When the cremated remains of Russell Wayne Wagner, a 52-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served for three years during the Vietnam War, were laid to rest last week in Arlington National Cemetery, he was honored with military pallbearers, a bugler playing taps and a three-shot volley from a firing party.
After that, things got complicated.
Wagner was honorably discharged from the Army in 1972, but he spent the last 21/2 years of his life serving two consecutive life sentences for the 1994 murders of an elderly couple in Hagerstown, Md.
The couple's son, Vernon G. Davis, said he did not believe it when first his niece, and then a reporter from the Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, told him this week about the July 27 Arlington burial.
"I said: 'Nah, that ain't true. That ain't right,' " he said. "I just didn't want to believe it."
A veteran himself who served in an honor guard for President John F. Kennedy, Davis, 66, said that knowing someone was buried at Arlington would connote certain things for him.
"As a veteran, I would think that he loved his country, that he loved the people, that he loved the United States and was willing to die for it -- not to do what he done to Mom and Dad."
"There's no sense in him being down there like that," Davis added. "Not with the heroes we've got coming back from the war."
Wagner was convicted in 2002 in the stabbing murders of Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, in their Hagerstown home. A previous trial ended in a hung jury.
Wagner died Feb. 2 at the Maryland House of Corrections Annex in Jessup. A prison spokesman said that Wagner was found unresponsive in his cell and that foul play and medical conditions had been ruled out. Steven Kessell, deputy state's attorney for Washington County, said the cause apparently was a heroin overdose.
All that cemetery officials knew was that the sister of a deceased veteran had requested that her brother be buried there and that she had hand-carried the ashes to the cemetery.
Lori Calvillo, a spokeswoman for the cemetery, said that she first heard about Wagner's criminal past Wednesday and that Army officials were gathering details of the case and would decide whether his burial was appropriate.
She said it would not be difficult to remove his ashes from the columbarium, a structure for housing cremated remains. She added that the marble "niche cover," similar to a headstone, had not been delivered.
Davis, a retired maintenance mechanic who lives with his wife in Hagerstown, said he planned to go to the cemetery this weekend with his family to see the site and push for Wagner's removal. "What they do with him after they pull him out of there," he said, "that's up to them."
But the ashes might not be going anywhere. Although Wagner's criminal history came as a surprise to the cemetery, his crimes do not necessarily exclude him from an Arlington burial.
"A capital crime and being sentenced to life in prison without parole, or a death sentence, would preclude him from being buried in Arlington," Calvillo said. Anything lesser would not.
According to a spokeswoman at the Washington County judiciary, Wagner was eligible for parole.
Furthermore, as someone who served on active duty in the armed forces and was honorably discharged, he was eligible for a "standard" burial there (for "full" honors -- including a band, a caisson and a military escort -- more stringent requirements have to be met). For an Army private first class, as Wagner was, pallbearers for his service would have been provided by the 3rd Infantry at Fort Myer.
The cemetery does not do background checks on those buried there, Calvillo said, adding that it is up to their families to share such information. Wagner's sister could not be located for comment.
In the 1960s, the Department of Defense denied an Arlington burial to a decorated World War II veteran who had been chairman of the New York State Communist Party and had been convicted for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government.
After a three-year legal fight by his family, he was buried at Arlington.
In 1997, Congress passed legislation barring those convicted of capital crimes from being buried in a national cemetery. The law was enacted to preclude any possibility that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, a Persian Gulf War veteran, would be buried at Arlington.
For most convicted criminals, however, there are no restrictions.
So does this mean that others among the 290,000 people buried in the cemetery could be convicted killers?
"It is definitely a possibility," Calvillo said. "If you're eligible, you're eligible."
Staff writer Lila de Tantillo and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.