MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ Theft charges against Gov. Guy Hunt and three others were dismissed today by a judge who said prosecutors waited too long to pursue the case.

The four still face a charge of violating the state ethics law for allegedly looting $200,000 from a tax-exempt fund created for Hunt's 1987 inaugural and converting it to Hunt's personal use.

Circuit Judge Randall Thomas said that the three-year statute of limitations had expired for the theft charges.

Attorney General Jimmy Evans had argued the fund involved public money and that a six-year statute of limitations applied.

Evans alleged that the two-term governor used the money to for such things as buying cattle and buying furniture for his son.

Hunt, a two-term Republican, was not in the courtroom today.

''We're thrilled,'' said Donny Claxton, a spokesman for Hunt. ''We said all along the governor was innocent of these charges and the court today has proved that.''

He wouldn't comment on the remaining ethics charge.

The grand jury indicted Hunt and the others on Dec. 28 on 12 theft counts and one ethics charge.

The grand jury was convened after The Associated Press reported that Hunt, a Primitive Baptist preacher, used state aircraft for preaching trips where he received money from church members.

The state Ethics Commission found reason to believe that Hunt may have violated the ethics law and referred the case to the state attorney general.

The jury hasn't reported back on the preaching trips.

Also charged were Decatur accountant Gene McKenzie, Rosie Blocher of Cullman, and Edna Earle Hicks, who has worked with Hunt since his days as county probate judge.

Thomas set an April 12 trial date on the ethics charge for Hunt, with the other three to be tried later. He ordered the trial held in Montgomery, rejecting Hunt's argument that it should be moved out of the capital because of pretrial publicity.

Hunt's lawyers tried to have Thomas removed from the case, claiming the judge was biased in favor of the prosecution.