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Killer's ashes are removed from Arlington

January 03, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - Arlington National Cemetery removed the ashes of Hagerstown double-murderer Russell Wayne Wagner on Friday and delivered them to his sister, the cemetery's superintendent said Tuesday.

The eviction ends a successful year-and-a-half crusade by Vernon Davis of Hagerstown, whose parents Wagner murdered in 1994.

Hoping to see the ashes removed, Davis went to the cemetery Friday, but he wasn't given any details and left after several hours. When he returned Saturday morning, the ashes were gone.

Still, "I'm pretty well satisfied," Davis said Tuesday.

Wagner died in prison last year while serving life sentences for murdering Daniel and Wilda Davis in their home on West Wilson Boulevard in Hagerstown on Feb. 14, 1994.

When The Herald-Mail reported in August 2005 that Wagner's sister, Karen Anderson of Silver Spring, Md., had his ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery based on his military service, it quickly became a national story.

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Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, pressed for removal of the ashes.

Davis and Mikulski testified at a Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing.

The movement led to a law that prohibits all veterans convicted of capital crimes from being eligible for burial, interment or inurnment at a national cemetery.

A separate bill specifically calling for Wagner's ashes to be evicted from Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia passed the Senate, but not the House.

Craig later tucked the same provision to evict Wagner's ashes into a $3.2 billion veterans' health care and benefits bill. The House and Senate passed the bill in the waning hours of their 2006 session.

President Bush signed the bill into law Dec. 22.

Mikulski reaction

Mikulski's office hadn't heard that Wagner's ashes were taken out of the cemetery until contacted Tuesday by The Herald-Mail.

In an e-mail released by her communications director, Melissa Schwartz, Mikulski said: "The removal of Russell Wagner's ashes closes this tragic chapter for the Davis family. My promises made to the Davis family were promises kept, and I am so proud to have not only helped them but to have created a law to ensure that nothing like this will ever happen again."

That law, based on a bill Mikulski and Craig cosponsored, closes a loophole that allowed Wagner to qualify for inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery. Bush signed that bill into law in January 2006.

Previously, a person whose remains might end up at a national cemetery because of military service would be disqualified if convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 2002, Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III sentenced Wagner to consecutive life terms in prison with the possibility of parole.

Wright said at the time that the parole condition probably didn't make a difference because it's rarely granted on the first try. "So, that puts him in his 80s, if he lives that long, or his 90s, if he lives that long," Wright said during the sentencing.

Wagner died of a heroin overdose in 2005 in the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup. He was 52.

After the state cremated Wagner's body, Anderson had the remains placed at Arlington. The ashes were placed in a columbarium July 27, 2005, with standard military honors.

The cemetery was not told of Wagner's criminal history, Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery's deputy superintendent, has said.

Wagner's remains were eligible to be placed at the cemetery because he served three years with the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged in 1972.

John C. Metzler Jr., the cemetery's superintendent, said Higginbotham delivered the urn containing Wagner's ashes to Anderson on Friday.

Reached at home Tuesday, Anderson declined to comment.

Davis said he and his family visited the cemetery for several hours Friday, but were told by Higginbotham only that the removal would happen before the end of the year.

The next morning, Davis returned, but the ashes were gone. He said he noticed indentations in the ground from a step ladder, indicating that someone had climbed up to get the urn.

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