Burying a Killer With Heros

If the notorious BTK serial killer Dennis Rader wants to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, there’s nothing to stop him.

But that would change under a newly unveiled Senate measure to close a loophole that allows some murderers to be laid to rest in America’s most sacred soil.

“We should not bury brutal murderers alongside America’s honored dead,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which held a hearing on the matter last month.

Rader — who called himself “the BTK killer” for “bind, torture, kill” — was recently convicted of murdering 10 people in Kansas. Under current law, he is entitled not only to burial at Arlington or another national cemetery, but also to such military honors at his funeral as the playing of taps and the presentation of a flag to his family.

That is because Rader received an honorable discharge from the Air Force, where he reached the rank of sergeant. Such service entitles him and other veterans to the right to be interred in a national cemetery.

It also is because Rader was sentenced to life in prison with at least the technical possibility of parole in 2180. As a result, Rader is not covered by a 1997 law passed to prevent the remains of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh — who was a decorated Army soldier during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War — from being buried in any such cemetery.

That law was narrowly written to exclude from burial just those convicted of capital murder with a sentence of life without parole or death. Veterans’ organizations had fought a broader measure because of their contention that — except for the most heinous of criminals — an honorable term of duty is sufficient justification in itself for a military burial, regardless of what else the person might have done.

But reports last summer of the placing of the cremated remains of convicted double-murderer Russell Wayne Wagner at Arlington triggered a new look at the burial rules.

Wagner was convicted of killing Daniel Davis, 84, and his wife, Wilda Davis, 80, in a brutal stabbing in 1994 in Hagerstown, Md. Though sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, he was eligible for parole. After Wagner, 52, died in February of an apparent heroin overdose in a Maryland state prison, his remains were placed in a columbarium at the cemetery.

The son of the murdered couple was outraged to discover where Wagner had been laid to rest, and the situation stirred Congress to re-examine the rules. Craig has also introduced a bill that would allow the removal of Wagner’s remains from the cemetery.

At a hearing in September, Department of Veterans Affairs officials said those claiming the national-cemetery-burial benefit are checked to make sure they indeed served, and did so honorably. No criminal records checks are currently made.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com.)