Mystery of girl’s photo in Arlington Cemetery urn solved


Gwyn Stecher’s remains were to be in an urn buried in her husband’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

When Rachel Stecher’s father saw the newspaper at 7:30 Friday morning at his Ashburn home, he called out to his wife: “Wow! Rachel’s on the front page!”

Kate Stecher thought maybe it was an article about the Air Force Academy, where Rachel is in her second year. Then he showed her the photo, and she was dumbfounded.

Rachel Stecher, according to her family, is the young girl in the mysterious photograph and the answer to the puzzle Army special agents had been trying to solve for months.

The photo of her as a young figure skater was found in an urn that had been unearthed at Arlington National Cemetery and later found in a mass grave. The special agents assigned to the case had been trying to determine whose remains the urn contained.

Their only lead was the photograph of the skater, which was published Friday on the front page of The Washington Post, along with an Army phone number for those with information to call.


The photo was taken about a decade ago in Aston, Pa. The urn was in a mass grave. (Courtesy of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division)

In an interview Friday, Kate Stecher said Rachel’s grandmother’s ashes were in the urn. Rachel, now 19, was close to her grandmother, which is why the family put the photograph in the urn, she said.

Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation Division, said Friday that investigators are confident that they have identified the girl in the photograph and are working with cemetery officials to positively identify the remains. Citing policy on privacy, he would not release the name of the person they believe the remains belong to or the name of the person in the photograph.

But according to the family, the ashes in the urn belong to Gwyn Stecher, who died in August 2001 and was buried at Arlington. Her husband, Adolph Stecher, a retired Army chief warrant officer, died in 2003.

At Arlington, spouses are buried in the same graves. Urns are typically buried three feet deep and coffins at seven feet. Generally, if an urn is already in the plot, crews carefully remove it, then dig the deeper hole for the coffin. The urn is reburied at three feet, over the coffin. Since new leadership took over at Arlington, urns have been encased in concrete liners, which prevents them from being dug up unintentionally.

But in 2005, the urn with the photograph was found in a pile of excess dirt at Arlington by a contractor working there. In October, as investigators continued to probe burial problems at Arlington, they discovered that a grave where only one person was supposed to be buried instead held eight sets of cremated remains — including the urn with the photograph.

Army special agents were able to positively identify three sets of the remains. They were unable to identify four others, which were reburied as “Unknown.” And, until Friday, they were trying to find out who the mysterious figure skater was, hoping that would lead them to the identity of the last set of remains.

A criminal probe of Arlington continues. In addition to possible contracting fraud, investigators are looking into whether there was any criminal activity associated with the widespread burial problems, which included several incidents of urns being unearthed. Congress has also passed legislation requiring the cemetery to fully account for each of its 320,000 graves.

Kate Stecher said family members have no ill will toward cemetery workers, saying they believed that it was “just human error.”

Rachel Stecher was inspired to join the military by her grandfather, who had served in the Army for more than 30 years and was a veteran of World War II and Korea. And when she visited the Air Force Academy, near Colorado Springs, one summer during high school, she fell in love with the place.

Her mother recalled her saying: “I don’t want to go back. I just want to stay.”

Kate Stecher said her daughter, a graduate of Briar Woods High School in Loudoun County, became seriously interested in the military when she saw a Navy SEAL training exercise in Virginia Beach.

As a young child, Rachel was something of a figure skating prodigy, winning all sorts of competitions and training daily with her coach, Andrey Kryukov.

She was so dedicated, Kryukov said, that when he moved from Woodbridge to Ashburn, the family also moved so he could continue to train her.

“She was a very quick learner, very competitive,” he said. “If she had a goal, she always worked to reach it. She was an A student in school — B was not considered satisfactory.”

Kate Stecher said that her daughter is intensely private, was embarrassed by the attention and did not want to speak publicly.

But Kate Stecher remembers the day the photograph was taken. It was at the South Atlantic Regional Competition near Philadelphia, she said, and her daughter was 10. Her program was two minutes long, and it was set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

“She won that event,” Kate Stecher said. “That’s why I put that photograph in the urn.”

The family was grateful that Gwyn Stecher’s remains can now be reburied in the right spot.

“We’re happy that she’s going to be back where she belongs,” Kate Stecher said. “It’s a shame that this happened.”

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk.
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