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First step taken to remove killer's ashes from cemetery

June 23, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN

Vernon Davis broke into elated tears on the phone Thursday upon hearing news that the U.S. Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee passed a bill that includes an order to have the cremated remains of the man convicted of killing his parents removed from Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.

Through muffled sobs, Davis said over the phone Thursday, "I didn't think that would ever happen ... I just told someone the other day, they ain't never gonna take him out of there."

Davis said he realizes the passage Thursday is just the first step in the Senate committee's attempt to have the cremated remains of Russell Wayne Wagner removed from the national cemetery.

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The Veterans' Choice of Representation and Benefits Enhancement Act of 2006, which includes the order to have Wagner's ashes removed, now will move to the Senate for a vote, but a time frame for that presentation has not been determined, said Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the committee.

In a statement issued through a written release, Mikulski said, "I promised the Davis family that I would fight to remove the remains of this brutal killer from the hallowed grounds of Arlington National (Cemetery). I will continue to work with my colleagues to move this proposal forward ... We must preserve our national cemeteries as places of honor for our veterans. Arlington is for heroes, not convicted murderers."

Wagner, 52, died of a heroin overdose in February 2005 at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup, Md. He was serving two life sentences with the possibility for parole for the Valentine's Day 1994 stabbing deaths of Davis' parents, Daniel, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, in their West Wilson Boulevard home.

After Wagner died, his sister, Karen Anderson, received his cremated remains and requested that her brother, who served as a U.S. Army private 1st class from Sept. 13, 1969, to Sept. 1, 1972, be placed at Arlington, a request approved by the cemetery on June 29, 2005.

Wagner's ashes were placed with standard military honors in a columbarium, a structure for cremated remains, during a July 27, 2005, service there. Wagner was discharged honorably from the military, a qualification for the cemetery's columbarium service.

After learning of Wagner's criminal background, cemetery administrators said he still was entitled to the honor since his sentence included the possibility of parole. Under the law at that time, placement in a national cemetery was denied to anyone who received a death sentence or a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Vernon Davis, 67, has seen that loophole closed.

In January 2005, President Bush signed into law a separate bill co-sponsored by Mikulski and Craig that took away burial eligibility for any veteran convicted of a capital crime in either state or federal court, regardless of parole eligibility.

"When they passed the first bill, that was to keep everybody from going in," Davis said Thursday. "They said it would take another bill to do this (remove his ashes)."

He later said, "I thought, well, they'll just shove it under the desk and forget about it, but somebody didn't forget about it."

Davis expressed thanks to the committee, and to Mikulski and Craig for their help moving the bill forward.

He testified at a Senate committee hearing on national cemetery burial standards in September 2005 to talk about his parents' murders in response to Wagner's placement. He said Thursday that he is prepared to do it again if it means Wagner will be removed from the cemetery.

"I'm tickled to death on what happened," he said. "I'm really, really pleased."

A message left for Anderson, Wagner's sister, seeking comment was not immediately returned Thursday.

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