October 21, 2012

A Mojave Desert cross brings a lot of things to bear

The head of the Mojave National Preserve had little reason to think that an exchange over a memorial built in 1934 would spur a 13-year saga full of litigation, vandalism, political theater and theft.

A new cross in the wings
Henry Sandoz hefts a new cross that he made out of 5-inch-diameter pipe. With friends and supporters, he hopes to paint and raise it atop Sunrise Rock by Veterans Day. (Thomas Curwen / Los Angeles Times / September 21, 2012)

By Thomas Curwen
Los Angeles Times

Long before the promise to the dying man, the Buddhist stupa and the Supreme Court decision, there was the land. Once it belonged to no one, then it belonged to everyone, and that's when the trouble with the cross began.

Mary Martin, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, read her mail in the morning, and on a spring day in 1999 she picked up a letter signed by Sherpa San Harold Horpa. It sounded like a joke.

Horpa began by describing "a tasteful cross that stands on a small hill." The hill, known as Sunrise Rock, was in the preserve off Cima Road, six miles south of Interstate 15.

Horpa had a special request: He wanted to place another religious symbol on the site.

"I proposed to install a stupa equal in size, color, material and taste to the cross," he wrote.

Martin had to look up what a stupa was — a Buddhist shrine — and that afternoon she composed her reply: "Any attempt to erect a stupa will be in violation of federal law and subject you to citation and or arrest."

Martin was aware of that cross, which was erected in 1934, and she suspected that one day she would have to remove it. But at this point it was a low priority. The preserve was in its fifth year, and she and her colleagues were busy buying property from ranchers, preserving the habitat of the desert tortoise, and converting the old Union Pacific station in Kelso into a visitor center.

She never heard from Horpa again. Nor did she have any reason to suspect that this exchange would begin the 13-year saga that would see the cross on Sunrise Rock become an object of litigation, vandalism, political theater and theft.

Buono and the stupa

Herman Hoops thought writing a letter would be a good way to test the park service's attitude toward the cross. When going up against the government, he recently explained, the last thing you want to present are the facts; they can fight you on the facts.

So he came up with the idea of the stupa.

His friend Frank Buono had been visiting him that spring at his home in Jensen, Utah, just outside Dinosaur National Monument. Buono had first brought up the cross in a conversation about the Mojave National Preserve. Both men — retired park service employees with more than 20 years each — felt that a religious symbol on federal land was wrong.

With the sun setting on the river canyon of Dinosaur, Hoops sat down at his computer, and they began composing. They made the argument for the stupa, "complete with prayer wheels and flags," and Hoops came up with the pseudonym.

When he opened Martin's reply, Hoops wanted to continue with the pretense, but Buono told his friend to hold off. He had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which had agreed to investigate the cross to see if there might be a case.

Buono loved the California desert, but the Mojave was special. He had been an assistant superintendent at the preserve for 11 months before budget cuts in 1995 forced him to Joshua Tree National Park.

The year before — as Congress debated the legislation that would create the preserve — he served on a committee to explore the logistics of managing the land. Walking through the halls of the Department of the Interior on his way to a reception after the signing ceremony for the Mojave in October 1994, he says, was the highlight of his career.

"It was like the Vatican for me," he said. "I hold the park agency to the highest of standards — as any citizen should."

When Buono first saw the cross in 1995, he wasn't sure if it was on federal land. The Mojave was a checkerboard of grazing allotments and private holdings, and after retiring, he read the old maps and confirmed his suspicions.

The Sandozes

Martin received the first letter from the ACLU in October 1999, urging that the cross be removed because it was a violation of the 1st Amendment. Ten months later a second letter arrived, this time setting a deadline of 60 days.

By then Martin had researched the cross and had learned about the promise that Henry and Wanda Sandoz made to a sick friend who had maintained it over the years. The Sandozes had agreed they would be its caretaker.

