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Bush signs law to move murderer's remains

December 26, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - President Bush has signed into law a veterans' bill that calls for a Hagerstown double-murderer's ashes to be evicted from Arlington National Cemetery.

Senate Bill 3421 - a $3.2 billion veterans' health care and benefits package - was one of about 20 bills Bush signed on Friday, according to the White House Web site.

Vernon Davis of Hagerstown has been following the bill because a section specifically mentions the remains of Russell Wayne Wagner, the man convicted of murdering Davis' parents in 1994.

Under the new law, the secretary of the Army must remove Wagner's remains from the national cemetery. The remains must go to Wagner's next-of-kin or the secretary must "arrange for an appropriate disposition of the remains."

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It isn't clear when this will happen.

Davis hadn't heard about the president signing the bill until The Herald-Mail told him on Monday.

He was skeptical at first because a representative of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who helped push for the removal of Wagner's remains, didn't know over the weekend if Bush had signed the bill.

The House of Representatives passed the bill - the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006 - on Dec. 8, before the Senate got a chance to vote on it.

The Senate had until the end of that day, when Congress was scheduled to wrap up its session, to vote on the same version. But the Senate worked well past midnight, finally passing the bill at about 3 a.m. on Dec. 9.

The White House Web site's summary of the bill doesn't mention the Wagner clause, which was nestled into the bill at the request of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

A veterans' bill with the same provision about Wagner's ashes passed the Senate in August, but the House did not pass it.

Wagner was sentenced in 2002 to consecutive life terms in prison for the murders of Daniel and Wilda Davis in their West Wilson Boulevard home in Hagerstown.

In 2005, Wagner died of a heroin overdose in prison. His body was cremated.

His sister, Karen Anderson, arranged for Wagner's remains to be placed at Arlington National Cemetery. He qualified for that privilege because he had been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1972.

The Herald-Mail's reporting of the story about Wagner's remains in August 2005 sparked a protest by Vernon Davis and a hearing by the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, before which Davis testified.

In January, Bush signed into law a new prohibition against any veteran convicted of a capital crime from having his or her remains at a national cemetery.

Wagner's remains were accepted at Arlington National Cemetery because his life sentence included the possibility of parole. The new law disqualifies veterans convicted of capital crimes, regardless of whether parole was part of the sentence.

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