Justice of the Peace Nena Stafford ruled late this afternoon that Ed Cantrell, this city's top law enforcement officer, will have to stand trial on charges of first-degree murder in the shooting death of a detective he had hired to clean up the estimated annual $3 million to $5 million in vice operations here.

Stafford's decision came after 15 days of preliminary hearing on the charges against Cantrell, brought seven months ago.

Other than this new development, little has changed in Rock Springs.

The hookers are still cruising cold, windy K Street in the comfort of their out-of-state-registered Cadillac Sevilles, and their pimps are still shooting pool in the saloons.

Drug deals go down in other saloons. Organized gambling is still a way of life in some of the best homes in town. There are the odd, unexplained shootings.

But inside the city's justice of the peace office this week, lawyers argued, until this afternoon, for and against Cantrell, once Rock Springs' public safety director.

The hearing was a colorful affair.

Cantrell's flamboyant attorney, Gerald Spence of Casper, is the state's best known and most expensive defense lawyer.

A big, burly man with long, gray hair who wears a 10-gallon hat so large that people even in this diehard western town are at a loss for words to describe it, Spence pounds tables at times and insists that Cantrell is innocent because he shot the detective, 29-year-old Michael Rosa, who "may have a criminal record," in self-defense.

One cynical local attorney last week speculated that, if Stafford ruled that Cantrell should stand trial, "Spence is so smart he'll have Rosa on trial in that courtroom, not Ed Cantrell. The talk of the town is that if this comes to trial he'll get Cantrell off."

Cantrell, Spence maintained, was joking when he told officers the day he shot Rosa, "Maybe we should take this son of a bitch out and shoot him."

The hearing has not touched city officials, charged by a Wyoming grand jury last November with "openly condoning" the operation of the Townsend Club, which the grand jury described as Rock Springs' most notorious prostitution and gambling center.

The grand jury, which, in an extraordinary move, issued a scathing report but no indictments, said "the [now ex] mayor of the city, the chief of police, the county sheriff and the county attorney must accept responsibility for failure to act to enforce municipal ordinances and state statutes probiting prostitution and pimping."

James Stark, the former sheriff, echoing other officials, said, "We were doing our best at the time with the people we had. Our boys were doing their best to curb the prostitution."

But a Cantrell trial might name and embarrass many people in Rock Springs.

Rock Springs is a tough boom town whose economy centers on mining and the giant, coal-fired Jim Bridger power plant serving eastern Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

Many city leaders contributed last August to help raise the $250,000 bond required to get Cantrell out of jail.

They also have contributed to the Cantrell defense fund and have helped pay Spence's legal fees.

The hysteria that gripped the city in July, after Rosa was killed, has gone. Concerned clergymen are no longer debating the killing with their congregations. The city's radio station's talk shows have fallen silent on the issue.

When the Wyoming grand jury said it would investigate crime in Rock Springs after Rosa was killed, some citizens of the troubled town called for reform. Rosa was shot three days before he was supposed to testify about vice in the city before the grand jury.

A new mayor, businessman Keith C. West, was elected to succeed Paul Wataha. Wataha, the mayor in the grand jury report, was once indicted for embezzlement, although the charges were dropped. West is as a moderate who "is doing a pretty good job" by a critic of Wataha. West has yet to institute any substantial changes.

In August the city's Community Development Committee suggested buying a club reputed to be a center for dope dealing and hookers and making it a senior citizens' center.

But the suggestion died shortly after it was discovered that the chairman of the committee, Emil Bertagnolli, also was the owner of the building.

The Rock Springs Police Department is still in trouble.

Delbert Gray, 28, who serves as chief investigator for the police and sheriff's departments, was arrested late last year and charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Jay Jenkins, 40, a construction foreman. He has pleaded innocent.

Gray is charged with shooting Jenkins in the face in a mixup outside a club. Gray claimed he was trying to arrest Jenkins for drug dealing.

This week, the tension focused on Cantrell's hearing.

The prosecution is expected to attempt to prove that Cantrell shot Rosa on orders from persons in Rock Springs to stifle testimony that Rosa told his wife "would involve people all the way to Washington, D.C."

But this will not be easy. One local attorney, who declined to be identified, asked, "who is going to come forward at this point and point the finger at the people who really count? People who get in the way have a habit of being shot in this town."