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Famed rock butterfly in cave is vandalized

Web Posted: 12/05/2006 11:40 PM CST

Jerry Needham
Express-News

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 accident.

"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 with felonies.

"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 national treasure."


jneedham@express-news.net