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U.S. Justice Department joins probe into stolen Mojave cross

May 11, 2010 | 10:32 am

Me-mojave-cross-g U.S. Justice Department officials said Tuesday they are working to find whoever tore down and stole an 8-foot-high cross that stood as a war memorial in Mojave National Preserve and which prompted a lengthy legal battle culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the cross to remain on federal land.

An employee of the National Park Service on Monday discovered the metal cross missing from its site atop Sunrise Rock. The bolts attaching the cross to a metal plate were cut sometime between late Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, said park service spokeswoman Linda Slater.

“We are working with the appropriate agencies to look into the theft as well as what impact it may have on the ongoing litigation,” Department of Justice officials said in a statement.

Although the Supreme Court ruled two weeks ago that the cross could stay in the preserve, the decision still could be affected by a lower court. It was ordered to look into the possibility of transferring the federal land under the site into private hands.

Slater said park officials had been told to continue covering the cross with its plywood case until litigation ends completely.

The cross has stood since 1934 in various forms as a memorial to World War I soldiers. In 1999, after the park service refused to permit a Buddhist shrine to be erected nearby, former employee Frank Buono sued, saying the official preference for the cross violated the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights and its ban on "an establishment of religion."

Officials were ordered to remove the cross, but in April Supreme Court justices reversed the decision in a 5-4 ruling.

The wooden cover for the cross was reported missing by park staff Saturday morning. The cross itself was last seen standing Sunday.

"This happened on Sunday night when someone went up there and demolished it,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at the Liberty Institute, which has represented the veterans groups in court throughout the controversy. “It hasn’t even been two weeks since the Supreme Court decision and evidently someone didn’t like that decision and took the law into their own hands and tore it down.”

Shackelford said the cross was made of 3- to 4-inch-thick pipes filled with cement and bolted into the ground. To remove it, he said, would have taken a major effort involving planning and probably more than one person.

The national commander of the VFW called the destruction of the cross "sickening."

"This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families," said Thomas J. Tradewell Sr. "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."

Anyone with information is asked to call National Park Service law enforcement at (760) 252-6120.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

-- Corina Knoll and David Kelly

Earlier in L.A. Now: Mojave Desert cross, focus of long legal battle, is stolen