Alicia Koehl's family didn't think things could get any worse after she was murdered -- until they accidentally discovered that the man who shot her and three others at an Indianapolis apartment complex on May 30 received a hero's burial, at taxpayer expense, while they were struggling with grief, anger and a $16,000 funeral bill.
Now family members in Fort Wayne and elsewhere are working to have the killer they say was illegally buried in a Michigan veterans' cemetery disinterred, and to ensure that miscreants like Michael Anderson are never again allowed to rest in hallowed ground.
“We'd like to move on for the sake of Paul and the kids,” Fort Wayne resident Becky Moher said, referring to her brother, Paul Koehl, who became a single father of two children when his 45-year-old wife was killed while working at the Villa Paree Apartments – a job her sister-in-law had taken just six weeks earlier because it offered a $1-an-hour raise. “But we and Paul just can't let (Anderson) lie there without fighting for Alicia.”
Moher and her parents, Frank and Carol Koehl of Fort Wayne, insist their desire to have Anderson removed from the Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek, Mich., is motivated not by the lust for vengeance but by the desire for justice.
Under a federal law passed in the wake of the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Army veteran Tim McVeigh, people convicted of a capital crime cannot be buried in a Veterans Affairs national cemetery. Despite prior run-ins with the law, the 31-year-old Anderson met that standard. But the law also places such cemeteries off-limits to anyone “shown by clear and convincing evidence to have committed a federal or state capital crime but were unavailable.”
According to an Indianapolis Police report, there's no doubt Anderson pulled the trigger. He was never convicted of Koehl's murder only because he became “unavailable” by shooting himself in the head when confronted by armed officers.
Why did Anderson walk into the apartment office with a .38-caliber pistol and start shooting? Reports indicate he may have suffered from emotional problems or wanted to settle a score with another employee. His motives don't matter all that much to Moher and her parents, who said Alicia's marriage to Paul made her as much a part of the family as flesh and blood could have.
“Alicia was very active, volunteer of the year at her kids' school. She was an amateur photographer who always had a hug and a smile. She had no reason to be afraid (at work),” Moher said.
And so when Alicia's father-in-law Frank Koehl thinks about how the man who killed her was draped beneath an American flag then buried in a free casket and identified by a taxpayer-funded marker, he admits to being “nauseated. I want to throw up.”
“But Alicia did get a 13-gun salute,” Moher said in a bitterly sarcastic reference to the number of times Anderson's bullets struck her. “Thomas (Alicia Koehl's son) asked, 'Was my Mom bad?' because he shot her.”
None of that was in Anderson's sanitized obituary, of course, which Moher discovered in July after curiosity induced an Internet review of Anderson's background. The notice merely said the Army veteran had “passed away suddenly” and would be buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery.
The family's disbelief led to research, which led to discovery of the law that would seem to bar Anderson from receiving such an honor. So Alicia Koehl's family and friends contacted VA officials, who at first seemed sympathetic and helpful but now seem to be “stonewalling” them, Frank Koehl said.
A call to the Michigan cemetery's director, Roy Luera, resulted in a statement from Chicago Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Craig Larson:
“(The VA) takes seriously its sacred responsibility to honor veterans . . . (and)
works closely with funeral directors to ensure that those we will inter have not committed a capital crime. In this instance, records show we were informed by the funeral home that no capital crime was committed.
“The VA is reviewing this matter (and) sends its deepest condolences to the Koehl family and all those affected by this tragedy.”
Family members and friends have filed a formal complaint and have proposed amendments to the law requiring the kind of background checks that clearly didn't happen in this case. And they point out that people posthumously discovered to be unworthy of military honors have been disinterred before.
The expense, of course, would add to the budget of a federal government already awash in debt. “But it would be money well spent. Dig (Anderson up),” Carol Koehl said.
At the very least, the VA should do a better job of screening burial applicants. Surely veterans' organizations would be willing to help at little or no cost. But whatever happens, the family can take comfort in this much:
Not even the federal government can keep Anderson from ending up where he truly belongs.