WASHINGTON – The family of murder victim Alicia Koehl may finally get its wish.
The House passed legislation Wednesday that instructs the Veterans Affairs Department to unearth the remains of an Army veteran buried with military honors last year even after police said he killed the Indianapolis woman and injured three others before taking his own life.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. and on its way to President Barack Obama for his signature, also would give the federal government the authority to rectify other mistakes whenever veterans are buried with military honors despite having committed a capital offense.
"This bill protects the integrity of our national cemeteries, enforces current law and ensures that the families of our veterans can bury their loved ones among heroes," Coats said.
The House approved the bill 398-1 Wednesday after unanimous Senate passage last month.
Coats introduced the bill after the Department of Veterans Affairs said it lacked the authority to remove from a national cemetery in Michigan the body of an Army veteran who police say killed Koehl during a shooting spree at an Indianapolis apartment complex last year. Police said that Michael LeShawn Anderson shot three people, killing Koehl, an employee at the complex. He then killed himself as police arrived.
Federal law prohibits military burials in national cemeteries for those who commit capital crimes, even if they were never convicted because they died.
But after Anderson was improperly buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery, the VA said it was unable to rectify the mistake.
"You can only imagine the indignation when, in the midst of their grief, family and friends found out that the killer of Alicia was allowed burial in a national cemetery with full military honors," said Rep. Susan Brooks, the Carmel, Ind., Republican who sponsored the House version of the bill.
The bill directs the department to disinter Anderson, giving his remains to his relatives. It also gives the VA and the Army the authority to reconsider other burials if notified that the veteran may have committed a federal or state capital crime.
Paul Koehl, the widower of Alicia Koehl, said the bill's passage shows his wife's death has become an "instrument for justice and peace for our family, as well as the families of future victims."
Coats' spokeswoman, Tara DiJulio, said Coats has worked with the VA on the bill and expects the president to sign it into law.
At an October hearing in the House on national cemeteries, an official from the department recommended only technical changes to the bill. It was backed by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a group that provides compassionate care for the families of fallen veterans.
The bill was co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and backed by the entire Indiana delegation.
"I'm grateful that we've taken this important step to protect the integrity of our national cemeteries and give the Koehl family the closure they deserve," Brooks said. "Our nation's cemeteries shouldn't be tarnished because of a legislative technicality, and the bill will close this loophole."