WASHINGTON -- In an explosion of bullets that marked the first fatal violence in the Capitol in more than a century, a gunman shot his way yesterday into the historic heart of the building, leaving two police officers dead and a tourist wounded.
The assailant, who was also wounded in the incident, entered the building through a first-floor tourist entrance, evaded a metal detector and shot a guard who tried to stop him. Then, finding his way into the center of the building blocked by another officer who shot at him, the gunman fled through a door into the House Majority Whip's private suite of offices.
There, he shot a plainclothes officer and was ultimately brought down by police gunfire, officials said.
Police identified the suspect last night as Russell E. Weston Jr., 41, a sometime resident of Valmeyer, Ill., and Montana, who reportedly had a history of making threats against the president and other officials. As of 11: 15 last night, no charges had been filed.
He was listed in stable condition at D.C. General Hospital, after Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and cardiac surgeon -- in another of the day's extraordinary events -- applied emergency medical procedures to keep the man breathing on the way to the hospital.
The dead police officers were identified as Jacob Chestnut, 58, of Fort Washington, the uniformed officer at the door, an 18-year veteran of the Capitol force; and John Gibson, 42, of Virginia, an eight-year veteran, who was serving as a plainclothes driver and guard for House Republican Whip Tom DeLay.
The wounded tourist was identified as Angela Dickerson, 24, who was reported in stable condition last night at George Washington University Hospital. It was unclear who had shot Dickerson, or exactly where that shooting occurred.
The bloody drama erupted about 3: 40 p.m., while the House was still in session for end-of-the-day speeches, and hundreds of tourists were milling about the building, one of the nation's oldest and most popular museums.
At the sound of shots -- up to 20, by some accounts -- tourists and building employees threw themselves to the floor or fled in panic. All over the Capitol, guards were herding lawmakers and their staffs into their offices and out of harm's way.
"It was a tough day for the Capitol Hill Police, a tough day for the Congress and not a good day for the United States," said Sgt. Dan Nichols, the Capitol Hill Police spokesman, who spent much of the afternoon briefing reporters every half-hour.
Not long after the helicopters and ambulances left the Capitol grounds, the three flags atop of the building were lowered to half-staff out of respect for the dead policemen.
Russell E. Weston Sr., 66, of Valmeyer, interviewed last night by the Miami Herald, told the newspaper that his son had few friends and drifted between Illinois and a Montana plot of land where he mined for gold.
His father said Weston claimed the government had planted land mines on that land.
Police said Weston sustained multiple gunshot wounds, including some to the chest. But his life may have been saved by Sen. Frist, who rushed from his office to the Capitol to offer his services after he heard people had been shot.
Frist said he first worked on one of the police officers, applying CPR to resuscitate and stabilize him. Then he went to work on Weston, applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and rode with him to the hospital.
Asked later if he was aware that he was working on the suspect, Frist said: "I was really just focused on keeping their heart and lungs going."
President Clinton and members of Congress, many shaken and some near tears, rushed to express their horror at the incident and their gratitude to the slain officers for their heroism.
"The Capitol is the people's house, a place where visitors and workers should not have to fear violence," said Clinton, who phoned House Speaker Newt Gingrich from Camp David to express his condolences. "Every American appreciates the bravery of the Capitol Police that prevented further injury through their courageous actions."
For Majority Whip DeLay, who was in his office during the fatal exchange of gunfire outside the door, the sacrifice of the officers who provided an effective security shield -- for Congress if not for themselves -- was especially poignant.
"John gave his life to protect me and the members of my staff," DeLay said in a statement issued after he learned of the death of Gibson, whom he said he thought of as a member of his family. "There is no doubt that if John had not acted quickly and with great bravery as he did, others would have been killed. I cannot express the depth of my sorrow for this loss."
Familiar face, ready smile
Those who pass daily through the Capitol corridors also mourned the loss of Chestnut, who was a familiar face with a ready smile.
Last night, neighbors remembered Chestnut as a man who loved his family, his garden and his work -- the kind of man who would mow a sick neighbor's lawn without being asked.
"He was such a wonderful man," said his sister-in-law, Wenying "Betty" John. "He was always helping everybody. If he saw a car break down on the highway he would take the risk to help."
Despite their grief, many lawmakers hastened to squelch any calls for heightened security at the Capitol. Even with guards and metal detectors at every door and cement barriers to keep unauthorized cars off the parking lot, the home of the first branch of the United States government is intended to be one of the most open buildings of its kind in the world.
"This is a center of freedom and democracy, perceived as a symbol for all the world as a place where differences are resolved peacefully and nonviolently," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "These two brave men have shown that freedom is not free, there is a price to be paid."
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting Democratic delegate who represents Washington in the House, said she was deeply disturbed by the violent intrusion that occurred not long after the House finished a cliff-hanger vote on a health care bill that represents this year's hottest issue.
'This was a maniac'
"But I certainly hope there will not be an over-reaction to this," said Norton, who cautioned specifically against adopting additional security measures similar to the closing off of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. "This was not a breach of security. This was a maniac who came blazing in."
In a show of their determination not to be cowed, congressional leaders made a point of announcing that the Capitol -- one of the nation's major tourists attractions -- would be open for visitors today as usual.
"It was an individual who was determined to blast his way into the Capitol," said Rep. Bill Thomas of California, chairman of the Committee on House Oversight. "In fact, he shot his way into the Capitol."
Outside the building, tourists were bewildered.
"I was trying to take a picture of my family, and all of a sudden all these people came running toward the camera, screaming," said Jerry Cossey, who was vacationing from Houston. He said he heard police tell people to run, which he and his family did.
"I cried at first, I was very scared," said Kristen Cossey, 12. "We took off and got behind a car."
Inside the Capitol, visitors were stunned.
The Normant family was descending a staircase when three officers flew past them, one with his gun drawn. "The one with the gun said, 'Don't go down that way,' " said David Normant, from Lexington, Ky. "We went back upstairs and waited."
Several tourists said they huddled in place for about 15 minutes. When they were told to leave, pandemonium followed, as people pushed and shoved and got stuck in the revolving doors by the exit.
'I said a prayer'
"I had to run back to get my son and got stuck in the shuffle," said Laurie Curcio, 38, a minister from Patchogue, N.Y., who ran out of the building with her family. "I said a prayer. You just don't think something like this would happen inside the Capitol."
Yesterday's incident was the first time anyone has been killed in the Capitol since February 1890, when Charles E. Kincaid, a correspondent for the Louisville Times, shot Rep. William P. Taulbee, a Kentucky Democrat, on the stairs leading from the House. Taulbee died days later, but his blood stains, now black with age, remain on those stairs 108 years later, tour guides tell visitors. That shooting stemmed from an argument over the newspaper's coverage of the lawmaker.
The most recent gunfire at the Capitol took place in 1954, when five congressmen were shot on the House floor after three Puerto Rican extremists of the Nationalist Party fired shots from the visitors' gallery. No one was killed.
Violence last struck the Capitol in November 1983, when a bomb exploded on the Senate side, damaging a conference room and the offices of Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat. No one was injured. The bombing was reportedly a protest of U.S. military action in Grenada and Lebanon.
Many of the security measures now in place at the Capitol came as a response to that bombing. But such security is apparently not impervious to those willing to expose themselves to likely capture or death.
Pub Date: 7/25/98