Caving enthusiasts across the country are incensed over an
apparent act of vandalism that may have irreparably damaged the
world-famous "butterfly formation" in the Caverns of Sonora.
"It's really a sad event," said Geary Schindel, chief technical
officer for the Edwards Aquifer Authority and an avid caver. "It's
probably the best-known cave formation in the United States, if not
the world. In my opinion, it's equivalent to destroying a priceless
work of art like the Mona Lisa or a Picasso."
Someone in a group of 11 people on a tour Nov. 21 apparently hung
back momentarily and snapped off the upper right wing of the
butterfly and made off with it, cave co-owner Gerry Ingham said.
The damage was discovered about a half-hour later during the next
tour, but the previous tour members already had left the property.
She said she turned over information that should have led to
identification of a suspect, including a credit card receipt, but no
charges have been filed as Sutton County authorities try to
determine what crime was committed.
Now she's pleading for the safe return of the missing piece,
which is about 3 1/2 inches wide by 4 1/2 inches long.
"If they don't do anything but put it in a box and mail it back
to us, that would be the best thing for us," Ingham said. "It's the
signature formation at the very heart of our entire cave. Right now,
we're just trying to plead for the return of this piece because the
investigation has not proceeded. We don't want to threaten anyone.
We don't want to scare anyone.
"The longer we leave this piece out of its environment, the
harder it's going to be to repair," she said. "We're just fervently
hoping that it's recovered intact and not in any way destroyed."
Ingham, whose family has owned the property for five generations
and opened the cave commercially in 1960, said the damage was not an
"My nephew is 6-(foot-)3 and he couldn't stand on his tiptoes and
reach over the railing and touch this formation with his
fingertips," Ingham said.
Cavers are devastated by the loss. The National Speleological
Society is offering a reward of $1,000 for information leading to
the arrest and conviction of suspects in the case.
"The butterfly is world-famous," said George Veni, a San Antonio
karst and cave geologist who has just been hired to be director of
the National Cave and Karst Institute in Carlsbad, N.M. "The Caverns
of Sonora are recognized as the most beautiful show cave in the
world. It's just gorgeous. People come from around the world to see
it, and this one formation has become their trademark. It's the
grand finale of both tours through the cave."
Ingham said it's frustrating waiting for authorities to act.
"Due to the fact that our state cave protection laws are really
weak and classify this kind of thing as a Class B misdemeanor, law
officers tend to stick it on the back burner," she said, adding that
she kept the vandalism quiet for a while to allow the law to work.
But the lack of a big stick chasing after suspects has raised the
ire of cavers, whose Internet network has named Sutton County
Attorney David Wallace as a sticking point.
But Wallace, who said he handled a few calls Tuesday from cavers,
said he's all for pursuing suspects aggressively and charging them
"That's a major attraction that affects not only that family but
this whole community," he said.
"When the case got routed to me last week, I was going, 'sure I
can make it a cave crime, charge them with a Class B misdemeanor,'"
Wallace said. "At the same time, I don't think any caver that I've
talked to is real happy that it would be a Class B misdemeanor, and
for somebody to possibly get up to six months in jail as a
worst-case scenario for something that significant.
"However, if in fact you said that formation is worth over
$200,000, and you charge them with criminal mischief, you're dealing
with the worst felony other than a capital felony that a person
could face. I think cavers are saying, from what I've heard, that's
the type of punishment someone should face for that type of damage."
Wallace said that he suggested that sheriff's deputies talk with
the district attorney's office about filing felony criminal mischief
charges, and that's where the case stands now.
"It took hundreds of thousands of years for this formation to
develop," Ingham said. "We successfully protected it for almost 47
years, but now that time past has been stolen and all the members of
future generations have been cheated of the opportunity to see this