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Mojave cross theft shows planning; veterans groups vow to rebuild

The Mojave cross, which the US Supreme Court two weeks ago ruled could stay, was removed early this week, sparking outrage.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / May 11, 2010

Henry Sandoz of Mountain Pass, Calif. sits in the shade below the Mojave Cross in the Mojave National Preserve in this 2001 file photo. The memorial, the subject of a Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago, was removed sometime Sunday night or Monday.

Steven Medd/The Press-Enterprise/AP/File


Los Angeles

The removal of a cross-shaped veterans’ memorial from the Mojave Desert has angered veterans’ groups and spurred calls for its immediate restoration.

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The cross, first constructed at the remote site in 1934 as a memorial to WWI veterans, has been the subject of a nearly decade-long legal fight over the constitutionality of a religious symbol on public lands, and had just two weeks ago been cleared to stand by the US Supreme Court.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the US (VFW) has vowed to catch the people who stole the cross, offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of those behind the cross’s removal.

"This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families," said VFW National Commander Thomas J. Tradewell, Sr. in a statement. In a 5 to 4 ruling, the US Supreme Court on April 28, overturned an earlier federal court ruling that prohibited Congress from transferring public land around the cross to private owners, thus eliminating any perception of government-endorsement of religion. The court battle had gone on for several years as the memorial had remained covered, first with brown canvas, then with plywood.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story suggested the Supreme Court ruling overturned the First Amendment prohibition on government endorsement of religion. In fact, it reversed a land transfer injunction.]

The high court’s decision was applauded by the Liberty Counsel, an advocacy group representing VFW and other military service organizations and the American Center for Law and Justice. Opponents, including the ACLU, pledged to keep fighting for the removal of the cross.

"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 naïve,” said Mr. Tradewell, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran from Sussex, Wis.

The cross’s removal leaves veterans’ groups hunting for clues. Looking at the pictures of the site where the cross once was, VFW chief spokesperson Joe Davis says he is amazed at the serious planning and execution that went into the theft. The cutting of the thick, metal pipes in concrete was a serious undertaking, he says.