The Pacific salmon hadn't been biting that summer day, but Brian Taugher was still enjoying the rare treat of a Monday away from work when he returned home very late and answered his telephone.

The woman on the line was emotional, her voice hard-edged. What she said put Taugher, a top aide to California's attorney general, into a daze that persisted as sheriff's deputies appeared in his front yard to handcuff and arrest him on a charge of child molesting.

Seven months later, acquitted, Taugher is back in his office preparing toxic-waste legislation. But mention of that night, when they led him away, interrogated his daughters and sent them to a receiving home, rekindles the anger.

Despite his supportive family, his long record of government service and his acquittal, he has $27,000 in debts and a stain on his record, all because of the accusations of a 9-year-old child.

Brian Taugher, 38, is the other side of the national debate about child abuse. As a father, he applauds growing parental and legal attention to the problem, and he helped draft some of the new state laws stiffening penalties for molesters and requirements that molestation cases be reported.

But Taugher paid dearly for the public's heightened awareness of sexual abuse. He wonders now whether even his final court victory may cause more unintended harm.

From court testimony and Taugher's account, the nightmare began with a July 7 birthday-slumber party for his daughter Katherine, 9.

Taugher (pronounced Tower) and his wife, Sandy, a state archeologist, had separated in 1981 but shared custody of Katherine and their older daughter, Andrea, then 16. July was his month to have the girls.

Eight girls arrived at his house at 3 p.m. that Saturday. They swam in the pool, had a treasure hunt, opened presents and played tag in a nearby park. Taugher served hot dogs and birthday cake, then washed the dishes while Katherine and her friends watched television.

Five girls remained for the slumber party. Four joined Katherine in sleeping bags on the living room floor while the fifth girl -- taller, heavier and more awkward than the rest, a frequent target of schoolgirl jokes -- chose to sleep on a couch. All were asleep soon after 11 p.m. Andrea slept in her room, Taugher in his. He got up once to chase away a neighbor's cat scratching at the patio door.

The day after Christmas, the girl who had slept on the couch testified in a Sacramento courtroom that Taugher entered the living room during the night, unzipped her sleeping bag, pulled up her nightgown and lay nearly motionless on top of her for about five minutes.

He was naked but did not attempt intercourse, she said. None of the other children woke, and she did not mention the incident to anyone for nearly two weeks because, she said, "I was too scared to." Taugher's attorney later made much of her early statement to her pediatrician that the incident might have been "a dream," but by the time of the trial she was insisting that it happened.

The next morning, Taugher said, the girl joined the others in a big breakfast and then went swimming. While he was washing the dishes, she came in to complain that the other girls were playing swim tag and "making me the shark all the time." Taugher told her, "You'll just have to swim faster."

The girl, then almost 10, had complained of what she said were menstrual cramps, and medical reports indicated that she was entering puberty. A few weeks before the party, Taugher said, the girl's mother "had given her a very explicit sex education book. The mother also insisted that the girl sit down and learn to write out penis, vagina and other anatomical parts. The mother was very proud of the fact that the girl knows how to spell these words."

Sacramento County prosecutor Jan Hanson told the jury that "there was a progressive change" in the girl after the party " . . . she was listless and lethargic . . . with intermittent vomiting, but no fever." During a stay with her grandparents, she suddenly refused to sleep in a room she had occupied the night before. She became ill when her grandmother ordered her into the room. In the car with her mother later, she said, "Brian hurt me."

The next day the girl expressed concern that she might be pregnant. The mother took the girl to her pediatrician, whose report alerted child welfare workers. When they declined to pursue the girl's vague account, the mother asked her to be more specific. The girl wrote something on a piece of paper, including the words "penis" and "couch." The mother called police.

The pediatrician reported two discolorations in the vaginal area, one yellow, one blue. He thought they might be bruises. A second examination concluded the yellow area was normal pigmentation and the blue area a subsurface vein, but the initial pediatrician's report was in court documents made public at the time of the arrest. This resulted in news accounts of a badly bruised victim; at the trial, no evidence of bruising was submitted.

The girl's mother called Taugher the night of July 23 at the suggestion of county sheriff's detectives, who recorded the call. More officers had been waiting near his house.

The tape of the call was not played for the jury; it includes several statements by the mother that could not be proved and shows Taugher clearly astonished at the charge.

"She says, 'The reason I'm calling you at this hour of the night is I'm very upset, and I need to talk to you about something . . . . You have molested my daughter . . . . She had trouble urinating, and I looked at her and I can see the bruises and I want to know why you did this to my child,' " Taugher recalled.

He offered to talk to the woman and her husband and to advise them how to proceed. He assured her he had done nothing, but he was convinced from the woman's tone that someone had molested the child. "I will never talk to or be anywhere near that girl," he told her, but "whoever has done this to her will continue to do that, and there will be permanent effects on her." 'My Mind Stopped'

The conversation lasted about 12 minutes, during which "my mind stopped working. I simply could not comprehend what this was," Taugher said. All he could think of was getting Katherine out of the car, where she was still asleep from their long trip home. Police arrested him before he got to the car.

While he sat strapped in the back of a police car, officers woke Katherine, "took her into one room, and took my older daughter into another room." Each was questioned alone. "The main part of the questions were that they had proof that I had molested a girl, that I was sick, that the girls could help me by telling the truth, and [the officers] wanted to know what I had done with them. Had I touched them?"

