Mojave Cross Honoring U.S. War Dead Stolen in Middle of the Night

(AP Photo)

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. (CBS/AP) A cross that has stood in the Mojave Desert for over 70 years to commemorate American lives lost in war has been stolen by vandals. Less than two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the religious symbol could remain on federal land; however, some must have thought otherwise.

National Park Service spokeswoman Linda Slater said that the 7-foot-high cross was stolen late Sunday or early Monday after the metal bolts that attached the symbol to a rock in the desert preserve were removed.

Although authorities do not have a concrete reason to believe that the cross was stolen because of the recent Supreme Court ruling, they do believe the suspects could be people "with an interest in the case," Slater said.

"The American Legion expects whoever is responsible for this vile act to be brought to justice," said Clarence Hill, the group's national commander. "While the memorial has been attacked, the fight will continue to ensure that veterans' memorials will remain sacrosanct."

VFW National Commander Thomas J. Tradewell believes that the vandals who stole the cross "just made it personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families."

The wooden cross was first placed on the rock in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars who wanted to honor the dead soldiers of World War I. A metal version of the cross was put up in the late 1990s, but quickly came under fire on the grounds that it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

Over the years, the cross has sparked many debates, but the most recent case ended in a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court that the cross should remain where it was. 

While the investigation continues into the stolen cross, it is not clear whether the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the current caretakers Henry and Wanda Sandoz will be permitted to replace the old cross.

"He's wanting to go right now and put another one up," Wanda said of her husband. "It's not going to be an easy thing to do. He's 71 years old and he's rarin' to go, I'll tell you."

The U.S. Justice Department was looking into the case, and a veterans group planned to offer a $25,000 reward to help catch the thieves.