Police chief Bobby Sauls stood like a watchful grandfather with a promise to protect the community when methamphetamine began moving into the rural towns that speckle western Kentucky.

The 65-year-old, gray-haired policeman and one other officer in the department worked to seize clandestine meth labs and comfort citizens. The mayor lauded them for their efforts guarding the town's 1,700 residents from meth's reach.

So when Sauls was indicted on two meth-related charges this spring, the news shocked the quiet town 30 miles south of Evansville, Ind.

"It'll all come out one of these days, and it'll be a little different than you all think," said Sauls, a former Webster County Sheriff who grew up in this town.

In Sebree, where dozens gather at the Purple Opry every Saturday to listen to live bands play bluegrass standards, there are those who have known the chief as a respectable member of the community and question whether the accusations are true.

"It's the talk of the town everywhere you go," said 77-year-old Betty Catlett, who works at the Sebree Banner, the weekly newspaper her family owns. "Some folks just think it can't be true, and others do. I guess it's divided us."

It has been a decade since meth production first crept eastward from the Pacific Northwest and small, single-dose meth lab operations appeared in rural western Kentucky. Agents now say the problem has become difficult to control, especially since the drug is cooked from common ingredients including pseudoephedrine, found in over-the-counter cold medicines, and anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer stored in tanks in rural farm country.

Kentucky State Police seized 604 labs last year and about 250 so far this year.

"Meth's got a tremendously detrimental affect across the board . . . but you don't hear as much with police getting involved," said Tony King, with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Louisville. "That's because meth scares these cops to death."

Sauls pleaded not guilty to the charges of criminal conspiracy to tamper with anhydrous ammonia equipment to manufacture methamphetamine, and criminal conspiracy to possess anhydrous ammonia in unapproved containers to make meth.

State police have not discussed specifics of their investigation into Sauls. A brief indictment said the crimes were committed in late 2003 and left open the possibility that Sauls may have acted with another person. Sauls remains the only suspect indicted in the crimes.

He remains free on his own recognizance while awaiting his trial, though he has been suspended without pay. One officer covers all of the town's shifts in the interim, though the county sheriff's department will assist if needed.

At the center of the charges is a man who regularly attends the General Baptist Church in Sebree and was known for fulfilling the most common duty of the top lawman in the town, quelling unruly teenagers making public disturbances.

Jim Bell, who owns Bell's Drug Store, said he has known Sauls most of his life and finds the charges against him unbelievable.

"They're going to have to come up with some better-than-average proof," Bell said. "If somebody is 65 years old and has a 32-year-old blond wife and she owns a boat, then it's understandable. But this guy has a modest lifestyle."

Mayor Jerry Hobgood, who previously praised Sauls' crime-fighting efforts, did not return recent calls seeking comment on the case. But in April, he said: "I don't believe any of it's true. That's how I feel about it."

Sauls' attorney, William Norman, declined comment.

"It's just really, really sad," said Catlett, of the Sebree Banner. "But I don't think the Kentucky State Police would investigate anything for nearly two years if they don't have some evidence."

Sebree, Ky., Police Chief Bobby Sauls was indicted on two meth-related charges this spring. He pleaded not guilty.