WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) _ Joseph J. Santopietro could seem to do no wrong, founding a thriving lawn care business when he was 11, entering GOP politics at 12 and becoming one of the nation's youngest mayors at age 26.

But his rapid rise to success was suddenly interrupted Wednesday when Santopietro was indicted on charges of taking $170,000 in kickbacks in a scheme federal officials say began weeks after he took office in 1986.

Santopietro was freed on bond after his arrest Wednesday. He said he is innocent and unafraid to face the voters in the November election, when he seeks a fourth consecutive two-year term.

''I have faith in the system and I have faith in God,'' he said after his court appearance.

Santopietro announced this summer he would run for re-election in November, although federal authorities had confirmed last December they were investigating his ties to a now-failed Waterbury thrift, Security Savings and Loan Association.

When he announced his candidacy for re-election in July he said he had become the victim of ''lies, innuendoes, rumor and gossip.''

He was charged Wednesday with using his influence to help win approval for real estate projects of three former top officials at the now-failed thrift in return for various payoffs and rewards.

Seven other defendants, including Santopietro's brother Jeffrey and two aldermen, were charged in the 29-count indictment.

The indictment has thrown into chaos the career the flamboyant mayor has often said means more to him than anything else.

''Being mayor is my only recreation,'' he has said of his $79,000-a-year job. He's 32.

A bachelor who favors dark suits and maroon ties, Santopietro is the proverbial self-made man. He delivered newspapers as a boy, then founded a thriving lawn-care business at age 11 with an old mower given to him by his grandfather, an Italian immigrant.

He was ''an all-around boy who played sports and made good, but not great, grades,'' said his father, Joseph B. Santopietro.

He started in politics at age 12, working as a runner between polling places, his father said.

Santopietro was president of his senior class in high school and was named at age 18 to Waterbury's Urban Renewal Commission, a sensitive appointment because his father was involved in real estate.

Two years later, he was elected to the Board of Aldermen. In 1985, during his third term as alderman, he decided to challenge his former political mentor, Mayor Edward D. Bergin Jr., a Democrat.

Bergin, who was acquitted earlier this year of charges he took a bribe and an illegal campaign contribution during his last year in office in 1985, is running against Santopietro again this year.

Democrats hold a strong edge in the city of 109,000, but Santopietro was able to oust Bergin originally when a feud splintered the local Democratic party.

He enjoyed strong support during his first two terms, but his fortunes have waned in recent years as the city adopted a 13 percent tax increase to offset a $16 million budget deficit and was rated last in a recent Money magazine listing of the desirability of 300 U.S. cities as places to live.

Santopietro and his lawyer, Hugh Keefe, accused the government of timing the indictment to hurt his re-election efforts.

''We feel the government, either deliberately or inadvertently, has done its best to make sure (Santopietro) is out of a job in six weeks,'' Keefe said.