Russell Wayne Wagner, the convicted murderer whose ashes were deposited last month in Arlington National Cemetery, probably will not be going anywhere soon. But the controversy surrounding his final resting place might make it harder for others convicted of similar crimes to be buried there.
Wagner, 52, died in February while serving two life sentences for the 1994 murder of Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, in Hagerstown, Md. After their son objected last week to his parents' killer being interred in Arlington, the Army and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said they will take a deeper look at the issue.
Congress passed a law in 1997 barring those convicted of capital crimes from being buried in a national cemetery. The law was designed to block the possibility of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a veteran, being buried at Arlington.
Wagner, an Army private first class, served during the Vietnam War and was honorably discharged in 1972. He was eligible for parole at the time of his death, which made him eligible for an Arlington service.
His sister contacted the cemetery, and on July 27, his ashes were placed in a columbarium as a bugler played taps and soldiers fired a salute. Army officials said there are no legal grounds to remove his remains.
But some now wonder whether the restriction should cover a broader range of criminals.
"This case certainly does present a question as to whether the existing policy would be sufficient," said Jon Towers, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Committee. "It can get pretty complicated, the more you try to swoop in on certain crimes that you want excluded."
Towers said his office received calls this week from veterans uncomfortable with the idea of a convicted murderer being laid to rest at Arlington, with some saying they would not like to be near such a person in death. He said the committee would examine the issue after the August recess.
When the original legislation was being considered, some veterans associations objected to placing any restrictions on veteran burials. The American Legion was one of these, said spokeswoman Ramona Joyce. She added that although the organization now supports the law, it does not want the eligibility bar raised.
"It's tragic what he did, but his military service is why he's there, and his military service is honorable," she said.
Joyce warned that tightening the restrictions could disqualify many veterans who commit crimes because of conditions related to post-traumatic stress.
"If they're going to start cherry-picking and move that line, they're not just pushing legislation, they're reacting to something," she said, referring to the publicity over Wagner's interment.
Vernon G. Davis, the son of Wagner's victims and a veteran himself, wants the ashes removed and the law changed. He said he spoke yesterday with the cemetery's deputy director, who he said was sympathetic but unable to help.
"His hands were tied," Davis said, adding that the only person who could remove Wagner's remains now would be his sister. She could not be located for comment.
In the meantime, Davis wants the restrictions tightened -- the line moved. "It surely can't be drawn where it is now, because it was made for one person," he said.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, said that his organization supported the 1997 legislation and would not necessarily support changing it.
"He served his country honorably in uniform. What he failed to do was to serve society honorably as a citizen," he said of Wagner, adding that the two sides posed a problem.
"If you looked up 'conundrum' in the dictionary," he said, "this should be the example for one."