By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007
It took 17 months of lobbying and a new federal law, but the remains of a man convicted of killing an elderly Hagerstown couple have been quietly removed from Arlington National Cemetery.
No ceremony was held and no family members were present Friday as the ashes of Russell Wayne Wagner were removed from the columbarium where they had been placed in August 2005, a cemetery official said.
The cemetery's deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, delivered the ashes to Wagner's sister.
Wagner died in early 2005 of a heroin overdose while serving two life sentences for killing Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, in their home in 1994. An Army private who served during the Vietnam War and was honorably discharged in 1972, he was eligible for parole at the time of his death, which meant he could have an Arlington service, as requested by his sister.
After learning that Wagner had been inurned there with full military honors, Vernon G. Davis, the couple's son and a veteran, expressed shock and indignation. Calling Wagner's presence at Arlington an affront to "the heroes we've got coming back from the war," he began a vigorous campaign to amend the law and get Wagner's remains removed.
Late last month, President Bush signed the Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Act of 2006. In addition to improving benefits and health care for veterans, it required the secretary of the Army to remove Wagner's ashes from Arlington.
Davis called the law "an extra Christmas present" and said his family was satisfied.
Congress passed legislation in 1997 barring people convicted of capital crimes from being interred in a national cemetery, a law designed to block the possibility of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a veteran, being buried at Arlington.
The law was amended in September 2005, a month after Wagner was interred, to remove the loophole that exempted people eligible for parole.
Cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. said this was the first time remains had been removed from the cemetery under those circumstances. He said that each year a handful of families request the removal of remains for reasons such as the family relocating or wishing to conduct medical or DNA testing.
Metzler said the cemetery had not known about Wagner's criminal record at the time of the interment.
"That is not something we could check in the process of determining eligibility," he said, adding that even if officials had known about his criminal record, Wagner could still have been inurned there based on the law at the time.
Since Wagner's interment, Sens. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) have pushed to change the legislation.
"When Mr. Davis came to me, I promised that we would right this wrong," Mikulski said yesterday. "Arlington is for heroes, not convicted murderers."
"We all hope this action brings some comfort to Vernon Davis and his family," said Craig, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.