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Stolen Mojave Desert cross turns up in San Francisco Bay area

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A controversial 7-foot metal cross honoring war dead that was swiped from its Mojave Desert outcrop two years ago has turned up hundreds of miles away in the San Francisco Bay area.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Department discovered the cross on Monday. It was in good condition, authorities say, and wrapped in paper and attached with plastic ties to a fence post near a highway in Half Moon Bay.

“We may never know why they took it in the first place, but these people knew the cross held a sacred place in the hearts of many people,” VFW member Thomas Tradewell told NBC News when contacted by telephone. “These people who took it must have held a reverence for the cross even though they were callus enough to take it in the first place.”

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The National Park Service confirmed that markings on the cross matched those from the missing cross, sheriff's spokeswoman Rebecca Rosenblatt said. "Right now, it's in safekeeping until its return to the rightful owners. It would go back to the Mojave Desert," Rosenblatt told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Stolen on the night of May 9, 2010, the metal cross sat on a perch known as Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert since 1934 to honor World War I dead.

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The site, maintained by volunteers in San Bernardino County, became part of the 1.6-million Mojave National Preserve in 1994, and that meant the cross was on public land. A lawsuit filed in 2001 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a retired park service employee argued that the cross violated the separation of church and state.

Federal courts ordered its removal but instead it was covered up while the legal battle continued. In April 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the cross to remain because Congress had come up with a plan to swap the site to a veterans group in return for other land.

A month after the ruling, the cross vanished.

No one knows how long the cross was in its latest location, but someone typed up a note on the cross that read: "This cross is an important historical artifact. It is in fact the Mojave cross taken on the evening of May 9, 2010 from Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert. I would be very grateful if you would be so kind as to notify the appropriate authorities of its presence here.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars planned to dedicate a replacement cross at the Mojave Desert on Sunday, which is Veterans Day.

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NBCBayArea.com's Lori Preuitt and NBC News' Sevil Omer contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press. 

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