Image: The "Mojave Cross"
Liberty Legal Institute  /  AP file
A photo taken by Henry and Wanda Sandoz and made available by the Liberty Legal Institute shows the memorial known as the "Mojave Cross" before it was taken from the Mojave National Preserve in California.
updated 5/20/2010 9:04:07 PM ET 2010-05-21T01:04:07

A replica of a cross honoring America's war dead that drew the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court before it was stolen this month mysteriously appeared Thursday in a Mojave Desert federal park, but officials said it was illegal and took it down.

A maintenance worker discovered the cross bolted to a concrete pad on Sunrise Rock, Mojave National Preserve spokeswoman Linda Slater said.

The cross apparently was put up during the night and nobody has claimed responsibility, Slater said.

The stolen cross had been the subject of a legal dispute for about a decade after a former park service employee sued on grounds that the Christian religious symbol was unconstitutionally located on government land.

Congress reacted by transferring land under the cross to private ownership.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to order the removal of the cross while a lower court decides whether the land transfer was legal. However, the cross was hidden by a wooden cover.

The white, painted replica was made of metal pipes and resembled the 7-foot original that was stolen on May 9 or May 10, but workers soon determined it was a copy, Slater said.

"The paint job is new and there are none of the marks of the original cross," she said.

The latest cross also was 6 inches taller than the original, she said. Four new holes were drilled to replace bolts cut off by thieves who took the original.

Slater said the government remained under court order not to display a cross on the site. And since the replica isn't the original disputed cross, it had to come down.

"Technically, it's illegal," she said. "The park service has regulations about people putting up memorials. You can't just go to a park and put a memorial to a family member."

Mark Ware of Apple Valley noticed the replacement cross Thursday morning while drinking coffee with his wife at their favorite camping spot.

They clambered up to investigate and spotted what looked like a small greeting card underneath a rock at the foot of the cross, he said. A park ranger took it as evidence.

By afternoon the cross was gone, Ware said.

Slater said it will be stored as evidence, although it was not immediately clear whether the people who erected it will face charges.

The theft of the original cross remained under investigation, she added.

Slater said she understood the emotions churned up by the dispute over the original cross. But she urged partisans not to take illegal action.

"It's really unhelpful for people to be putting up crosses and taking crosses down," she said. "It's up to the courts. ... This really confuses the issue."

The Veterans of Foreign Wars first placed a wooden cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934 to honor troops 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.

Its theft infuriated veterans groups, who offered $125,000 in rewards for information leading to an arrest.

Henry Sandoz, 71, made a replacement cross on Saturday but had not put it up because the couple was awaiting permission from the federal parks service, Wanda Sandoz said.

"We would love to do it, but we have to abide by the law or we're just like the people that stole the one that was there," she said. "We've got it tucked away in an old barn."

She and her husband had not yet seen the latest cross placed on top of Sunrise Rock.

However, Sandoz, 66, said the couple would not want a replacement that did not adhere to the specifications of the original memorial.

"We've had offers from all over the United States from people wanting to help" replace the cross, she said. "One gentleman wanted to make a granite cross, 10-foot, and another a redwood. And they would be beautiful ... but we really want what the veterans chose."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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