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Replica of missing Mojave cross mysteriously erected

From Bill Mears, CNN
The original cross in the Mojave National Preserve was covered with plywood. It was stolen and a new cross was erected Thursday.
The original cross in the Mojave National Preserve was covered with plywood. It was stolen and a new cross was erected Thursday.
  • Replica of a cross removed from California desert turns up at same spot
  • Original memorial had stood in desert location on federal park land
  • Supreme Court recently ruled location of cross did not violate church-state ban
  • Authorities don't know who took original cross or who put up replica

Washington (CNN) -- The case of a war memorial shaped like a cross in the California desert got stranger Thursday when someone erected a replica after the original disappeared 11 days ago.

A statement by park officials said the replica turned up overnight at Sunrise Rock in a lonely stretch of the Mojave National Preserve.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that the original cross didn't violate church-state separation and left it to lower courts to decide the circumstances for its display.

The original 6-foot-tall metal structure disappeared May 9, according to park officials and veterans groups that have been fighting for years to keep the cross on national park land.

On Thursday morning, park officials discovered the replica of the original at the same spot, according to a National Park Service statement. Because a court injunction remains in place against displaying a cross at Sunrise Park despite the Supreme Court ruling, park employees would remove the replica, the statement said.

The Latin cross was first erected in 1934 by a local VFW unit to honor war dead. It has been rebuilt several times over the years, and Easter services are held annually at the desert site. The site is on national park land that totals about 1.6 million acres, or 2,500 square miles.

The cross itself was embedded in rock held in place by concrete. Whoever removed the original would have had to climb up the steep outcropping, maneuvering around rattlesnakes that hide in the crevices.

A federal judge in 2001 ordered the cross covered with plywood until the legal issues were resolved. Many tourists driving by the site had believed the memorial was a neglected billboard.

Frank Buono, a former Park Service employee, initiated the lawsuit, saying the cross represented government endorsement of the Christian faith. A federal appeals court ultimately agreed and rejected a move by Congress in 2003 to transfer the tiny portion of land where the cross sits to the VFW as a privately held national memorial.

The Supreme Court ruling on April 28 did not completely resolve the fight over the fate of the cross. While reaffirming recent rulings that there is a limited place for religious symbols on government land, the justices left it to lower courts to work out the details.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had brought the original lawsuit to have the cross removed, promised to continue the court fight.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Liberty Institute, the legal organization that represents the veterans groups in the case, offered rewards totaling $35,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in the theft of the original.

The unofficial caretakers of the cross said they were heartbroken at the disappearance of the original. Henry and Wanda Sandoz have driven 140 miles each way from their home on a weekly basis to maintain the area. Sitting near the cross in September, Henry Sandoz told CNN he has needed to do heavy maintenance over the years.

"Up until the box went on it, I would replace it when it got knocked down, repair it," he said. "The last time, I had to get a couple of cowboys across the way and they helped me put it up. We had to literally to hoist it up because it's heavy, 3-inch pipe, and filled it with cement. I put it up to stay."