To school custodian Mark Reynolds, it first looked like a bundle of trash in the early morning darkness. Someone had dumped whatever it was in the hedges against the Calvert Middle School cafeteria wall, and Reynolds was irked at having to start his day cleaning up the mess.

But Reynolds' indignation yesterday soon turned to astonishment when he got out of his truck for a closer look. It was not trash at all.

It was, in fact, the school's pride and joy: a statue that had been stolen two months earlier. It was an icon of community pride, and its whereabouts weighed daily on the mind of Calvert County's sheriff. It was irreplaceable in the eyes of schoolchildren, who mourned its disappearance. It was the subject of a countywide search and intense local media attention.

It was "Starfish," the fiberglass sea horse.

So elated was Reynolds at the sight of the slightly scratched, six-foot-tall sea horse -- painted by Calvert Middle School students and stolen from in front of a Prince Frederick restaurant -- that the custodian locked his keys in his truck.

"At first, I couldn't believe it," he said, standing on school grounds beside his truck, his keys still locked inside. " 'It's our sea horse!' I said."

The recovery of Starfish is no small matter in this rural Southern Maryland community, where county officials, heeding the public outrage over its theft, took a rare gamble recently. They publicly promised amnesty to those who had absconded with it.

The deal was simple: Return the sea horse in good condition by the end of September, in time for a public auction benefiting Calvert school arts programs, and you will not be punished. Much to everyone's surprise, the plan worked, and authorities said yesterday that they intend to honor their end of the bargain.

"As far as I'm concerned, the investigation is closed," said Detective Sgt. Michael Moore of the Calvert Sheriff's Office, who headed the investigation and thought up the amnesty plan. "The state's attorney's office and the sheriff's office are people of their word."

Sheriff Mike Evans, who went to the school yesterday to see the statue for himself, said he initially considered dusting it for fingerprints but opted against it.

"The case is closed," Evans said.

"I had been putting a lot of pressure on the roll-call sergeants to make sure the guys knew about it," Evans said. "And I had been putting pressure on Mike Moore, asking him every day, 'Do you have the sea horse yet?' "

The statue was created as part of a countywide student art project -- similar to the District's PandaMania and Party Animals.

The forms, designed by the Calvert Marine Museum, were funded with private donations and distributed unpainted to 25 public and private schools in the county in September as part of the county's 350th anniversary celebration.

The students at Calvert Middle School proudly christened their work "Starfish," painting it in colors inspired by Vincent van Gogh's painting "Starry Night." In May, the 25 statues were displayed throughout the county to raise awareness of sea horses, a threatened species in the Chesapeake Bay.

On June 25, Starfish, which weighs less than 100 pounds, disappeared from its concrete perch in front of Adam's Ribs restaurant. Moore said he believes that the people who took Starfish probably were youths who didn't realize that they would stir the ire of the community.

"They did it as a prank, and it got carried away," Moore said. "It got too big for them, and they didn't know how to bail out of it."

"Starfish," one of 25 painted fiberglass sculptures created for a Calvert arts benefit, was stolen June 25 from a restaurant.