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An FBI Guide to Possible Crimes at Arlington National Cemetery

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The FBI is conducting a criminal inquiry into Arlington National Cemetery. The burial mixups there have made big news. Was any of it against the law? Probably. Here are a few reasons to think so.

Reserving graves:

It’s against the law to reserve grave locations at Arlington. The previous Superintendent, Jack Metzler, did it anyways. Anybody who strolls the rounds of Arlington will notice how generals and other powerful people seem to be buried up on hills overlooking Washington in plots that are easily accessible to visitors, while a private ends up in some back corner of the cemetery. A year ago, I explained how Metzler kept a separate set of books to reserve graves for important people and that the new director of the cemetery, Kathryn Condon, found out about it when she started last summer.

Army officials confirm that in her new post, Condon has reviewed cemetery burial paperwork. That review “raised questions as to whether Mr. Metzler pre-assigned grave sites,” according to (Gary) Tallman, the spokesman.

Condon confronted Metzler. “Mr. Metzler stated he had identified sections (for the burial of certain people) but did not assign specific grave sites,” according to Tallman.

That story also contained this sentence: “When asked on Tuesday if this seemed to violate the law, Army spokesman Gary Tallman responded, ‘Yes, it would.’”

The Army says this practice stopped immediately when Metzler was pushed out and Condon took over the cemetery on June 8, 2010. Nearly three weeks later the husband of Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Martin Ginsburg, died of cancer. Arlington buried Ginsburg in the prestigious section 5 of the cemetery, along with a handful of Supreme Court judges.

Contracting:

You could write a thesis on this one. Perhaps the best example is the Army’s 10-year effort to computerize burial records at Arlington to avoid burial mixups. Somewhere between $6 and $20 million bucks went missing, with nothing to show for it — burials today are still mostly tracked with little bits of paper. The former budget chief there, Rory Smith, tried to blow the whistle on that and got blackballed and pushed out of Arlington.

The guy pulling the levers on those contracts was Metzler’s deputy, Thurman Higginbotham. I’ve written for years about how Higginbotham steered some of that money to a revolving cast of contractors operating under different company names, including one who was involved in computer hacking at Arlington. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command investigated that case and found in a May 2009 report that Higginbotham had made “false statements” to investigators.

Higginbotham got out of Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings in 2002, as the computerization effort at Arlington began, and by last year was cruising the cemetery grounds in a Cadillac Escalade.

Mishandling of remains:

Again, I could pen an opus on this. Perhaps the one that is still so disturbing is the one that can’t be fixed. As I recently explained in TIME, couples at Arlington are buried in the same grave, one on top of the other. Workers accidentally dumped out into an excess dirt landfill at Arlington an unknown but potentially large number of urns containing cremated remains as they went digging in a grave to put in a second set of remains. Arlington should go through their records and check every grave where an urn was buried first and a second burial occurred (a spouse, for example) at the same grave later, to make sure the first urn is still there.

Some of those urns are gone forever, perhaps a lot. The Army would have to admit that to those families. Condon will not commit to that kind of fact-finding effort.

To read TIME’s coverage of the current situation at Arlington, click here.

To explore examples of Arlington’s confusing, sometimes conflicting burial records, click here.

 

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