cooper, the president of Crime Stoppers USA, which helps police departments across the country give out reward money.

"Oh Lord, there are so many elements to this case," she said. "You've got all these tips that have been called in that have somehow given a piece to the puzzle. . . . This is going to take forever -- if they are ever able to figure it out."

Montgomery County police have routinely given out rewards for information leading to arrests, Moose said. But those rarely exceed $1,000 and are not as potentially sticky as the sniper fund, which he said was "new territory" for his department.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.