November 5, 2012

Stolen Mojave cross mysteriously reappears in California

An unsigned note was found taped to the Mojave Memorial Cross, which was found Monday. A new cross is due to be raised atop Sunrise Rock at Mojave National Preserve at 11 a.m. Sunday, followed at 1 p.m. by a re-dedication ceremony. (The Associated Press)

By Henry Brean

A stolen cross that sparked controversy and a Supreme Court case may soon be headed back to its Mojave Desert home after it was left by the side of a road south of San Francisco.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office recovered the white metal cross late Monday morning near the town of Half Moon Bay, Calif., more than 500 miles from where it stood for decades before being stolen in 2010.

Based on a tip from a San Francisco television station, deputies found the cross strapped upright to a fence post with an unsigned note taped to it that read: "This cross is an important historical artifact. It is in fact the Mojave cross, taken on the evening of May 9, 2010 from Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert. I would be very grateful if you would be so kind as to notify the appropriate authorities of its presence here."

Authorities don't yet know who returned the cross or who stole it in the first place.

Its mysterious reappearance comes just days before a replica was due to be placed atop Sunrise Rock as part of a Veterans Day service.

Long before igniting a constitutional controversy over religious symbols on federal land, the welded steel symbol was mounted to the rock 75 miles southwest of Las Vegas by a group of World War I vets as a memorial to fallen soldiers.

For decades, it served as a site for Easter Sunday services and the occasional veterans event. A handful of volunteers maintained - and occasionally replaced - the cross, which was damaged from time to time by vandals and the desert wind.

The Mojave Memorial Cross, as it came to be known, still stood in 1994 when the 1.6 million acres surrounding it was designated as a national preserve. Three years later, a retired park service employee lodged a complaint about it because he considered it a government endorsement of Christianity.

A pair of lawsuits ensued, and the cross was cast into darkness, spending several years covered by boards like a roadside sign with no writing on it.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with a 5-4 decision that cleared the symbol to remain on display while a lower court reconsidered the case.

The cross was stolen two weeks later.

At least twice since then, replicas were placed at the site, only to be taken down by National Park Service employees acting under a court order.

The long legal fight was finally resolved last week, when the park service transferred ownership of Sunrise Rock and the acre surrounding it to the California office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a private organization free to erect and maintain a cross there.

In exchange, the park service got five acres of formerly private land inside the Mojave National Preserve.

"We have a solution that honors those who died for their country and honors national parks," said preserve superintendent Stephanie R. Dubois in a statement.

A new cross is due to be raised at the site at 11 a.m. Sunday, followed at 1 p.m. by a rededication ceremony featuring longtime caretakers Henry and Wanda Sandoz and others.

It is unclear whether the original cross will make it back to the site alongside Cima Road, about 12 miles south of Interstate 15, in time for Sunday's event. Authorities in San Mateo County said the recovered cross would be turned over to park service officials in San Francisco.

No matter which cross is raised this weekend, James Rowoldt, CEO of the VFW in California, is just glad the underlying dispute has finally been settled.

"I'm just happy for the Sandozes. I'm happy it's over for them," Rowoldt said earlier Monday, before learning about the cross found near Half Moon Bay. "It's just a happy day for everyone."