LOS ANGELES -- Fires destroyed dozens of SUVs and a warehouse at an auto dealership in suburban Los Angeles early Friday, Aug. 22, and vehicles there and at two other dealerships were spray-painted with slogans such as "Fat, Lazy Americans."
Local police and FBI officials said they were investigating possible links to the radical activist group Earth Liberation Front because several vehicles at the sites were spray-painted with the letters "ELF."
Police say the underground group is suspected of setting a fire that destroyed a $50 million, five-story apartment complex under construction in San Diego on Aug. 1. The group says its mission is to protect the environment.
Hardest hit was Clippinger Chevrolet, where about 20 vehicles, mostly Hummer H2s, were destroyed by fire and several others were badly damaged. Vehicle damage was estimated at about $1 million. A warehouse on the site also was damaged heavily by fire.
West Covina Fire Chief Richard Greene said West Covina Dodge, adjacent to Clippinger, also had to close because of the investigation. He said he was not certain if any vehicles there had been vandalized.
Honda and Mercedes dealerships on either side of Clippinger were not affected, he said.
In neighboring towns, SUVs and other vehicles were spray-painted at Advantage Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Duarte and Rusnak/Arcadia a Mercedes dealership in Arcadia.
Brian Beatt, general manager of the Mercedes store, says nine SUVs were spray-painted at his dealership, along with several new and used Mercedes and trade-ins of other makes.
Beatt says it is obvious the vandals were targeting SUVs because they were parked among cars in the open lot, and no cars were damaged. He says the FBI has visited all three dealerships and is treating the incidents as domestic acts of terrorism.
"They spray-painted anything from the 'F' word to 'SUVs equal pollution,' " Beatt says.
Beatt says the damage could range from minimal to $20,000 to $30,000 per vehicle, depending on whether the paint can be removed easily.
He says he doesn't know if the dealership will take action to safeguard its SUVs.
"It is great that we have the ability to express ourselves in this country, but this crosses the line of what is reasonable," Beatt says.
A West Covina police officer said no one was injured in the Clippinger fire because it occurred at about 5 a.m., well before business hours. The store could not open on Friday.
A salesman at the Ford store said all of the damage was done to Lincoln vehicles, but he did not know if they were SUVs or cars. He says about 10 vehicles were damaged.
General Motors spokeswoman Wendy Orthman said the automaker has alerted dealers about the incidents but is not taking other action.
"From what we know, it is an isolated incident, and it is in the hands of authorities," Orthman said.
In a written statement, GM called the arson "a reprehensible criminal act."
"We will not speculate on who may be responsible; we need to let the investigators do their job," the statement said.
"If this was some kind of misguided attempt to make a political statement, those responsible should know that committing arson and putting property and people in danger is not the way to gain public support for their position." c
Staff Reporter Dave Guilford contributed to this report