More details emerge about bodies buried in wrong Arlington plots

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 3:22 AM

The mystery of missing bodies at the nation's most hallowed military burial ground keeps getting more troubling.

An Army spokesman confirmed last week that two bodies had been buried in the wrong places at Arlington National Cemetery after exhuming their remains last month, but he declined to provide additional details.

On Monday, Gary Tallman, the spokesman, painted a more detailed picture of the situation affecting three grave sites at the cemetery, where two presidents and 11 Supreme Court justices are buried:

One site, Plot 1180 in Section 66, had a headstone but no remains.

The neighboring site, Plot 1181, contained a body but the wrong headstone.

The next site over, Plot 1182, held two sets of remains, only one of which matched the headstone.

The mix-ups are the clearest evidence yet that the cemetery's record-keeping problems, which were revealed in an Army inspector general's report released in June, have led to people being buried in the wrong places. The inspector general investigation found more than 100 unmarked graves, scores of grave sites with headstones that are not recorded on cemetery maps, and at least four burial urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area where excess grave dirt is kept.

After news of the report broke, retired Air Force Col. William C. Koch Jr. called the cemetery's hotline to ask whether the remains of his wife, Jean, were buried where they were supposed to be, he said in an interview.

The cemetery assured him that everything was in order, and Koch said he was relieved. But last month, the cemetery called back. Officials were very sorry, he recalled them saying, but his wife's coffin was found one grave over to the right in a plot that had been marked by a headstone for an Army staff sergeant. His wife's plot, they said, was empty.

Cemetery officials opened the graves last month after the staff sergeant's wife grew concerned that his remains had been interred in the wrong place. Even though cemetery officials assured her that her husband was in the correct grave, she wasn't convinced and asked them to dig, as The Washington Post documented in an article last week. The staff sergeant's wife spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because she feared news of Arlington's mistakes would mar her husband's name.

Army officials then had a mystery on their hands: If the staff sergeant wasn't in the plot that bore his headstone, where was he? After consulting their records, Arlington officials thought he was in the next grave over, which was troubling because that grave was marked by a headstone for Sally Rippert, the wife of a retired Navy commander.

When they opened that grave, they found two sets of remains: the staff sergeant's coffin and, above it, Rippert's urn.

Tallman, the Army spokesman, said the staff sergeant was buried more than a week before Rippert, but apparently the site wasn't marked. He said the cemetery is investigating how the mix-ups occurred but could provide no additional information. It's not clear what the problems were: whether temporary grave markers were put in the wrong spots, whether clerical errors led to problems with the paperwork or whether maps indicated that occupied graves were empty.

Cemetery officials "are investigating how this could have happened," Tallman said.

One of the problems, however, was that Koch and the staff sergeant were to be buried about the same time in early January 2006, he said. Although funeral services were held for each, the bodies were not interred until later because of bad weather.

Efforts by The Post to reach Rippert's family were unsuccessful. Tallman said Arlington had contacted a representative of the family but declined to give that person's name.

William Koch said he didn't feel the need to make sure his wife's body was in the right grave. "I trusted them," he said. "But now I wish I was there . . . . For four and half years I was visiting an empty grave while she was buried under some man's headstone. I think anyone would be upset with that."

Now he wonders how many more bodies are buried in the wrong spots. "That's the scary part," he said. "They've made a miserable mess of Arlington."

After the inspector general's report was released, the cemetery's top two leaders were ousted but allowed to retire with full benefits. A new team was installed to run Arlington by Army Secretary John McHugh. For the past four months, it has been trying to determine the full extent of the problem, which officials said could involve hundreds, if not thousands, of graves.

The problems uncovered last month are "indicative of what this new team at Arlington is having to deal with," Tallman said.

Last week, the cemetery exhumed the remains of a Marine who died in Iraq after his family grew worried that he was buried in the wrong spot. Pvt. Heath Warner was positively identified, though.

Tallman said no other sets of remains have been exhumed since the inspector general's report was released.

To fix the problems in Section 66, the cemetery ordered a new headstone for Jean Koch, and it now sits above her coffin. The cemetery disinterred the staff sergeant's body, allowed his wife to pick another spot in the cemetery and reburied him. Rippert's remains, which have always sat under the correct headstone, were reburied in the same plot.

Fresh dirt marks the spots where the three graves were dug up.

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