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House OK’s removal of criminals’ remains

Coats

In a nearly unanimous vote, the U.S. House approved legislation Wednesday that would let the Department of Veterans Affairs remove from a national cemetery the remains of an Army veteran who killed the wife of a Fort Wayne native.

The House voted 398-1 in favor of the Alicia Dawn Koehl Respect for National Cemeteries Act. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent in November.

If President Barack Obama signs it into law, the legislation will be the first authored by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., to be enacted since he returned to the Senate in 2011 after an absence of a dozen years.

Coats said in a statement after the House vote that “I truly wish this legislation was not needed and the tragic situation that devastated a Hoosier family and left two children without their loving mother never occurred.”

Koehl, 45, was killed during a May 30, 2012, shooting spree at the Indianapolis apartment complex where she was a manager. Three people were wounded.

The gunman, Michael LaShawn Anderson, killed himself and was mistakenly buried with military honors at taxpayer expense at the Fort Custer National Cemetery in Augusta, Mich.

Coats and Koehl’s family – husband Paul, a Snider High School graduate, and his parents, Frank and Carol Koehl of Fort Wayne – have said they were told by VA officials that the agency lacked the statutory authority to distinter veterans who were buried by error in national cemeteries.

Federal law prohibits such burials of veterans who committed state or federal capital crimes punishable by death, including treason, murder and rape with additional bodily harm.

“I’m outraged not only that the Koehl family has had to endure yet another injustice after Alicia’s life was needlessly cut short, but also that our brave servicemen and women … who have given the ultimate sacrifice to their nation, are buried next to a murderous criminal,” Rep. Susan Brooks, R-5th, said Wednesday on the House floor.

“Our nation’s cemeteries shouldn’t be tarnished because of a legislative technicality. … Our bravest men and women should be buried next to fellow heroes, and today we can make sure they always are,” Brooks said in remarks broadcast by C-SPAN.

Brooks, who grew up in Fort Wayne, introduced a companion bill in the House. She described Alicia Koehl as a Girl Scouts leader and elementary school “volunteer of the year” whose motto was “live, laugh and love.” Anderson shot Koehl 13 times, Brooks said.

In an earlier floor speech, Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, said, “It is impossible for any of us here today to grasp the hardship (the Koehls) have needlessly endured.”

While Coats’ bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., would give VA and the Army the authority to exhume the remains of veterans who committed capital offenses, it specifically directs VA to disinter Anderson. The only House member to vote against the bill was Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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