A man who reportedly posed as a priest and comforted relatives of victims in the Air Florida jetliner disaster was arrested here yesterday and held as a federal fugitive, D.C. police said.

Police identified the man as William W. Emlinger, 37. Emlinger, police said, had been serving time on a robbery conviction in the federal penitentary in Danbury, Conn. He was listed missing on Dec. 16, when he failed to return from a furlough. Prison officials in Danbury refused to comment yesterday.

Sgt. Rosiland Parker of the District police said Emlinger "has a history of showing up a disaster scenes. He gains the confidence of the relatives and later burglarizes their houses."

Emlinger was arrested at 10:30 yesterday morning at Alfredo's Pizzaria, 1919 K St. NW, after a restaurant patron called District police.

According to Alfredo's manager Mark Power, Emlinger was "just sitting there, having a cup of coffee when three policemen outside the restaurant spotted him. He tried to get away, but the police wouldn't let him."

Emlinger came to the attention of authorities when he was interviewed on television Wednesday evening at the Crystal City Marriott Hotel, where families of the victims of the Air Florida jetliner crash had gathered to wait for news of their loved ones.

Wearing a clerical collar, Emlinger identified himself as the Rev. Michael Ryan of San Diego.. The San Diego diocese, however, has no record of a Michael Ryan.

Minutes after Emlinger left the Marriott, the hotel's general manager, Bob Perkins, said he received a call from a police officer in Trenton, N.J. Perkins said the police officer told him he had just watched ABC News Nightline and had seen Emlinger, who was wanted by Trenton police for questioning.

A short time later, police officials from Trenton notified District police that Emlinger was in the area. District police then circulated a picture of Emlinger to local television stations.

A spokesman for Trenton police would not comment yesterday on why Emlinger was being sought.

District police said Emlinger was taken into custody yesterday afternoon by the U.S. Marshals Service and will be returned to Danbury.