About two weeks after it was cut down by state highway workers, a memorial cross mounted in September for two California men who disappeared while driving through the Yakama Reservation in 2019 has been returned to the man who made it.
Rick Dominguez of Toppenish, who crafted the wooden cross for Jon Cleary, 47, and Josiah Michael “Jo” Hilderbrand, 25, got it back Tuesday, along with memorial candles and a small bell. The cross, candles and bell had been removed by Washington State Department of Transportation workers from a site near U.S. Highway 97 south of Toppenish.
A set of buck antlers also placed with the cross in a special ceremony on Sept. 3 3 weren’t returned, said his daughter, Chestina Salinas.
Dominguez is known as the Cross Man for all the memorial crosses he has made for grieving families on and off the reservation, and the family helps set them.
Hilderbrand and Cleary disappeared while driving through the Yakama Reservation on June 7, 2019. They 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.
Dominguez, his wife Sonya and others mounted and blessed the cross in a ceremony near the place where the men’s remains were found. Late last week, while digging roots, the couple and others stopped by the site to check on the cross. They saw that it had been sawed off and taken, along with the other items.
The area about 30 feet east of the highway appeared to have been swept clean of everything placed there in memory of the Cleary and Hilderbrand.
Meagan Lott, south central region communications manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation, 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.
But state highways on tribal lands are an exception. Washington has an easement to operate its highway through the reservation. The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation, one of 29 federally recognized tribes in the state, is a sovereign nation.
After people shared on social media that the cross had been removed, the brother of one of the women at the blessing ceremony saw it at the transportation department’s maintenance facility on Fort Road in Toppenish and told others. The Dominguezes learned it was there Friday.
WSDOT keeps roadside memorials it removes in case someone wants to claim them.
Relatives and friends of the two murdered men were upset with removal of the cross, as were those who made, set and blessed it. On Monday, WSDOT and Yakama Nation representatives met about the situation, Lott said.
“We listened to representatives from the Yakama Nation. We obviously admit that we were in the wrong,” Lott said. “There wasn’t really any major decisions that were made Monday. It was more of a coming together, what happened and how that was perceived.
“We’re still in those kind of discussions as far as how we should be proceeding as far as memorials go,” she added. “It’s just continuing our good working relationship with the Yakama Nation as we move forward and taking a look at what kind of things can be discussed as we move forward.”
Rick Dominguez and relatives and friends of the murdered men would like to remount the cross in another ceremony, possibly a little more to the east. State transportation officials want to come up with a solution that both parties are comfortable with, Lott said.
“As far as the memorial and where it’s going to be placed again, that’s something we are collaborating with the Yakama Nation on,” Lott said. “It is their land and we are going to be working with them closely to be sure we come up with a good solution.”