Officers’ Small Kindnesses, Great Bravery Recalled
From his peaceful perch inside the majority whip’s serpentine Capitol office, Special Agent John Gibson, big, sandy-haired and friendly, would toss out comments to the lawmakers who trooped in, always speaking in a thick Boston accent.
But on Friday, as Congress was emptying out for a summer weekend, the echoing blast of gunfire whipped through the air. An eight-year Capitol Hill veteran and father of three, Gibson frantically warned staffers to stay back, quite likely shielding others from injury or worse.
Then, as he confronted the shooter behind the door marked “private,” Gibson was fatally injured.
“John gave his life to protect me and the members of my staff,” said a shaken Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) of the man who had served as his bodyguard for the last three years. “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 say enough about John or the work he did. I cannot express the depth of my sorrow for this loss.”
Gibson, 42, and Capitol Police Officer Jacob “J.J.” Chestnut, 58, were killed in the attack. Angela Dickerson, 24, a tourist, was wounded in the face and shoulder. She was reported to be in stable condition late Friday.
Those who knew the slain officers were stunned.
April Lassiter, a former aide to DeLay, recalled a personal kindness from Gibson after she was mugged in Washington a few years ago.
“I came in the office the next day, and I was pretty traumatized by it all,” she said Friday. Gibson, she said, went out of his way to show his concern, offering his card. Years later, he would still ask how she was doing. “He said if you ever need anything, call me,” she said of the man who was built like a football player. “It was like you had a godfather looking after you.”
Others recalled how Gibson always sought out copies of the Boston Globe so he could keep track of his beloved sports teams back home--the Bruins, Red Sox and the University of Massachusetts basketball team. Gibson was from suburban Waltham, Mass. He had three children and was married to the niece of Rep. John Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.).
“The whole office believes that Gibson saved our lives,” said Tony Rudy, a top aide to DeLay. “There’s no doubt in our mind that this guy would have come in and just shot people one at a time.”
Chestnut, a member of the Capitol Hill police force for 18 years, was 18 months from his planned retirement date. He was known for his “big broad smile--the nicest man you’d ever want to meet,” said an admirer in the Capitol.
He lived in a brick-and-siding split-level home at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac in suburban Fort Washington, Md., 10 miles south of the Capitol along the Potomac River, with his wife, Wen Ling, their son, William, 19, daughter Karen, 21, and Karen’s 3-year-old daughter, Jasmine.
Chestnut and his wife, known as Wendy, met in 1974, while he was stationed in Taiwan with the Air Force. They were married there.
A poignant scene was played out on the family’s front lawn Friday evening. Wen Ling Chestnut, summoned from her job as a computer department supervisor at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, was taken to George Washington University Medical Center, where her husband died. She returned home escorted by two of her husband’s fellow officers.
Her son emerged from the house. They hugged and then retreated inside. “She’s not doing very good. She’s so shocked. We all are,” said Wen Ying, Chestnut’s sister-in-law, who lives nearby. “He was such a wonderful man. We are all very shocked.”
Immediately, friends and neighbors began visiting, greeted by family members one after another, on the front lawn.
Over the years, Chestnut was a visible presence in the community, playing with his children as they grew up, repeating the scene with his granddaughter, refereeing foot races on the sidewalk.
Chestnut was known in the community for the help he provided his neighbors, cutting a lawn for one, offering tomatoes from the impressive vegetable garden he maintained at the end of the street, and encouraging a neighbor to become a security guard.
“He came over and talked to me about bettering myself and becoming a police officer,” said William Broome, 29, who lives across the street from the Chestnuts. Broome eventually became a security guard.
But the vegetable garden was his passion, in particular the tomatoes.
“He would give them away to the neighborhood,” said his sister-in-law. “He was always helping everyone. If he saw a car broken down on the highway, he would stop and help anyone.”
On Friday night, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) met with the families of the slain officers. Declared House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri: “The bravery of the fallen officers will be long remembered and honored by all of us.”
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Janet Hook, Marc Lacey and Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.