In a remote corner of Maryland's Eastern Shore, police last week charged a Montgomery Village man with a crime that seemed to violate a basic ground rule of successful thievery: avoid stealing things that might die and turn worthless before you can get them home.

In a one-road town about three hours from home, the suspect was allegedly caught in the act of pilfering hundreds of live crabs. Narcizo Mendoza-Garcia, 41, of the 18000 block of Lost Knife Circle, is charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, trespassing and theft of property over $500.

The public defender's office for Dorchester County, which is representing Mendoza-Garcia, declined to comment about his case.

Mendoza-Garcia was arrested on the morning of July 4 on Hoopers Island, a narrow strip of land in the Chesapeake Bay that is connected to the mainland by a bridge and is dominated by watermen's homes and crab-processing houses.

Jay Newcomb, the manager of the A.E. Phillips & Son crab plant, said one of his employees first spotted an unfamiliar man in a silver pickup truck about 10 p.m. July 3. The man said he was lost, and he was given directions to Cambridge, the nearest town.

But the man was back about an hour and a half later, Newcomb said. He said the stranger, in a place where few strangers ever venture, had alarmed a group of migrant workers who live at the plant and pick crabmeat for several months each year. The man was run off, Newcomb said, and police were alerted.

About 7 a.m. on July 4, Newcomb said, a neighbor called to tell him the man was back again. This time, Newcomb said, he had gone down to an area near the water, where live crabs are housed in shallow, water-filled tanks.

Those crabs, known as peelers, are being kept in anticipation that they will molt, shedding their hard shells in order to grow larger. At that point -- when the crabs' new shells haven't hardened yet -- they are fished out and frozen, destined for the market as soft-shell crabs.

The man appeared to be taking as many of the crabs as he could, Newcomb said. "He was down there filling up a basket up with peelers."

A Dorchester County sheriff's deputy arrived and arrested Mendoza-Garcia, who by that time had driven farther down the area's one road.

In the back of the silver truck were about 200 crabs, Newcomb said, but he estimated that about 600 crabs were missing from his tanks. At about $2 each, they would have a total market value of about $1,200.

Only four or five of the stolen crabs survived the ordeal of having been kept out of water and piled on top of each other, Newcomb said.

Newcomb speculated that the crabs might have been stolen to be sold as bait. But Lt. Jeff Biskach, of the Dorchester sheriff's department, said investigators still don't know the purpose of the theft.

Newcomb said the monetary loss wasn't much -- new crabs would soon be caught to take the place of the missing ones. But he said he was still a little perplexed by the theft.

"He had a lot of nerve," Newcomb said.