WASHINGTON – The elderly Hagerstown couple, Daniel and Wilda Davis, opened their door to Russell Wayne Wagner on Valentine’s Day 1994.
“He took Mom and Dad and sat them on a kitchen chair, tied their hands behind their heads and put a pillowcase over their heads, stabbed them 14-15 times and then he robbed them and then he left,” their son, Vernon Davis, tearfully told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Thursday.
Wagner was convicted of the couple’s murders and sentenced to two life terms with parole eligibility. When he died in prison, he was cremated and placed in the nation’s premiere veterans’ cemetery: Arlington National Cemetery.
That was “totally wrong,” Davis told the committee, which is trying to determine how the rules governing cemeteries should be changed to prevent such burials in the future.
“It’s an honorable place for people to go, not a murderer,” Davis said. “I wish you’d change the law.”
The couple’s great granddaughter, a papergirl, found them the next day, he said.
“That little girl was sleeping beside her mother and daddy for at least nine years on the floor.”
Davis’ powerful testimony came after Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., requested a panel hearing to review the rules and regulations for who is allowed to rest in national cemeteries.
While Wagner was punished for his crime, he was rewarded with an inurnment with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery for his service as a Vietnam War veteran through a “parole loophole” in the current 1997 law dealing with who qualifies for national cemetery burial.
The 1997 bill — enacted to prevent Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh from being buried in a national cemetery following his execution — prevents those convicted of a federal or state capital crime and sentenced to life or death from being interred in military cemeteries.
However, those convicted of a state capital crime and who are eligible for parole could be buried alongside America’s heroes at Arlington.
Wagner, who died Feb. 2 of a heroin overdose, would have been eligible for parole review in 2017 and was honorably discharged from the Army in 1972, thus qualifying him for burial at Arlington.
According to Arlington National Cemetery guidelines, honorably discharged or retired military veterans may be buried in the ground or have their cremation urns placed at the cemetery’s Columbarium. Due to limited space, ground burial guidelines are more stringent than cremation guidelines. No formal review is done on prospective burials unless it is brought to the cemetery’s attention by family members or state and federal law officials.
With the law as is, the notorious “BTK” serial killer Dennis Rader could also be buried in a national cemetery. Rader received 10 consecutive life terms with a minimum of 175 years in prison, but Kansas law under which he was tried does not allow for capital punishment or a life sentence without parole. He could be given parole in Feb. 26, 2180, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections. Rader is an honorably discharged Air Force veteran.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, pointed out this dilemma.
“If the 1997 law cannot prevent the interment of a notorious serial killer, then what good is it?” said Craig.
Mikulski also testified at the hearing and expressed her outrage at this legal loophole.
“Arlington National Cemetery and all our national cemeteries are hallowed ground,” said Mikulski. “They should not be tainted by the remains of a convicted murderer.”
Both Craig and Mikulski introduced bills after the hearing to strike the “without parole” clause, prohibiting criminals sentenced to life imprisonment from burial in national cemeteries. Craig’s bill also would order the removal of Wagner’s remains from Arlington Cemetery.
“I’d rather see his ashes out,” said Davis, a veteran and former honor guard for President John F. Kennedy. “I’m waiting to see what happens here.”