PORT ORCHARD, Wash. (AP) _ Assistant sheriff Chuck Wheeler remembers when a crime wave in rural Kitsap County consisted of punks breaking into a few empty summer homes.

Now reports of murder, rape and assault crowd his desk, and Wheeler has little time for petty burglary. Emergency calls to 911 have soared 160 percent since 1980. The caseload has doubled at Superior Court, where prosecutors share desks in a cramped, obsolete building.

One of the nation's few boom areas is battling something people used to move here to escape - crime. This once-peaceful corner of Puget Sound is waking up to big-city woes never dreamed of 10 years ago.

''Back then, if we had one or two murders a year, that was big,'' Wheeler said. ''Last year we had nine, and they were all bizarre.''

While much of the nation grapples with recession, Kitsap County remains economically strong. Its low unemployment and reputation as a scenic, affordable place to live have made it one of the Northwest's fastest-growing counties.

But there's a flip side. The crime rate is soaring even faster than the population. Courts are clogged, sheriff's deputies are stretched dangerously thin, and old-timers are left wondering what happened to their piece of paradise.

''It's not the sleepy little rural county that it used to be,'' said County Clerk Bob Freudenstein, a 40-year resident. ''I myself have been burglarized two times in the last four years.''

Kitsap County spreads across the forested hills and placid saltwater coves of the Kitsap Peninsula, an arrowhead-shaped chunk of land jutting into Puget Sound.

For years, the sound acted as a moat around the county, fending off the urban sprawl of Seattle across the water. But now, as highways between booming Seattle and its landlocked suburbs clog with commuters, a half-hour ferry ride seems less inconvenient. Kitsap County's Bainbridge Island has filled with ferry commuters.

Central Kitsap County, meanwhile, has built a thriving economy around the Navy, which runs a Trident submarine base at Bangor and a shipyard in Bremerton, the county's biggest city.

Signs of growth are everywhere. Fresh ranks of condominiums march up hills around the 128-store Kitsap Mall, which opened in 1985. Placards announcing new housing plats pop up like mushrooms along back roads. County population, now 188,800, has jumped 28 percent since 1980.

Also growing are demands on law enforcement, but the sheriff's department hasn't kept pace. Despite recent hires, the 85-officer department still has fewer officers per residents than any other Washington county.

County officials say more money would help them handle rising crime, but taxpayers are cool to such proposals. In November, voters rejected a $31 million bond for a new courthouse.

Bainbridge Island residents carried the snub even further. They voted to annex their entire island to the on-island town of Winslow and run their affairs locally, instead of relying on county officials far away in Port Orchard, the county seat.

Islanders hope to beef up their police force and enforce zoning more strictly to head off development.

''We think we can retain the island's rurality,'' said Norm Wooldridge, a leader of the island revolt. ''The county wasn't doing a very good job of it.''

Wheeler attributes some of the excess crime to burglaries in poorly patrolled outlying areas. But an increase in violent crime, notably 26 homicides since 1987, ''has baffled me for a long time,'' he said.

1989 was especially bloody. In January, a man was shot to death by four teen-agers who had waited at his home, calmly discussing how to kill him. In March, three youths were killed as they sat in a pickup truck on a Bainbridge Island road. In April, a drifter raped an 83-year-old woman, then beat her to death with a coffee pot and whiskey bottle.

Investigating such crime straps an already overworked sheriff's department. Lesser crimes, especially those without leads, often are shoved aside, Wheeler said.

That was obvious to Bob and Evelyn Linden, who awoke one morning to find their house burglarized. A stereo, knife and clock worth $2,000 were gone. The Bainbridge Island couple reported the theft immediately, but no officer showed up. They called again a week later. Still, nobody showed. Mr. Linden complained to a county commissioner.

''A detective called and said they couldn't show up for some little burglary,'' Mrs. Linden recalled. ''We told him we were in the house at the time, and he said, 'Oh, that's different.' He said he'd be right out.

''That was three years ago,'' she said. ''He never did come.''

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EDITOR'S NOTE - David Foster is the AP's Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.

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