When their friend died in 1984, the cross had been missing for a couple of years, and Henry built a new one. This cross was vandalized, and he finally decided to replace it.

In violation of park regulations, he and Wanda gathered with family and friends at Sunrise Rock on Palm Sunday in 1998. They bolted a cross, made of 5-inch-diameter pipe, to the granite and filled it with concrete. Afterward, they crowded beneath it barbecuing hot dogs.

Because the cross — raised to commemorate veterans of World War I — wasn't the original, Martin felt she had to take it down. But she didn't want to make a decision that would be unpopular among Mojave residents who resented the changes that the park service had brought to their lives.

Martin needed an ally and found one in Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands). Throughout 2000, Lewis had stayed apprised of the ACLU's complaint. The group's accusation, he wrote, was "ridiculous," and as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he would take legislative action, if necessary, to save the cross.

By late fall, Martin had exhausted her options, which included a personal appeal to the Sandozes to take the cross down. She drafted a letter for the park service's regional director to send to the congressman. "Absent legislative intervention," it read, Martin would have no choice but to remove the cross.

Two weeks later the congressional budget passed with language introduced by Lewis preventing the use of federal funds to remove the cross. Three months later, the ACLU filed its lawsuit; Buono was a plaintiff.

When a judge in Riverside ruled that the cross couldn't be displayed, it was wrapped in a tarp that was fastened, Houdini-style, at the base by chain and a padlock. After being shredded by vandals, the tarp was replaced by a plywood box.

"It looked like a big Popsicle," said Dennis Schramm, who replaced Martin as superintendent of the preserve in 2005.

Artists painted landscapes that prominently featured the cross. Videos were shot in its shadow. A website was created, and the Sandozes were cast as crusaders.

In the end, the ACLU won. A federal district judge in Riverside ruled that the cross' presence on federal land conveyed an endorsement of religion. His opinion was upheld by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The only way the cross could remain was if Sunrise Rock were privately owned. A compromise was arranged: a land swap between the Sandozes and the park service. The California office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars would take ownership of the property around the cross.

But a district court ruled against the compromise. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually took the case and determined that the ruling was flawed. The district court reconsidered and in April approved the transfer. By then the ACLU and Buono had stopped their fight.

Not long after the Supreme Court's decision in 2010, the cross was stolen and was never recovered.

Martin and Buono today

Martin, 61, is retired today and looks back with disappointment on the long turn of events.

"If Buono felt so strong about the cross, if he would have called and discussed it, I am sure we could have reached a solution without litigation," she said. "When I first met with the Sandozes, they were receptive to various solutions, but as the conflict continued, all sides seemed to become more entrenched in their positions."

Buono, 65, works part time for the park service teaching policy and law and is gratified that the courts ruled in his favor, the land swap notwithstanding. He similarly wishes the matter of the cross could have been resolved without going to court and is critical of the park service.

"The agency culture of the NPS is so risk-averse that it borders on paralysis, in particular when confronted with a wildly unpopular decision," he said.

Closed off
Henry Sandoz, 73, examines the cordon that the National Park Service has placed around Sunrise Rock. Sandoz and his wife, Wanda, plan to erect a new cross on the site. (Los Angeles Times / September 21, 2012)

Last July, the Sandozes — Henry, 73, and Wanda, 68 — and a few supporters met park service officials at Sunrise Rock to work out the final arrangements.

With temperatures close to 120 degrees, they walked the perimeter of the property. The park service has allocated $28,121 to pay for a cable to section off the property, signs to designate it as private property and a plaque to identify the cross as a war memorial.

The park service hopes to hand the 1-acre parcel over to the VFW by the first week in November, and the Sandozes plan to commemorate the site by Veterans Day.

Henry Sandoz has a new cross ready. Partly covered by plywood and an old washtub, it lies on the concrete floor of a barn — three pieces of pipe, cut by an acetylene torch, welded together and, as yet, unpainted.