MOJAVE, Calif. A $25,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of vandals who apparently used a saw to cut down and steal the metal memorial cross atop a craggy hill in the Mojave National Preserve.
The cross was stolen under the cover of darkness between May 10 and 11, two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the cross could remain in the public park. It was erected 76 years ago as a tribute to World War I's war dead.
"This is an outrage, akin to desecrating people's graves," said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of Liberty Institute, which represented several veterans' organizations in fighting to keep the cross. "It's a disgraceful act on the selfless act of our veterans. We will not rest until this memorial is re-installed."
Officials with the American Legion, one of the groups that retained Liberty Institute, vowed to continue with the remaining legal questions surrounding the 7-foot cross. In its April 28 ruling, the Supreme Court fell short of ordering outright that the cross remain, but instead sent it back to the federal appeals court to allow it to revise its own decision.
"This was never about one cross," said Clarence E. Hill, national commander of the American Legion. "It's about the right to honor our nation's veterans in a manner in which the overwhelming majority supports. The American Legion strongly believes the public has a right to protect its memorials."
The suit, now entering its 10th year, was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a former preserve employee. In addition to the American Legion, other groups working to save the cross include the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Military Order of the Purple Heart, the American Ex-Prisoners of War, and the monument's longtime caretakers, Henry and Wanda Sandoz.
Henry Sandoz told CNN that the 3-inch pipe was filled with cement.
The ACLU, which had not commented publicly about the theft by Tuesday afternoon, argued in court that the cross promotes Christianity in violation of the U.S. Constitution, an argument nixed by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
"The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society," Kennedy wrote in one of six high court opinions issued on the case.
Hill said he was disturbed that someone would take down the cross after they had worked so hard to prove its legality.
"The American Legion expects whoever is responsible for this vile act to be brought to justice," the American Legion commander said. "While the memorial has been attacked, the fight will continue to ensure that veterans memorials will remain sacrosanct."
The veterans' groups were not the only ones to denounce the vandalism.
"While we do not yet know who tore down and stole this war memorial, I think it is obvious that the perpetrators where making a political point," said Bishop Council Nedd, chairman of the group In God We Trust. "This memorial was located in a remote area and the cross had no monetary value. Left-wing groups and atheist activists have been demanding that this memorial to World War I veterans be torn down. Now, it appears that someone has taken matters into his own hands and has done what even the Supreme Court has refused to do."
Thomas J. Tradewell Sr., national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, vowed to replace the cross.
"This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families," he said. "To think anyone can rationalize the desecration of a war memorial is sickening, and for them to believe they won't be apprehended is very naive.
"The memorial will be rebuilt and the vandals will be caught and prosecuted in federal court, since the crime occurred on government property. We hope this horrible act will highlight the importance of resolving this case quickly so that the memorial and land can be transferred to the VFW so that the service and sacrifice of all American war dead will be properly recognized and honored, as originally intended by a group of World War I VFW members 76 years ago."
In February, Nedd, who also urged the cross' caretakers to replace the symbol immediately, warned that a website called Atheist Activist had announced a campaign encouraging likeminded individuals to tear down roadside crosses erected to memorialize those killed in car crashes. The website, which has since been deactivated, also included instructions on how to cut down those memorials.
It is not known if the two incidents are related.
Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call (760) 252- 6120. The status of the cross may be monitored at www.DontTearMeDown.com.