Gunman Opens Fire in Capitol, Kills 2 Officers, Wounds Tourist
A gun battle erupted in the crowded U.S. Capitol on Friday afternoon when a man known to have a grudge against President Clinton and the government opened fire on two uniformed federal guards, authorities said, leaving both officers dead and the assailant and a tourist seriously injured.
The shooting in the building’s House wing occurred as summer tourists lined the hallways and Republican lawmakers celebrated passage of a major health care bill, turning the grand, white-domed monument into a scene of terror.
Sources identified the gunman as Russell Eugene Weston Jr., 41, who lives in Helena, Mont., and, before that, in Valmeyer, Ill.
He was hit with three shots in the chest, arm and leg and underwent emergency surgery Friday night at a local hospital. He was listed in stable condition.
Weston was reportedly angry with the government and “had complained that President Clinton had been following him,” according to sources here.
They added that the suspect had been visited twice in the past by law enforcement authorities, who deemed him to be “delusional” and posing a “credible” threat to the president.
An acquaintance in Montana told The Times Friday night that Weston believed the government had targeted him for assassination. And another report said Weston and his father quarreled earlier this week after the younger man allegedly shot several cats.
The shooting at the Capitol broke out about 3:40 p.m.; in the resulting confusion, family members became separated and parents frantically searched for their children in the vast, imposing structure. Some people were ordered to leave, then told to hide in corners and internal offices. Elevators were locked and staircases secured as more officers scrambled door to door in search of others who might be wounded.
One witness described the scene of the shooting, just one floor below the Capitol Rotunda, as being littered with bullet shell casings. Witnesses recalled hearing from 15 to 30 shots.
In the shooting’s aftermath, Capitol Police Sgt. Dan Nichols grappled with words to best describe the horror in the building and the loss of two of his colleagues.
“This is a tough day for the U.S. Capitol Police,” he said outside on the East Lawn. “It’s a tough day for the United States Congress. And it is not a good day for the United States.”
The dead Capitol police officers, both shot in the head, were Jacob “J.J.” Chestnut, an 18-year veteran of the force, and John Gibson, who had eight years of service. Both were married. Gibson had three children, Chestnut had three children by his current marriage and others from a previous one, Nichols said Friday night.
The injured tourist was identified as Angela Dickerson, 24, who had gunshot wounds to her face and shoulder. She was listed in stable condition at a Washington hospital.
The following account of the shooting emerged from various witnesses:
Without speaking, the gunman, who one witness said wore light khaki pants and a fedora with a feather, approached Chestnut at the metal detector at a main entrance near the east front of the Capitol. The man attempted to go around the magnetometer but was ordered back by Chestnut. He immediately shot Chestnut, then whisked around the metal detector and turned left toward an alcove doorway for the office of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority whip.
Inside DeLay’s office, a group of Republican congressmen and staffers were celebrating the passage an hour earlier of a major bill to regulate managed health care. Gibson was guarding that door, sitting just inside the entryway. He had heard the gunfire and ordered staffers to “get down.”
Gibson then stood to confront the gunman; both men exchanged fire, and both were hit.
“He was shot down in our office,” John Feehery, a spokesman for DeLay, said of the gunman.
Tony Rudy, DeLay’s policy director and general counsel, added: “The whole office believes Gibson saved our lives.”
Rudy was on the telephone when he heard the shots just outside. He and others dove under their desks.
After the shooting ended, Rudy saw the gunman, bleeding from the left side, lying face down, and a Capitol bicycle policeman suddenly straddling the gunman. Rudy said the officer turned the gunman over and hastily removed the man’s firearm.
The weapon was a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, according to authorities. They said they have traced ownership of the handgun but declined to reveal their findings.
Federal authorities now are investigating Weston under the law that makes it a capital crime to murder a federal officer who is performing official duties. If he stands trial and is convicted, he could be sentenced to death by lethal injection or life in prison with no parole.
Nichols, the Capitol police spokesman, said Weston is being held pending the filing of criminal charges, adding that “we expect them [the charges] to be placed in the near future.”
Weston was at his family’s home in Valmeyer on Thursday, where he had an argument with his father, Russell Weston Sr., according to the Miami Herald. The elder Weston said the argument was over his son using his shotgun to kill more than a dozen cats.
