LOS ANGELES — A cross erected on a remote Mojave Desert outcropping to honor American war dead has been stolen less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to remain standing while a legal battle continued over its presence on federal land.
Versions of the memorial have been vandalized repeatedly in the last 75 years and the motive this time was not immediately known, but the theft was condemned Tuesday by veterans groups that support the cross and by civil libertarians that saw it as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
"The American Legion expects whoever is responsible for this vile act to be brought to justice," said Clarence Hill, the group's national commander.
Attorney Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which sued on behalf of an opponent of the cross, said the organization rejects any resort to theft or vandalism.
"We believe in the rule of law and we think the proper way to resolve to any controversy about the cross is through the courts," he said.
The 7-foot-high metal cross vanished from its perch in the Mojave National Preserve late Sunday or early Monday, said National Park Service spokeswoman Linda Slater. Bolts holding it to the rock were cut.
Slater said possible scenarios ranged from people "with an interest in the case" to metal scavengers. The U.S. Justice Department was looking into the case.
The cross has been the center of a legal dispute for about a decade since a complaint by a former park service employee represented by the ACLU.
On a 5-4 vote in April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to order its removal. The high court told a federal judge to take a new look at a congressional plan to transfer land under the cross to private ownership.
The theft was discovered when workers went to replace a plywood cover that was placed over the cross years ago pending resolution of the case and had been torn off during the weekend.
The isolated site in the 1.6 million-acre preserve is a small rise amid Joshua trees along a road far off busy Interstate 15, about 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles and 70 miles south of Las Vegas.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars first placed a wooden cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934 to honor soldiers killed in World War I.
The metal cross that was stolen was erected in the late 1990s by the memorial's longtime caretakers, Henry and Wanda Sandoz of Yucca Valley.
Liberty Institute, an organization representing the Sandozes and veterans groups, offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or conviction.
Wanda Sandoz said the cross had been vandalized in the past, but such instances had become rarer since her husband bolted it down.
"I was really upset and I was crying, and I said: 'Well, we'll show them. We'll put up a bigger one and a better one," she said. "And Henry said: 'No we won't. We will put one up exactly like the veterans put up.'"
The VFW also promised that the memorial will be rebuilt.
"This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families," National Commander Thomas J. Tradewell said.
It was not immediately clear, however, whether a replacement cross would be permitted.
"We're waiting for news from the Department of Justice as to what we should do. The case is still in litigation," said Slater, the park service spokeswoman.
Federal courts ruled earlier in this decade that having the cross in the national preserve was unconstitutional. The issue that most recently went to the Supreme Court was the rejection by lower courts of the congressional effort to solve the problem by transferring the land into private hands.
In sending the case back to a lower court, six justices wrote separate opinions.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the cross shouldn't be seen merely as a religious symbol.
"Here one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten," he wrote.
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens agreed that soldiers who died in battle deserve a memorial. But the government "cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message," Stevens said.
The ACLU's Eliasberg said he hadn't thought about what to do if the cross is replaced, but noted that the group had not objected to leaving up the current cross while it was covered.
Eliasberg said he did not know whether Frank Buono, the former park service employee involved in the lawsuit, had been contacted by any investigator. Eliasberg said Buono is a "decent and honorable person" who has pursued the case through the courts.
Associated Press Writers Kevin Freking in Washington, D.C., and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.