Cross found may be the one stolen in Mojave Desert in 2010

When Henry and Wanda Sandoz erected a cross on a rocky outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve, they intended for it to last. They gathered on Palm Sunday 1998, just off Cima Road south of Interstate 15 at a place known as Sunrise Rock, and hoisted the welded steel pipe cross to its foundation, some 30 feet above the floor of the desert, and bolted it to the granite and filled it with concrete.

Twelve years later, thieves had a different plan for the cross. Cutting the bolts, they toppled it from its perch and took it away. In spite of a $25,000 reward for its recovery at the time, no solid leads materialized.

On Monday in Northern California, however, officials found a cross that is believed to be the Mojave cross.

Strapped to a fence post along a stretch of Highway 35 known as Muddy Flats in Half Moon Bay, a 7-foot white cross was found by deputies with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office after being notified by KGO-TV.

“This cross is an important historical artifact,” read a note attached to it. “It is in fact the Mojave cross taken on the evening of May 9, 2010, from Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert.”

Officials from the National Park Service were emailed photographs of the cross, and while it appears to be the stolen cross its identity has not yet been confirmed, park service spokeswoman Linda Slater said.

The Sandozes were skeptical. “This cross has a little box welded on the bottom,” Wanda Sandoz said. “That wasn’t on the cross that Henry put up unless someone put it on the cross later.”

The Mojave cross has been controversial since 1999, when a former park service employee and the American Civil Liberties Union objected to its presence on federal land as a violation of the 1st Amendment.

A cross had been on the site since 1934 when residents of the desert wanted to commemorate veterans of World War I. Over the decades, the cross has been vandalized and knocked down, which prompted the Sandozes, longtime caretakers of the cross, to erect their own in 1998.

In 2002, a federal district judge in Riverside ruled that the Mojave cross conveyed an endorsement of religion, and while his decision was appealed, the cross was covered up, first with a tarp, which was shredded by vandals, then with a plywood box. The judge’s opinion was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Only if the land were privately owned could the cross remain.

When the National Park Service and the Sandozes agreed to a land swap that would deed Sunrise Rock to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the district court ruled against the compromise. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually took the case and in 2010 determined that the ruling against the land swap was flawed.

Weeks later, the cross was stolen. Since then, other crosses have been raised on the site and have been removed by park service rangers who have stored them in an evidence locker in Barstow while waiting for the land transfer to be finalized.

Last Friday, more than two years after the Supreme Court decision, the National Park Service completed the conveyance of Sunrise Rock to the California Veterans of Foreign Wars.

On Veteran’s Day, the Sandozes — along with friends and supporters and a miliary honor guard — plan to raise a new cross on Sunrise Rock. It will not be the one that was found Monday at Half Moon Bay.

Not long after the cross was stolen in 2010, Henry Sandoz made a new one. He stored it in a private barn south of Sunrise Rock. This week it is being painted for its debut.

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.