During the weeks that a gang of thieves prowled this foggy old fishing village -- turning it into a place with floodlights on its wharves, watchmen in its bushes, and outboard-powered posses in its coves -- two things became obvious.

One: The thieves knew something about lobster.

Two, even more worrisome: They also seemed to know a good bit about Harpswell.

Six times, the gang slipped in through a maze of small coves here, on Maine's lobstering coast, and made off with some of the 90-pound crates used to hold freshly caught crustaceans. Their total haul was 3,000 pounds, worth about $13,500 wholesale, which made it one of the largest lobster-rustling operations in Maine's recent history.

Friday, when police finally broke the case, it brought news that many in this area -- recently buffeted by a lower-than-average harvest -- had feared. One of the suspects had been living among them.

"It is a sad thing that it happened right here in our town," said Jackie Toothaker, whose lobster operation had been robbed twice during the spree. "You wouldn't think any of your neighbors or anything would think along those lines."

On Friday, police arrested Harold Owen III, 39, of Harpswell, and Michael Taylor, 38, of nearby Topsham, and charged both with one count of felony theft. Each could face a maximum of five years in jail if convicted. Attempts to reach the two by phone Friday were unsuccessful.

Lt. Jonathan Cornish of the Maine Marine Patrol declined to say how police were led to the two, who he said worked with a female accomplice who has not yet been charged. But he said they had receipts showing the three had sold stolen shellfish to a dealer in another part of the state.

"We were able to prove they had possession of the lobsters," Cornish said.

Lobster thievery is serious business here, in a little town whose 5,200 people are spread over one peninsula and three islands in Casco Bay. Harpswell is now becoming a haven for retirees seeking the L.L. Bean life, but the town's economy and culture still revolve around its roughly 400 licensed lobstermen.

"The worst thing you could do in the Wild West was steal somebody's horse," said Gordon Weil, one of Harpswell's town selectmen. "That's about how it is here with stealing lobsters."

Despite that code, somebody did. On Sept. 6, eight crates full of lobster were stolen from Doug Pilon's Bailey Island Lobster Co. Pilon said his neighbors -- transplants "from away," as Mainers say -- actually saw the thieves' boat but did not know to report it.

"They didn't really understand the significance of a skiff being out there at a quarter of ten," Pilon said.

On Sept. 21, the thieves hit Sheldon Morse's wharf, boldly pulling up within sight of his waterfront home. They untied the rope -- though these crates can contain hundreds of dollars' worth of lobster, the custom was to secure them only with a knot -- and pulled five in.

As the thefts went on, some in this town began to wonder whether the thieves were coming from the ranks of lobstermen themselves. The motivation, as the rumors had it, was that this has been a down year for the lobster harvest, which has threatened to derail a near-miraculous 15-year boom in these parts.

"It just makes you so darn suspicious, when you get to mulling it over," Morse said earlier this past week. The boom began when, for reasons that are still not totally understood, Maine's harvest of lobsters began to shoot up, eventually tripling its levels from the late 1980s.

Then, as the market for lobster grew because of advertising and new technology that prolonged shelf life, the wholesale price rose from $2.20 a pound in 1990 to more than $4 today.

On this coast, the boom meant 30-foot lobster boats were exchanged for 40-foot ones, and old engines swapped out for big diesel ones. In some cases, lobstermen traded up with the help of loans that assumed big catches would last.

This year, they haven't: No hard statistics are available yet, but lobstermen agree that this year's catch is far worse than those of recent years.

In this climate, desperate lobstermen have been blamed for an uptick in lobster-related crime, from poaching of lobster traps in Maine to an increase in people trying to sneak undersize crustaceans into Massachusetts.

"A lot of people have bought real expensive boats and spent money like drunken sailors," said David Cousens, a lobsterman from South Thomaston and the president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "And now reality's coming back."

In Harpswell last week, volunteers in four-hour shifts guarded the wharves outside the 150-year-old Watson's General Store. At night, the town's docks were lighted up "like New York City," in Toothaker's words. And town gossip told of at least one recent false alarm: An angry group of vigilantes shoved off at the sound of a boat motor, and found not a pack of thieves but an elderly woman going out to check on her sailboat.

As news of the arrests filtered out Friday, some in the town said they were relieved, because the men were locals but not lobstermen.

Instead, police said both Taylor and the other unnamed suspect were clam diggers, whose profession has also taken a hit recently because red-tide algae scares have closed some areas to digging.

"I think things will go back to normal," now that suspicion can be put to rest among lobstermen, said Weil, the town selectman.

But Cornish, of the Marine Patrol, said that residents ought to keep using their new floodlights, and -- most abhorrent of all to the traditional Harpswell way of life -- continue to try to lock up their lobster crates. He said that, as long as lobster prices stay high, thieves could return.

"It's unfortunate that we've gotten to that point," he said. "That's where we're at right now."