LIGONIER, Pa. (AP) – Third-generation car dealers Gregory and Randolph Graham watched helplessly over the past year as their business collapsed under the weight of the recession. Now the Graham brothers are gone, too.

Gregory, 61, went out to the dealership lot in the middle of the night last month, set fire to some of his vehicles and died of a heart attack next to the burning wreckage. Then, over the weekend, Randolph, 51, was found dead, slumped over the wheel of his car in what may have been a suicide.

In this western Pennsylvania town of 1,700, residents say the Grahams were victims of the economy, crushed by tight credit, plunging sales and more than $1 million in state and federal tax liens against the business.

“To feel like they were so backed into a corner that that was the only way out is just horrible,” said Rachel Roehrig, who went to school with the brothers and is now director of the area Chamber of Commerce.

The brothers’ tragic end was a slow progression of painful events, some known only to acquaintances, others to passers-by observant enough to notice that the number of Pontiacs, Buicks and Jeeps on the lot at Graham Colonial Motors was dwindling – a sign that the brothers didn’t have the money to replenish their inventory. The Graham family has declined to comment.

The dealership was founded in the 1960s in downtown Ligonier by Albert Graham, Gregory and Randolph’s grandfather. In the 1980s, the brothers moved the dealership to a spot just outside downtown, where the now-abandoned building stands, 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

The Graham family was a pillar of the community, supplying cars for the annual parade held in celebration of Fort Ligonier, the French and Indian War-era military compound for which the town was named.

Gregory was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Randolph was once a deacon at his Presbyterian church. Both were married for more than 20 years, and they had five children between them.

Often, the Graham brothers would eat lunch with their employees. Sometimes, their sister, Christy Lopushansky, who was also the dealership secretary, would bring brownies.

“It was just like a little family,” 52-year-old Dennis Rummel, a former mechanic in the service department, said while sitting at the bar at Ligonier’s VFW post.

In February 2007, Graham Colonial Motors was hit with the first in a series of tax liens. It was around that time that Rummel was laid off. Several more rounds of layoffs followed as the dealership’s troubles deepened.

Like many other auto dealerships across the country, it was hit hard last summer, when gas prices topped $4 a gallon and people abandoned SUVS and other gas-guzzlers, leaving dealers stuck with inventory they couldn’t sell. Then in the fall and winter, the financial meltdown caused credit to seize up and consumer confidence to plunge.

Altogether, about 1,000 car dealerships closed last year in the U.S.

Farabaughs, a dealership down the road from the Grahams’, closed last summer, and the Graham brothers struggled to hold on.

“The economy was their worst enemy,” said Jane Sapone, owner of Town & Country Motors, the last remaining car dealership of the three that just six months ago dotted the country road leading in and out of downtown.

On Feb. 17, Gregory took gasoline, poured it on cars in the dealership lot and ignited it. The explosion woke neighbors, who called police. They found Graham lying dead alongside four burning cars. The coroner ruled he died of a heart attack.

Police would not discuss a motive for the arson, leaving townspeople to wonder whether it was an insurance scam or an act of frustration and rage.

After Gregory’s death, the dealership closed. Randolph got a job at a large dealership about 15 minutes away in the town of Latrobe.

On March 18, Randolph called his longtime friend Craig Miller to tell him about his new job. He wanted to make sure Miller – who had been buying his cars at the Graham dealership and getting them repaired there for more than 30 years – knew where to go now.

The next day, Randolph was reported missing. Police, seeking clues from the public, said Randolph had been distraught over his brother’s death. Hunters found Randolph’s body on Saturday, two days after he disappeared, on a log trail deep in the woods.

The coroner said suicide was a possibility but would not elaborate except to say he was awaiting toxicology results.

“Knowing Greg and Randy as well as I did, I can’t really envision any of this,” Miller said, tears in his eyes.

Gary Quinlivan, a professor of economics at Saint Vincent’s College in Latrobe, bought a Ford Escort from the Grahams years ago. Back then, all three Ligonier dealerships were doing well. So were four others not far away on Route 30 – but those have also closed in the past year.

“If the economy had turned around faster, they’d still be there,” Quinlivan said. “They’d be in good shape.”

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