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Bill could evict killer's ashes from Arlington

December 09, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - The House of Representatives on Friday passed a $3.2 billion veterans' bill that also would evict the ashes of a Hagerstown double-murderer from Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.

However, for the bill to advance to President Bush for his signature, the Senate theoretically had until the end of the night to pass the same version. Otherwise, the proposal would have had to wait at least until the 2007 Congress takes office in January.

By 11 p.m., the Senate hadn't voted on the bill, and appeared likely to continue its session past midnight.

Instead, for a few hours Friday night, outgoing Senators Mike DeWine of Ohio and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland reminisced about their public service; colleagues added their own tributes.

About 10 p.m., Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, led the Senate into discussion of a tax bill. Thirty minutes later, he segued into health care.

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The provision on Russell Wayne Wagner's ashes was part of a comprehensive appropriations package for veterans. The bill carried numerous Department of Veterans Affairs allocations, such as $406 million to build a medical center facility in Las Vegas and $378 million to build one in Orlando, Fla.

In August, the Senate passed a veterans' bill that also called for Wagner's ashes to be removed, but the House didn't pass the bill.

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, insisted that the Wagner provision be included in the $3.2 billion veterans bill, Craig spokesman Jeff Schrade said.

Lisa Wright, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., said the House passed, by a voice vote, the Senate version of the bill on Friday morning. The House might take up a Senate bill before the Senate considers it, she said.

Wagner was sentenced in 2002 to consecutive life terms in prison for stabbing Daniel and Wilda Davis of Hagerstown to death at their West Wilson Boulevard home in 1994.

While in prison, Wagner, 52, died of a heroin overdose in February 2005.

Five months later, his sister, Karen Anderson, arranged for his ashes to be placed at Arlington National Cemetery. Wagner qualified because he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1972.

After The Herald-Mail learned and reported that Wagner's ashes were at the cemetery, it became a controversial issue nationwide.

The Veterans' Affairs Committee held a hearing, at which the Davises' son, Vernon, testified.

"That's an honorable place for people to go, not a murderer," he told the committee.

In January, Bush signed into law a separate bill Craig and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., co-sponsored. It prevented any veteran convicted of a capital crime from being buried, interred or inurned at a national cemetery, regardless of parole eligibility.

Federal law previously prohibited the bodies or remains of veterans from being at national cemeteries if they were convicted of a capital offense and their sentence did not include the possibility of parole. Wagner's life sentence included possible parole.

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