Less than two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the controversial 7-foot-high Mojave Desert cross could stay put, but on Sunday someone else decided it should go.
Investigators who arrived at its former perch Monday found a few bits of rusty metal, 1.6 million acres of desert and a big mystery on their hands.
"One day it was there, the next day it wasn't," said Linda Slater, spokeswoman for the Mojave National Preserve, where the cross stood for 76 years. "It was bolted directly to the rock, and the bolts were cut. Someone has that cross."
Whoever that someone is could have driven right up to it, knocked it down, loaded it up and been in Las Vegas, Barstow or dozens of other communities in a few hours, officials said.
Not that uprooting the monument would have been easy. This is the third incarnation of the cross, which has been vandalized before. It was made of steel pipes 3 to 4 inches wide, filled with concrete.
"It would be extremely heavy to move," Slater said.
Intended as a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I, the cross stood atop Sunrise Rock along remote Cima Road since 1934. For the last decade it sparked court battles over whether a solitary religious symbol should be allowed on public land.
But despite the legal arguments, the heist prompted outrage and condemnation on both sides of the debate.
"However you feel about the cross, this was not permissible and should not have been done," said Peter Eliasberg, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, which has fought against the monument in court.
Thomas Tradewell Sr., the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which placed the original cross, said those responsible would be caught.
"This was a legal fight that a vandal just made personal to 50 million veterans, military personnel and their families," Tradewell said. "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."
The VFW has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at the Liberty Institute, which represented veterans groups during the legal fight, stressed the timing of the theft.
"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," he said. "It's clear this wasn't done by one person. It was done with a lot of planning and intention. They completely unearthed the base plate in the ground."
In 1999, national park employee Frank Buono, represented by the ACLU, filed a complaint saying the cross was unconstitutional because it represented just one faith — Christianity. A judge ordered that it be covered with a wooden box until the matter was resolved.
Congress tried to transfer the land to private owners so the cross could be legally displayed, but a federal court ruled against the plan.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling last month saying the Constitution does not "require the eradication of all religious symbols from the public realm" and sent the case back to federal court for reconsideration.
The investigation is being handled by rangers from the National Park Service, who have been in contact with local authorities as well as the U.S. Department of Justice.
Given the vast, largely unmonitored terrain, it will probably be difficult. Rangers will be looking for fingerprints, tire tracks or anything else that might provide clues to who was responsible. As federal law enforcement officers, they can go wherever the evidence leads them and will have access to a wide range of tools, including forensics equipment, Slater said.
"This is a high-profile case," she said. "I think they will get whatever they need."
Anyone with information about the theft is asked to call the Mojave National Preserve tip line at (760) 252-6120.