By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:00 AM
The Army has launched the first criminal investigation into the misplacement of remains at Arlington National Cemetery after discovering the cremated remains of eight people dumped in a single grave site there.
Unlike past burial problems, which could have been caused by human error, the discovery of eight urns in a single grave site marked "Unknown" is "not likely a mistake," said Christopher Grey, spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. "It demanded an investigation to determine if there's any criminality involved in the burials."
The urns were found in October, but the discovery was not announced until Thursday.
The investigation comes after a series of revelations that have marred the reputation of the country's most prestigious military burial ground and led to the ouster of its top two leaders.
Under pressure from Congress and military brass to figure out what happened at Arlington, cemetery officials flew in a top military forensic anthropologist from Hawaii, a scientist who typically searches foreign countries for the remains of prisoners of war or missing service members.
But instead of tramping through jungles in Southeast Asia or historic battlefields in Europe, the anthropologist, whose name was not released, found himself trying to solve a mystery among the meticulously spaced white headstones at Arlington.
He helped determine that one set of remains in an urn was unidentifiable, officials said. That urn was reburied in the grave site marked "Unknown."
So far, Army investigators have positively identified three of the dumped remains and are notifying those families. Officials are still trying to identify the other remains.
The investigation began in October after Kathryn Condon, director of the Army's National Cemeteries Program, became "aware of questionable practices," she said in a statement. Condon said eight sets of remains were buried under a headstone that read "Unknown," and cemetery records showed that only one set of remains was to be buried there.
Grey would not discuss how the remains might have ended up in a single plot or what particular laws could have been violated, saying "that will be determined as we move forward with the investigation."
Army regulations state that burials at national cemeteries "are considered permanent" and that absent a court order, disinterments require the approval of the top Army Memorial and Casualty Affairs official and "all close relatives of the decedent." Another law requires all graves in national cemeteries to have an appropriate marker.
The revelation comes after an Army inspector general's report, released in June, that cited widespread problems at the cemetery, including more than 200 unmarked or misidentified graves and at least four urns that had been unearthed and dumped in an area for excess dirt.
One of those urns was reburied under a headstone marked "Unknown," the report says. Citing the ongoing investigation, officials would not say Thursday whether the eight sets of cremated remains found in October were in that same "Unknown" grave site.
The report says that the urns could have been unearthed by accident when ground crews, unaware that someone else was buried there, went to dig a grave.
Cemetery experts said it appears that the urns were merely reburied in a mass grave.
"I think the likely scenario is they discovered these [remains] and rather than do due diligence and try to assess who they were, they tried to put them in an unmarked grave," said John Fitch, a senior vice president at the National Funeral Directors Association. "I think the whole notion of how the cemetery was mismanaged over this period of time certainly lends credence to the notion that there was very little responsibility for making sure everyone was buried in the right place."
The latest discovery follows a series of revelations in August, in which one grave site at Arlington was found empty, another contained the wrong remains and a third had two sets of remains, only one of which matched the headstone's name.
Those problems were likely caused by human error, officials said. But the burial of eight remains in a single site "is very suspect," Grey said.
Since the IG's report, cemetery officials have learned that two more urns were found in 2005 in the same dirt pile as those detailed in the report.
In October, Condon spoke with a cemetery contractor who in 2005 came across two other urns that had been unearthed. Tim Langowski, of Frederick, told WTOP radio that he was clearing brush when he found the urn.
When he looked inside, Langowski found a plastic bag "that had a small letter and also a picture of a girl that was a cheerleader for a hockey team," he told the station. "She was wearing a blue and white uniform."
Two weeks later, a backhoe operator found yet another urn, Langowski said. The urns, he said, were turned over to "the proper authorities."
A cemetery spokeswoman said those two urns are believed to be among the eight found in the single grave site in October.