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Vandals tear down, steal Mojave Memorial cross

BARSTOW, Calif. (BP)–A World War I memorial cross in the Mojave National Preserve in California that stood for 76 years in various forms was torn down and stolen by vandals sometime the night of May 9, several days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the cross could remain.

The seven-foot cross, known as the Mojave Desert War Memorial, has been at the center of a legal battle since 2001 after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of a former National Park Service employee. The cross, the ACLU argued, amounted to a government establishment of religion.

The ACLU won at the district and appeals court level but lost at the Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision issued a narrow ruling allowing the cross to stand but returning the case to the lower court. The cross had been covered for about eight years, most of that time by plywood, following a court order.

Liberty Institute, a legal group which represented veterans’ groups in the effort to keep the cross atop the rocky hill in the desert, is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

“It’s an outrage,” Liberty Institute President Kelly Shackelford told Baptist Press. “It’s desecrating the service and honor of our veterans, and in particular of those who spilled their blood for their country, which was what this memorial was put up to honor.”

He added, “We’re not resting until this memorial is back up.”

The memorial was placed atop the hill — known as Sunrise Rock — in 1934 after a number of World War I veterans had moved to the area. The vets chose the hill because shadows from the sun created an image on the hill that some said appeared to be a World War I soldier.

After the ACLU sued, Congress passed and President Bush signed a federal law transferring the property on which the cross stands to a private organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But the lower court declared the law unconstitutional.

Since 1984 a couple that lives about two hours from the cross, Henry and Wanda Sandoz, have been its unofficial caretakers. Henry Sandoz promised a World War I vet who helped build the cross that he’d take care of it when the man died. Liberty Institute also represented the Sandozes in its friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court.

The vandalized cross actually was not the original one but it easily was the least destructible. Prior to 1996 the cross had been wooden and susceptible to vandalism so Henry Sandoz — using black and white pictures of the original cross — put up a new cross using concrete-filled pipe bolted to the rock.

“That’s why it took an unbelievable effort to rip this thing completely off of the rock and cut through bolts,” Shackelford said, adding he believes it was a coordinated effort by at least two people.

Sandoz, Shackelford said, is ready to make a new one.

“He can put it back up,” Shackelford said. “In fact, before we even talked to him he was out looking for materials to put everything together because he knows he can put it right back up the way it was.”

Wanda Sandoz, Shackelford said, cried a long time after learning of the news.

“She said, ‘I got so mad finally that I told Henry that we’re going to put up a bigger one.’ And Henry said, ‘No we’re not. We’re putting up exactly the same thing that those veterans put up in 1934.’ She said, ‘That’s exactly right.’

Liberty Institute represented the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW), The American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Heart, and the American Ex-Prisoners of War in the friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court.

“This was never about one cross,” American Legion National Commander Clarence E. Hill said in a statement. “It is 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 cross, Shackelford said, is not easily accessible.

“It’s in the middle of the desert,” Shackelford said. “There is a road that goes nearby within a few hundred yards, but the road is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a desert road.

He added, “This is exactly what the ACLU was trying to accomplish, except through a court. They did not ask that it be done criminally, but this is the exact result that they have been fighting for.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. For information about the cross and the vandalism to it, visit www.donttearmedown.com.

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  • Michael Foust