Famous veteran memorial cross turns up Coastside, but owners don't want it

Courtesy PhotoForgive them their trespasses: A cross stolen from a Mojave Desert site two years ago was the subject of a legal battle about whether a cross belonged on public land.

The caretaker of a famously controversial cross that was stolen from the Mojave Desert two years ago wasn’t all that thrilled about hearing that it had been mysteriously found Monday along the roadside near Half Moon Bay.

“It’s not even the original,” Wanda Sandoz, of Yucca Valley, said Tuesday.

Still, the story behind the recovered cross — which had been the focus of a 13-year-long legal case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenged whether a Christian symbol should honor war veterans on federal land — is garnering a lot of attention leading up to Veterans Day.

The tale begins in 1934, when World War I veterans placed a 7-foot-tall white cross made of pipe on Sunset Rock in the Mojave National Preserve to honor their comrades. Decades later, one of the dying veterans asked Sandoz’s husband, Henry, to watch over the cross. Henry Sandoz kept his promise and successfully maintained the memorial — replacing damaged crosses with new versions — until the ACLU intervened. The group sued the federal government for violating the First Amendment, which prohibits it from endorsing a religion.

In 2002, a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the ACLU and the cross was reportedly covered in a wooden box or a bag. Two years ago, however, the ruling was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after an effort was made to privatize an acre of land where the memorial is located. About a week later, the cross was stolen.

Despite a $100,000 reward for the thief’s capture, the cross remained missing until Monday, when San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies were called about a “famous cross” found on state Highway 35, about three miles south of state Highway 92.

“Upon arrival, deputies observed a cross standing upright and attached to a fence post with zip ties,” Deputy Rebecca Rosenblatt said.
The cross was in good condition, Rosenblatt said, and had a note attached to it proclaiming its authenticity. No arrests have been made.

Despite the recovery, the Sandozes said Tuesday they didn’t really care to see that cross again.

“We’re not upset about that because the cross that was stolen wasn’t the original,” Wanda Sandoz said. “We just don’t care about that one.”

Instead, the Sandozes say they are looking forward to Veterans Day next week because they will be able to legally re-erect the cross. Earlier this year, the land swap to privatize the acre — transferred to the Veterans of Foreign Wars — was approved.

“We feel like we’ve accomplished our mission, that we kept our promise to our friend,” Wanda Sandoz said.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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