Taugher said he understands that the sheriff earlier had planned to call him at his office and simply ask him to come in and make a statement, but was overruled by officials in the district attorney's office who thought that a late-night arrest might yield more evidence.

District Attorney John A. Dougherty said in an interview that the sequence of events is not clear now, but it was thought that it would be better to make the arrest "before his daughters were prepped."

The girls told the detectives that their father would not hurt anyone. Katherine, still groggy from being awakened, began to cry. Her sister came in to comfort her. More questions, more tears. The officers decided to take the girls to the Sacramento Children's Receiving Home.

"I'm asking them to please call their mother . . . . and let her come and get the girls," Taugher said. "I asked them to call their mother's best friend and get the girls." He said the officers told him there was no answer at either place. Taugher, after being booked and released, reached his wife's house at 4 a.m. to discover that she had been there all along. No one had called her or her friend, who had an answering machine.

Police knew that the standard procedure at the receiving home was "strip search, de-louse, a very close, careful examination that showed every little mole, freckle and strawberry mark on the kids," Taugher said. "It was quite clear to us that they were unable to obtain confirmation from the girls, that they wanted to have the girls examined to see if there were physical signs that they had been abused."

Sgt. Roger Dickson, a spokesman for the county sheriff, said his reports do not indicate that Taugher told them whom to call. The mother was not called, he said, because Andrea told officers that she was out of town on an archeological expedition. In such cases, he said, they were obliged to take the girls to the home.

At the sheriff's office, Taugher said, he waived his Miranda rights and "gave them a complete statement." As an attorney, he knew that his defense lawyer, if he had to get one, "would be hysterical that I had done that," but he believed "that if I gave them as much detail as I could that they would drop the investigation."

His decision to speak freely, he said, in the end did him only a little good. The jury was told that he had made a complete statement, but he said he believes the district attorney was determined to prosecute.

A $62,100-a-year assistant attorney general arrested on child-molesting charges was a front-page story in Sacramento and made the back pages of newspapers elsewhere in the state. TV crews were in his yard by morning.

"Once that publicity hit, there was no turning back for anybody, and it took me two months to understand that," Taugher said. "They'd either have to say, 'Gee, we didn't have enough information to start with, but no hard feelings.' Or they'd have to say that we have important information but we can't use it. The first was impossible, and the second was not true."

Dougherty, the district attorney, said the decision to prosecute was not influenced by the news media attention. Experienced investigators had interviewed the girl with no other adults present. "They were convinced she was telling the truth," Dougherty said, and so he was obliged to prosecute. The charges held up through a preliminary hearing, he noted.

Taugher's wife, Sandy, supported him from the beginning, although their divorce was nearly final. Her astonishment when he woke her with the news of his arrest quickly turned to outrage. "I was frankly a good deal calmer about it [than she was]," Taugher said, "because I understand how the police and how district attorneys operate and how facts get distorted through the interview process."

His wife's first few calls to locate her daughters were rebuffed by operators who said no information was available until offices opened at 8 a.m. When she reached the receiving home at 9 a.m., she was told that the girls could not be released without permission from the sheriff's office. Andrea and Katherine waited until nearly 3 p.m. and were interviewed a second time by detectives before they were allowed to leave with their mother. Unable to Help Case

Three days later the television crews were gone. Taugher took a three-week leave, then went back to work. He retained a local attorney, Michael Sands, whom he said the district attorney's office "respected and feared," but he was frustrated by his inability to assist in his case. "I am used to being able to do things," he said. He could not even help in the investigation, conducted at great expense by former FBI agents: "As a well-known figure, if I called somebody, it immediately set everybody into a panic."

His defense cost $50,000, $23,000 in contributions and $27,000 borrowed.

When the trial began and the girl took the stand, Taugher expected "not to be able to listen to that pap in public. I thought I'd be greatly embarrassed." Instead, he found himself detached, just "listening to a story." During the alleged victim's three hours of testimony, she seemed to Taugher and to several reporters to become increasingly bored and nonchalant. The child clutched a doll, looked at objects on the judge's desk, examined her fingernails and fidgeted. Taugher's attorney focused on the way she said Taugher approached her that night, kneeling on the couch and unzipping her sleeping bag before lying down.

Sands brought the couch into the courtroom as evidence, tempting the jurors to try to duplicate the way the girl said she was approached. When they began deliberations, eight jurors thought that Taugher was innocent, but at least two others were reluctant to release him because it seemed to them that he could have done it. A final demonstration, after five days of deliberation, convinced the doubters that the 6-foot-2 Taugher could not have arranged himself on the couch as the girl said he did.

The act of lying flat on the couch, with its high arms, was extremely awkward. The jurors had difficulty even unzipping the sleeping bag. Jury foreman Diane McKenzie, who played the girl in the jurors' reenactment of the couch scene, told reporters: "Not only was it hilarious, but . . . it put quite a strain on a person."

Although relieved by the verdict, Taugher brooded over the lingering impact of the case. He held a news conference to recommend better prearrest investigations.

During an interview in his office, his thoughts jumped to every side of the debate. He was a father, a lawyer, a once-suspected molester. But now the father spoke with the greatest emotion.

"There's no question that we ignored for far too long abuse within families," he said. "A dramatic, well-publicized acquittal like mine suggests that all of these things are ill-founded. And that's wrong. It's just simply wrong. The vast majority of people who get accused of this are guilty as hell."