Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Senate approved a bill last week that would bar veterans convicted of capital crimes from burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The bill seeks to have the remains of convicted killer Russell Wayne Wagner removed from Arlington.

Killer May Be Unearthed From Arlington Cemetery

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The remains of a Vietnam War veteran convicted of killing a Maryland couple would have to be removed from Arlington National Cemetery under a bill passed by the Senate last week after the couple's outraged son complained that murderers don't deserve such a revered military honor.

Russell W. Wagner, a former Army private, died last year while serving two life sentences in the fatal stabbings. His ashes were inurned during a ceremony with military honors, including a bugler playing taps and soldiers firing a salute.

"That's a very honorable place to go, and to call him an honorable man was wrong," said Vernon G. Davis, the couple's son, who lives in Hagerstown, Md. "He carried his honorable discharge in one hand and a knife in the other."

The full Senate unanimously approved the measure Thursday night, Jeff Schrade, a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said yesterday. A companion measure is before the House, said Brooke Adams, a spokeswoman for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The bill requiring the removal of Wagner's remains follows action by Congress last year that tightened restrictions on interring veterans convicted of any offense for which the death penalty or life imprisonment could be imposed.

Previously, the prohibition extended only to those who had been sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole. This left open the possibility that people who were eligible for parole -- no matter what their likelihood of early release -- could receive military honors at Arlington or another military cemetery.

Wagner, 52, died in February 2005 while serving time for the slayings of Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, in Hagerstown. After Wagner's death, his sister contacted Arlington Cemetery to arrange a ceremony with military honors. Wagner had been honorably discharged from the military in 1972.

When Davis learned about the ceremony for his parents' killer, he called Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).

"He was actually in Arlington before I heard about it," said Davis, 67, who also served in the Army, in the early 1960s. He provided testimony before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, which reexamined a 1997 law that was passed in part to keep Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh from being buried at Arlington. McVeigh, an Army veteran, was executed in 2001 for his part in the bombing.

The new law prohibits interment or inurnment at Arlington or another military cemetery even if a veteran received a plea bargain that would allow for early release.

The new law also requires officials from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to draw up regulations to ensure that a person is not interred in a national cemetery or provided funeral honors unless a "good faith" effort has been made to determine whether the person is ineligible for such interment or honors.

Under the previous law, even Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer, could have been eligible for internment in Arlington -- a fact noted during hearings last year by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who chairs the Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Rader, who had received good conduct medals in the Air Force, later admitted to killing 10 people in Wichita in a sadistic manner that would give him his nickname ("Bind, Torture, Kill"). He also received 10 consecutive life prison sentences -- 175 years. But because Rader was technically eligible for parole, he also was eligible for burial and honors at Arlington or another military cemetery, Craig said.

If Wagner's remains are removed from Arlington, relatives of his victims want to be there to see it.

"We've requested to be there when he's taken out," Davis said. "The whole family would like to be there, just to verify that he's taken out. We don't want to take anybody's word for it. We want to see him removed with our own eyes."

Staff writer Daniela Deane contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company