Roger Siewert, a self-employed construction worker and Weston’s neighbor in Montana, told The Times in a telephone interview that Weston repeatedly exhibited paranoid behavior. According to Siewert, Weston told neighbors he was a friend of the Kennedy family and that, as a result, the government--whom Weston considered responsible for President Kennedy’s assassination--was going to kill him too.
But Siewert said Weston, who lived alone in a log cabin in a Helena suburb called Rimini, never struck him as violent. Nevertheless, sheriff’s deputies had visited Weston at least three times in recent months, Siewert said, usually when Weston reported burglaries at his home.
“Most of his stories were that the government was out to get him,” Siewert said. “He was afraid to take showers because he thought the government was trying to poison him with special gas. He said he had to take special chemicals to protect himself.”
Friday’s shooting occurred as the Capitol was starting to wind down from what had been a busy legislative week.
Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a heart surgeon, had just adjourned the Senate and was walking back to his office, where he saw the commotion on television.
He telephoned the Capitol physician’s office and then ran back to the Capitol. There, police recognized Frist and immediately escorted him to the scene. The senator began to administer aid, and rode in an ambulance with the suspect, placing him on a ventilator as they hurried to a local hospital.
Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), who chairs the House Oversight Committee that handles administrative matters such as Capitol security, said the gunman drove up to Capitol Hill, parked his vehicle and then walked toward the building. Authorities later seized a pickup truck with Illinois plates.
“I believe he chose a route he thought was open to him,” Thomas said. “This was an individual who was determined to blast his way into the Capitol.”
J. B. Wallace, a Washington paramedic, rushed to the scene and--along with Frist--found “the place was chaos, a lot of people screaming and yelling” as she arrived.
She, too, rode in the ambulance with the suspect, who appeared barely conscious. “He was sort of in and out,” Wallace said.
The medics fed him oxygen through a mask until they arrived at a local hospital emergency room. Rushed inside the hospital, a phalanx of security police immediately surrounded the triage unit.
“He’s not going anywhere anytime soon,” Wallace said.
At the Capitol, DeLay held a prayer service inside his office for Gibson, whom he had known for some time because he provided personal security to the congressman and his staff.
DeLay and others pledged that the government’s business will continue unabated in Congress.
“The worst thing we could do is cower in fear and shut down the people’s Capitol,” said Thomas.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) commended the bravery of Chestnut and Gibson. “Those who guard this building guard our freedom. We can never repay the sacrifice made by these brave individuals.”
At Camp David, Md., Clinton issued a statement saying he was “deeply disturbed” by the bloodshed on Capitol Hill, “a place where visitors and workers should not have to fear violence.”
But fear did engulf the Capitol on Friday, where on any given day about 28,000 people move through the building.
Justin Brown, who works in a gift shop on the first floor, was close enough to see and hear the gunplay.
“I saw a guy with a gun,” the 18-year-old Brown said. “The first thing that came to mind was, duck. I heard about six to eight shots. It was all so fast. We were about 10 feet away from the action.”
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-D.C.) was helping shepherd a tour of about 50 elementary school children when “shots rang out and the staff gathered them in a circle.”
“This program designed to expose them to the Capitol has instead exposed them to violence in the Capitol,” Norton said. “I am shaken.”
The Rev. Paul Schenck of the Baltimore area, president of the National Clergy Council, was visiting Capitol Hill to promote a plan to publicize the Ten Commandments. After the shooting, he and his colleagues dropped to their knees in a tight prayer circle.
“We pray that the blood that was spilled today will be redeemed,” he said. “We pray that this place will be sanctified.”
When he stood up, he added: “It’s really ironic. Here we are presenting the Ten Commandments and someone’s violating one of them.”
Times staff writers Stephen Braun, Sam Fulwood III, James Gerstenzang, Marc Lacey and Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.
* FOCUS ON SECURITY: Capitol security comes under renewed scrutiny. A17
* IT WAS PANDEMONIUM: People darted behind columns. Others cowered in fear. A18
* 2 SPECIAL PEOPLE: Slain officers are remembered for kindnesses, bravery. A19
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
(1) Gunman enters
(2) 1st officer shot
(3) Gunman, 2nd officer shot
Tom DeLay, majority whip (in office at time)
Delay’s office suite
Source: Congressional Directory
Researched by TRICIA FORD / Los Angeles Times