Senate probes Wagner case

August 09, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER


The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is investigating how the family of Russell Wayne Wagner got approval for the placement of his remains at Arlington National Cemetery despite Wagner's two convictions for first-degree murder in the 1994 killings of an elderly Hagerstown couple, according to a committee spokesman.

Mike Moritz, a staff assistant for the committee, said Monday the committee has received several calls from people upset about Wagner's placement at the national cemetery, and said the matter is being investigated. Moritz said the approval was "evidently an oversight," and that he hoped to have more information when Congress returns from its summer recess in September.

Neither Maryland senator serves on the committee, but Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., do. A spokesman for Rockefeller said the senator was unavailable for comment Monday. Rockefeller's schedule has been disrupted while his wife, Sharon, is being treated for cancer.


An aide to Specter was attempting to reach the senator for comment Monday.

A U.S. Army spokeswoman told The Herald-Mail last week that ashes were properly placed and would remain there, despite objections from the victims' family.

Wagner was convicted in 2002 of the 1994 killings of Daniel and Wilda Davis in their West Wilson Boulevard home.

He was serving two life sentences for the murders when he died in February at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup. His ashes were placed in a columbarium during a military service at Arlington National Cemetery last month.

Wagner, 52, was an Army Private 1st Class from 1969 to 1972 and received an honorable discharge.

Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd told the Herald-Mail that, according to Army policy, interment would not be permitted if the deceased had been convicted of a federal capital crime and sentenced to death or life imprisonment; convicted of a state capital crime and sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole; or found to have committed a state or federal capital crime but not convicted because of death or flight to avoid prosecution.

Wagner had been sentenced to two consecutive life terms on two counts of first-degree murder, but with the possibility of parole.

Though the question of whether a convicted murderer should be allowed burial at Arlington National Cemetery is really a federal matter, a local legislator representing Hagerstown in the Maryland General Assembly said Monday he plans to write a letter to the Secretary of the Army requesting that Wagner's remains be removed from the cemetery.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, represents the legislative district in which the killings occurred. He said he was drafting a letter to the Secretary of the Army, whom he said has oversight over the cemetery, asking that Wagner's ashes be removed. Donoghue said he had contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., as well.

Donoghue said he'd read about Wagner's entombment while vacationing last week.

"That whole thing was so outrageous," he said.

Other state legislators representing Hagerstown said they would be prepared to speak with their counterparts in Congress about having the Army revisit its policy regarding the burial of convicts at the national cemetery.

"It doesn't seem like this one passes the common sense test," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, chairman of the county delegation to the General Assembly.

While Shank said he didn't know all the facts of the case, he said he would be interested in discussing it with the county's representatives in Congress.

Shank noted that "there are big differences in federal sentencing guidelines and state sentencing guidelines," but he said because most crimes are prosecuted on a state level, the Army should consider revising its criteria for permitting Arlington burials.

It's a matter of balancing Wagner's military record "and the history in terms of this horrific crime," Shank said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he believed the crime was "so egregious" that Wagner had forfeited his privilege to be entombed at Arlington, which Munson said should be reserved as an honor.

"I would be very happy to contact Congressman (Roscoe) Bartlett to see if the criteria can be overturned," Munson said. Bartlett, R-Md., serves on the House Armed Services Committee. He was unavailable for comment Monday, according to his press secretary, Lisa Lyons Wright.

The Davises' bodies were found Feb. 15, 1994, with multiple stab wounds. Their hands and feet were bound with black shoelaces, and pillowcases had been placed over their heads, according to published reports.

Daniel Davis was 84. Wilda Davis was 80.

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