M. Hollis Curl doesn't deny for a minute that he ate a piece of the alligator, and by some standards that might be considered punishment enough.

But that would be too neat an ending to the Case of the Roasted Reptile, which for the past three years has pitted the federal government against a small-town newspaperman determined to clear his name of a civil charge of possessing an endangered species.

In the legal annals, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service v. M. Hollis Curl probably won't amount to much. But it is an illustration of how even a minor case can turn into a big headache.

It all started this way: In July 1982, an off-duty security guard named Nathaniel Manzie shot and killed an American alligator he said was threatening some children in Pine Barren Creek near Camden, Ala., about 30 miles from Selma.

Manzie hauled the six-foot-long critter to the office of the local newspaper, the Wilcox Progressive Era, thinking the paper might be interested in a picture. Curl, who edits and publishes the paper, was. He was also interested in trying a slice of gator meat. Manzie obliged him with the whole carcass.

Curl hauled the alligator home in the trunk of his car, carved off a chunk of the tail and cooked it. "It wasn't too bad," he recalled.

The repast came back to give him indigestion more than a year later. That's when a special agent from the Interior Department came into Curl's office to inquire about the alligator.

"I didn't have anything to hide, so I started to tell him about it," Curl said. "He said, 'Wait a minute, I've got to read you your rights.' "

This summer, an administrative law judge in Knoxville, Tenn., found Curl guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal not only to kill an endangered species but to "possess, sell, deliver, carry, transport or ship" one. The penalty: a $150 fine that would be suspended if Curl didn't run afoul of wildlife law in a year.

Manzie got the same penalty and didn't appeal it, but Curl hasn't stopped fighting since. "I bought me a couple of books and I'm having at it," he said. "Mr. Manzie represented the alligator to me and to everyone else as having been killed because it was menacing children in the creek. If that's the case, he killed it legally. I did not under the law possess it and I only consumed a portion of what was his."

Besides, he added, "We're up to our butts in alligators in this county."

So far, Curl's arguments have had little impact. His last administrative appeal was rejected last month. His next stop is U.S. District Court in Mobile, Ala. "I'm trying to get this before a jury of American citizens who'll know what's going on," he said. "I don't intend to give up on it."

The Interior Department has no choice but to troop along.

"I don't begrudge him," said John Harrington, an Interior lawyer in Atlanta who traveled to Knoxville to prosecute the case before the administrative law judge. "He has every right to do what he has done, but he also has every right to expect that we will fine someone who has violated the law."

"He put the animal in his car, he drove it to his home, cooked it and ate it. If that doesn't amount to possession, I don't know what does. We prosecute the small things just like the big things."

Curl, meanwhile, is working up his line of defense. "I'm not even sure it was an American alligator," he said. "It could have been a caiman. Caimans get that big, or the Smithsonian says they do."

One way or another, the physical evidence has long since disappeared. Curl said he tossed the carcass, minus one small piece, into the Alabama River.

"Nobody could figure out how to skin it," he said.