Telling Nick Antonelli's friends that he had just been convicted yesterday of conspiracy and bribery charges in U.S. court was like trying to tell the faithful that there suddenly was no longer a reason to believe.

"I've known Nick for 21 years. That's unbelievable. I'm still staggered by what you told me the verdict was," said Gilbert N. Violante, executive director of the Washington Parking Association, in a rare telephone conversation that seemed to be propelled by disbelief.

"You're kidding, Both of them? Guilty? On all three counts?" said lawyer R. Robert Linowes, president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade. "I didn't think they'd made a case."

"Clarence Arata, former executive who seldom holds back his feelings, thought for a long time when a reporter called. Then he said quietly, "I'd prefer not to make any comment on this. I'd prefer not to make any comment."

In the clubby world of Washington's business community, Antonelli had built a reputation as a quiet, reclusive, hard-working but faithful associate. His handshake was as good as a signed contract. His shoulder was never cold to a friend. His money was available to those in need.

He was not much of a joiner nor a leader, though his presence was obvious all over town - in the parking lots that bore his PMI logo, in the steel and glass buildings erected on his land. But he was never president of the board of trade. He was never chosen as its "Man of the Year."

Antonelli had risen from a poor teen-ager living on a diet of corn flakes and water to a man whose personal fortune was estimated at perhaps $30 million. He had made it, playing by the rules, working hard and being fast on his feet.

The last thing any of these men wanted to believe was that Dominic F. Antonelli Jr - Nick - had bribed and conspired with former D.C. Department of Human Resources director Joseph P. Yeldell, as a U.S. grand jury charged in an indictment handed up April 6.

"When Nick was indicted, most people by and large felt it was unjustified. They did not think he did anything wrong," said a friend and sometimes business associate who asked not to be named.

"People thought to some degree the indictment may have been political and to some degree it might have been jealousy of a big man who had done nothing, who had made a substantial amount of money, made it on his own, kept to himself, was a mystery character and made a good target."

Antonelli resented the indictment as an affront to his character. He feared the publicity would lead to harassment of his family, the friend said. Like those friends of Yeldell who belittled the importance of Yeldell accepting a $33,000 loan from Antonelli, Antonelli thought the $5.6 million, 20-year lease he had signed with DHR, allegedly in exchange for the loan and other favors to Yeldell, was inconsequential in the framework of his vast economic empire.

Linowes said he saw Antonelli and his family at Pual Young's Restaurant, 1120 Connecticut Ave. NW, a popular dining spot for many city businessmen, on the weekend before the trial began. Antonelli was optimistic, Linowes recalled.

"Personally, he was very, very hurt," Linowes said. "But he said, 'We're gonna whip this.'"

Antonelli retained one of the best lawyers in the city. He performed smoothly on the witness stand. Few of his friends attended the trial but most felt assured his prediction would come true. The outcome was otherwise, yet for them hard to believe.

"He is the kind of guy who is always ready to help a friend," Linowes said. "Look, he didn't give him (Yeldell) the money. He loaned him the money. If I went to Nick and I needed money, I firmly believe Nick would loan me the money . . .

"There was just this series of unfortunate events that happened in some kind of order. I still consider Nick Antonelli my friend.

"Do I think Nick was guilty? No, I do not. Nick advanced him the money as he would advance the money to anyone. I don't think there was any ulterior motive."