They staked out a spot on Route 40 near Ellicott City with unmarked police cars and plainclothes officers, then waited for the culprits to arrive.

Twice in the past 10 days, the stakeouts have netted arrests: three people charged with destroying Bush-Cheney signs, Howard County police said.

The election-year ritual of political sign demolition took on added significance this year after reports of a sign being set on fire in front of an Ellicott City home, police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said.

"That was of great concern," Llewellyn said. "We wanted to nip it in the bud."

Police said they had not received reports of similar vandalism from the Democrats. Howard's Democratic Party chief said she knew of at least 100 incidents but said they had not been reported to police.

The surveillance operation of Republican posters began after the report of a sign burning and a complaint from Howard Rensin, chairman of the Howard County GOP. The stakeouts occurred Sept. 24 and again Friday, Llewellyn said. Police said they saw suspects cutting down Bush-Cheney signs before they made the arrests.

Police arrested Corey R. Cooke, 33, of Ellicott City on Sept. 24. Peter Lizon, 30, and his wife, Stephanie Louise Lizon, 34, of Randallstown were arrested Friday. All were charged with malicious destruction of property and were released on bond.

Police initially thought their work might be done with Cooke's arrest but decided to continue the surveillance after they discovered more vandalism.

"While Mr. Cooke was in custody, an additional sign was damaged. That led officers to believe he may not have been the only suspect in these vandalisms," Llewellyn said. "So they relaunched the surveillance."

According to charging documents, Peter Lizon was seen using a bayonet about 4:45 p.m. Oct. 1, to cut holes in Bush-Cheney signs near the intersection of Route 40 and Executive Center Drive. Stephanie Lizon apparently was acting as the lookout, police said.

On Sept. 24, near the same spot, police said, Cooke was arrested about 8:40 p.m. after they saw him use an unidentified tool to strike wooden posts holding a Bush-Cheney sign. One of the officers called for backup and "multiple patrol units" responded within seconds, the charging documents said. Police said they later found a sledgehammer, saw and "utility tool" in the trunk of Cooke's car.

No one has been arrested in the sign-burning incident, Llewellyn said.

Wendy Fiedler, the county's Democratic chairwoman, said she now has decided to encourage local Democrats to file reports with police when their signs are vandalized. "This whole sign issue has really gone over the top this year," Fiedler said. "It's getting really ugly."

In one night last weekend, she said, several dozen Democratic signs along Centennial Lane, which borders Columbia and Ellicott City, were taken down by vandals.

Also, she said, one Democratic activist who lives in Ellicott City had reported a gunshot near his house and that a police report was made. Police were unable to confirm that late yesterday afternoon.

"Temper are starting to flare. You have to wonder who is behind something like that. Somebody is going to get hurt," Fiedler said.

News aide Alicia Cypress and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.