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Wagner's remains could go

December 10, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - Vernon Davis was Valley Mall's Santa Claus for 12 hours on Saturday, so he didn't hear the news until late in the evening, when he was himself again.

The news, relayed by a friend who saw something on television, was that the U.S. Senate, at 3 a.m. on Saturday, had passed a $3.2 billion veterans' bill that includes a provision tucked in by a Senate committee chairman.

The provision was something for which Davis has fought for 16 months: The removal of the remains of convicted Hagerstown double-murderer Russell Wayne Wagner from Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.

The House of Representatives approved, by voice vote, the same version of the bill on Friday morning.

The bill now will go to President Bush for his signature before it can become law.

The Senate's deadline to act before the 2006 session concluded was supposed to be midnight - Davis stayed up to watch C-SPAN2 until then - but The Associated Press reported that the Senate stayed nearly five more hours to work on business.

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"Right to this day, I just can't believe it," Davis said Saturday night of the new order concerning Wagner's ashes. "I didn't think it would ever happen."

As Davis spoke on the phone, his wife, Vivian, called to him. Davis relayed her message.

"She just hollered at me: 'Where's your faith?'" Davis said.

The crime



Wagner was convicted of fatally stabbing Davis' parents, Daniel and Wilda Davis, at their home on West Wilson Boulevard in Hagerstown in 1994.

He was sentenced in 2002 to consecutive life terms in prison.

In 2005, Wagner died of a heroin overdose in prison and his body was cremated. At the request of his sister, Karen Anderson, Wagner's ashes were placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

Wagner was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1972.

Vernon Davis objected, and testified at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee called after The Herald-Mail reported the story.

In January, President Bush signed into law a new prohibition for burial at national cemeteries for veterans convicted of capital crimes. The law eliminated a loophole that allowed Wagner's remains to be placed at Arlington.

Failure at first



The Senate passed a veterans' bill in August that included a specific order to remove Wagner's ashes from the cemetery, but the House didn't pass the bill.

The same order about Wagner's remains was inserted into a new $3.2 billion bill that allocated funding for dozens of veterans' medical care sites across the country.

The Wagner provision, tucked in after a section making Indian tribal organizations eligible for grants to build veterans' cemeteries, says: "The Secretary of the Army shall remove the remains of Russell Wayne Wagner from Arlington National Cemetery." It requires the secretary to notify Wagner's next-of-kin that this will happen and "relinquish the remains to the next-of-kin ..."

Reached at home Saturday night, Anderson declined to comment.

It was not clear Saturday when the bill would reach Bush.

Vernon Davis said he will let go of his remaining skepticism after the president signs the bill and after Wagner's ashes are removed.

"To believe it, I just have to see it," he said.

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