A wooden memorial cross honoring two California men who disappeared while driving through the Yakama Reservation will return to the family who made it after its removal by state highway workers a couple weeks ago.

Rick Dominguez, who is known throughout and beyond the reservation as the Cross Man for the more than 200 wooden crosses he has made for grieving families, crafted it for Jon Cleary, 47, and Josiah Michael “Jo” Hilderbrand, 25, who went missing June 7, 2019. The men were driving to a Dead & Company concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre. The car they were traveling in was discovered abandoned and partially burned the morning of June 8, 2019, in an orchard about 8½ miles west of Toppenish.

On Aug. 5, a road crew working on U.S. Highway 97 about 10 miles south of Toppenish found their remains in the area of milepost 52. Their deaths have been ruled homicides and the FBI is investigating.

The area of milepost 52 is where Dominguez and Brad Goudy set the wooden cross in concrete Sept. 3 in a special ceremony attended by several people. Goudy placed a skull of a buck deer at the base of the cross along and others added two memorial candles and dozens of flat glass pebbles on and around the varnished cross, which featured photos of the men protected by acrylic, their names and the date they disappeared.

“Rest easy. Fly high,” it said.

Meagan Lott, south central region communications manager for the DOT, confirmed Friday that highway workers removed the memorial cross a couple weeks ago. Though smaller roadside memorials stand closer to roads throughout Yakima County, private memorials are not allowed along state roadways due to safety concerns, she said.

The cross for Jon and Josiah was about 30 feet from the highway. The usual right-of-way on state highways is anywhere from 60 to 100 feet from the shoulder, which is an estimate depending on the location, Lott said.

State highways on tribal lands are an exception, though. Washington has an easement to operate its highway through the reservation, Lott said. The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation, one of 29 federally recognized tribes in the state, is a sovereign nation.

Relatives and friends of the two murdered men were upset with removal of the cross along with those who made, set and blessed it.

Rick and Sonya Dominguez went to check on the cross Thursday after they had been out root digging with others and saw it had been sawed off and taken; everything else was gone, too.

“We drove right up on it and it’s sawed off. They damaged it. We’re so upset,” Sonya said. “As soon as we saw that, at first we thought vandalism. We thought wow, that’s really disrespectful.”

Their daughter, Chestina Salinas, posted about it on Facebook on Thursday evening and word quickly got around.

Caroline Looney, who participated in the Sept. 3 ceremony, said her brother thought he saw the cross propped against a bin outside in the Washington State Department of Transportation maintenance site on Fort Road in Toppenish. Sonya went there Friday, saw it, took photos and showed Rick.

Sonya said they were contacted by HollyAnna Littlebull, safety coordinator for the Yakama Nation. Littlebull is working with Rick and Sonya to possibly get the cross back Monday.

“We’re going to take a look at it and see how much damage there is on the bottom,” Sonya said.

She said there are memorial crosses closer to busy areas — along Fort Road and North Track Road, for instance.

State transportation officials understand it’s a sensitive issue, Lott said.

“Moving forward, we will be looking at the way we will be handling memorials on Yakama Nation land,” Lott said. “We’re working with our tribal liaison to see if there’s a way we can work with the families to try to find a solution that works for everyone.”

The state transportation department encourages people to remember their loved ones through its roadside memorial sign program. And workers remove private memorials along state roadways after time has passed.

Those who placed a private memorial along a Yakima Valley road and see it’s gone should call the DOT’S South Central Regional Office in Union Gap at 509-577-1600 or visit the website for more information.

“If our maintenance crews are out there and they see something, they usually will contact our traffic office. They will let it stay there for so long. Eventually we will remove it,” Lott said. “If we do remove a memorial like that, we will bring it back to our yard and keep it. It’s not something we would trash or throw away.”

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.

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