WASHINGTON -- Police yesterday charged Russell E. Weston Jr. with the murder of federal officers, a capital crime, in the shooting spree Friday at the U.S. Capitol that left two police officers dead and a tourist wounded.
One day after an eruption of violence that jolted Washingtonians and tourists alike, law enforcement and political leaders sought to restore a measure of calm. A somber Capitol opened to visitors yesterday. And President Clinton declared that Americans should honor the sacrifices made by the two slain police officers.
"The shooting at the United States Capitol yesterday was a moment of savagery at the front door of American civilization," Clinton said. "That majestic marble building is the symbol of our democracy and the embodiment of our nation."
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican whose aide was one of the two men killed, praised both officers. "They were real heroes -- American heroes," DeLay said. "They did their duty. They stood their ground. Both families need our support and our prayers as they try to make sense of" what happened.
Weston, 41, who was shot in an exchange with federal officers, was listed in critical condition at D.C. General Hospital. Doctors gave him a 50 percent chance of survival.
The injured tourist, 24-year-old Angela Dickerson of Chantilly, Va., was released yesterday after receivingtreatment for gunshot wounds to the shoulder and face.
Suspect a low-risk threat
An FBI complaint filed in federal district court here accuses Weston of killing both officers. He could face additional federal charges, officials said, and Justice Department officials were considering whether to pursue the death penalty. A police spokesman stressed yesterday that Weston had been a lone gunman.
Weston, whose home is near Helena, Mont., had been on a list of people who pose a low-risk threat to Clinton. People who know Weston told reporters that he was convinced that federal officials were plotting to track his movements.
According to the Associated Press, Weston came to the attention of the Secret Service after acquaintances reported hearing him complain about the government and the CIA. Weston insisted that federal officials had planted land mines on his Montana property. Some of his complaints were directed at specific officials, including Clinton, though law enforcement officials described them more as rantings than actual threats.
Weston had been treated at a psychiatric hospital, and a Montana neighbor told reporters that he would become irrational whenever he stopped taking his medicine.
Weston, who was shot repeatedly by officers trying to stop him, underwent surgery Friday night and again yesterday, doctors said.
"We are still concerned that he will have problems with his heart and lungs in coming days and weeks," said Dr. Norma Smalls of D.C. General Hospital, adding that Weston is hooked up to a respirator and is unable to speak.
'There was pandemonium'
Police, lawmakers, House aides and eyewitnesses have offered various accounts, sometimes conflicting, of Friday's events, but the episode came into slightly sharper focus yesterday.
According to the statements, Weston entered a first-floor doorway of the Capitol, closer to the House side. As Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut, who who had become suspicious of Weston, approached, Weston shot him at nearly point-blank range. Chestnut's partner drew his gun and exchanged shots with Weston, who darted around a corner. The partner's identity has not been released.
The shots echoed through the Capitol building and were heard by John Gibson, an 18-year police veteran on assignment to DeLay's staff. Gibson had been sitting in a private reception area leading to DeLay's personal suite of offices. About 25 lawmakers and Republican aides were celebrating a legislative victory there when the shots rang out, scattering hundreds of tourists and employees throughout the building and causing intense panic in DeLay's offices.
"There was pandemonium," said John Feehery, DeLay's communications director.
Gibson hollered at a 22-year-old staffer to duck under a desk, and he unholstered his weapon. Others, including DeLay, were hustled into a rear bathroom. A French tourist ran into the reception area, and Gibson pushed her out of danger. Encountering each other, Weston and Gibson traded fire. Both men were wounded, Gibson mortally.
Another officer stood over Weston with a gun at his head, said Tony Rudy, DeLay's chief counsel. Weston, unconscious from wounds to his chest and leg, did not respond to demands that he roll over, so the officer flipped him over by his belt.
Two DeLay assistants, flushed with fear, told others they heard a third round of gunshots, though police believe them to have been mistaken.
DeLay not a target
Fearing that DeLay might be the target of an assassin, security agents spirited him out of the building to Reagan National Airport, from where he flew to Houston on a 4: 40 p.m. commercial flight. Upon reaching Houston, DeLay met his family, and they returned to Washington late Friday night on a chartered jet.
Sgt. Dan Nichols, chief spokesman for the Capitol Police, said yesterday that they had no reason to believe now that DeLay was an intended target of Weston.
Several matters remain unclear. Nichols would not confirm reports that Weston, upon entering the Capitol, sidestepped the metal detector through which all visitors, staff and lawmakers must pass. Neither would police say how Dickerson was shot.
It was not certain whether Weston had followed a fleeing tourist into DeLay's suite or whether Gibson opened the door to determine what had occurred in the corridors outside. And it was not known whether it was Gibson or another officer who wounded Weston.
Slain officers honored
On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders made good on their resolve to keep "the people's building" open to visitors, some of whom left bouquets of flowers on the Capitol steps yesterday in memory of the slain officers.
The lawmakers' decision stood in contrast to the move in 1995 to close Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic after several incidents that appeared to threaten Clinton's life.
By noon, only a few signs indicated the carnage of the day before. Flags flapped gently at half-staff at the Capitol, as they did throughout the District and in Maryland. A thin yellow rope, replacing yellow police tape, cordoned off the driveway that led to the entrance used by Weston. And Capitol Police officers wore a stripe of black tape across their badges to mark their grief.
Several hundred tourists lined up at the east end of the Capitol, as they do every summer day, waiting to stroll through the building that serves as the nation's legislature and as a museum of American democracy.
"Those who hate or fear freedom sometimes seek to attack this Capitol and those in it precisely because they symbolize America," Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an emotional address from his office yesterday. "No terrorist, no deranged person, no act of violence will deny us our freedom."
Patrice Kleber, 45, visiting from her home at Andrews Air Force Base, with her 12-year-old daughter, Kathryn, said hers was a military family and she felt a connection with the loss suffered by the two officers' families.
"I said, 'Why don't we come to the Capitol to pay our last respects?' " she said. "Those two men literally give their lives to save other people."
Public officials also eulogized the two slain officers: Chestnut, 58, an Air Force veteran who lived in Prince George's County; and Gibson, 42, of Prince William County, Va.
Both men had served 18 years in the Capitol Police force. Chestnut is survived by his wife, five children and five grandchildren; Gibson by his wife and three children. Funeral and memorial arrangements were incomplete yesterday.
"I would ask all Americans to reflect for a moment on the human elements of yesterday's tragedy," Clinton said. "The Scripture says, 'Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.' Officer Jacob 'J.J.' Chestnut and Detective John Gibson laid down their lives for their friends, their co-workers and their fellow citizens -- those whom they were sworn to protect."
Fund for officers
The names of Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, the police officers who died in the shooting at the Capitol, will be inscribed in the national memorial for slain law men during a ceremony in the spring, said Craig W. Floyd, the memorial's director.
The U.S. Capitol Police force is establishing a trust fund on behalf of the slain officers' families. Donations may be mailed to: U.S. Capitol Police Memorial Fund, Washington, D.C. 20510.
Pub Date: 7/26/98