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Congress jumps into debate over murderer's interment at Arlington
Scripps Howard News Service


August 11, 2005

WASHINGTON - In a corner of Arlington National Cemetery, America's most hallowed ground, the remains of a double murderer rest.

And, unless Congress decrees otherwise, that is where the cremated ashes of Russell Wayne Wagner - convicted of the brutal stabbing deaths of an elderly Maryland couple - will stay, in perpetuity.

That is the ruling Wednesday of Army and cemetery officials, who say a 1997 law enacted by Congress ties their hands.

Wagner, who was in the Army for three years during the Vietnam War, "is eligible for interment because it's in accordance with federal law and Army policy," Army spokeswoman Joanna Hawkins said. "There is no authority to allow the movement of his remains."

That galls Virginia and Vernon Davis, whose parents, Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, were killed in 1994 in Hagerstown, Md. Wagner was convicted of their murders in 2002 and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

Wagner, 52, died in February of an apparent heroin overdose in a Maryland state prison. He had served less than three years of his sentence.

"He's a murderer. He's been in jail (almost) longer than he (was) in the Army," said Virginia Davis, who learned from a local reporter that Wagner's ashes were placed in a columbarium at Arlington on July 27 with the military honors due anyone discharged honorably from the service.

Vernon Davis went to Arlington on Tuesday to plead the family's case, but returned dejected at learning Wagner had a legal right to be interred there, Virginia Davis said.

Publicity over the family's distress stirred Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to announce Wednesday that the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee will examine the eligibility rules for burial at Arlington and the network of national cemeteries across the country.

The rules now in effect were enacted in 1997, spurred to preclude Timothy McVeigh, the Army veteran who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, from being buried at a national cemetery.

That law barred burial for anyone convicted of state or federal capital crimes who is sentenced to death or life without parole. Wagner would qualify for burial because he had been eligible for parole, although not until 2017.

From mainstream veterans' interests organizations, there is no support for narrowing the eligibility further. They said the task of vetting every deceased veteran for a criminal record would be overwhelming for the Department of Veterans Affairs, or whatever bureaucracy would get the assignment. They also contend that an honorable term of duty is sufficient justification in itself for a military burial, regardless of what else the person might have done in life.

While expressing great sympathy for the Davis family, and abhorrence at the murders, a spokeswoman for the American Legion said it is proper that Wagner's honorable service is what determined his right to be buried at Arlington.

"It is absolutely separated ... What he did later in life has no merit on" his service, said spokeswoman Ramona Joyce.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his organization, too, is concerned about any tinkering with eligibility standards.

"Bottom line, you have to follow the letter of the law," Davis said.


Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)

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