Gunman Shoots His Way Into Capitol;
Two Officers Killed, Suspect Captured
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 1998; Page A1 A gunman burst through a security checkpoint in the U.S. Capitol yesterday afternoon and killed two Capitol Police officers in a terrifying exchange of fire that sent panicked bystanders diving for cover in the majestic marble building known around the world as a symbol of America and democracy.
One woman nearby was also hit in the fusillade, which ended with the wounded gunman captured in the office complex of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). No motive was known immediately for the assailant's actions, which convulsed the Capitol at a time when tourists were swarming through and Congress was still in session. The shootings were the first in the Capitol in 44 years, and the worst since Congress convened in the building in 1800.
Top-level federal and District law enforcement officers were meeting late last night on how to proceed in the case. Officials said Weston could be charged with two counts of murder of a federal police officer, which can carry the death penalty.
The slain officers were identified as two 18-year veterans of the force Jacob J. Chestnut, who friends said was planning to retire within the year, and Special Agent John Gibson, assigned to provide security for DeLay. Both were married and had children. They were believed to be the first Capitol Police officers killed while on duty at the building.
The wounded woman was identified only as Angela Dickerson, 24. She was listed in stable condition early today at George Washington University Medical Center with a gunshot wound in the face and another in the shoulder.
The shooting turned the midsummer peace of the Capitol grounds into pandemonium, prompted many congressional employees to lock themselves inside their offices, and brought a U.S. senator racing through the building to provide first aid.
The anguishing incident stunned Washington last night and raised difficult questions about security, safety and public access to a building emblematic of the nation's representative government.
Officials indicated that the Capitol would be open as usual today, except possibly for the areas where the shootings occurred, as the investigation continued. However, it was not clear whether new security measures would be discussed in the future.
Describing himself and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as "deeply disturbed" by the shootings, the president called the Capitol "the people's house, a place where visitors and workers should not have to fear violence."
"Every American appreciates the bravery of the Capitol Police who prevented further injury through their courageous actions," he said in a written statement.
"They gave their lives to protect the lives of hundreds," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Based on initial accounts, the entire incident apparently consumed only seconds before reaching a blood-soaked climax inside the majority whip's ground-floor office complex, where staff members moments before had been at work at their desks.
It began at 3:40 p.m., when the gunman attempted, according to an authoritative account, to bypass the metal detector just inside the door where he entered. That point is known as the Document Room Door. It is next to the central stairway at the east front of the building, on the House side.
"It looked like someone was trying to go around or through the metal detector," said Patrick Shall, manager of a Capitol gift shop that is located nearby. "It started some kind of commotion."
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, said after being briefed by police that the gunman tried to bypass the metal detection equipment at the security point.
"He went around the magnetometer," Thomas said.
Chestnut, who was stationed at the checkpoint, then confronted the gunman, according to the account.
An employee at a gift shop located nearby heard what he recalled as "a big boom." Chestnut was apparently fatally wounded by the gunman's first shot.
At that point, a second Capitol Police officer who was also assigned to the Document entrance emerged from where he had gone to get a wheelchair for a tourist. That officer, who was not immediately identified, exchanged shots in the corridor with the gunman. The officer was unhurt, but one or more of his shots are believed to have hit the gunman, possibly in an arm or leg.
Based on the accounts provided last night, it appeared that that burst of gunfire also may have wounded Dickerson.
With events moving with almost bewildering swiftness, and the screams and shouts of tourists mingling with the echoes of the gunshots, the gunman then lunged toward a door on the corridor a few feet from the building entrance.
The door was marked "Private No Admittance." It led to an alcove giving access to an elevator and a stairwell. The gunman passed both and continued to a second door. That one led to the outer part of DeLay's office complex.
Having heard the shots, according to witnesses in the complex, Gibson was rising from his desk as the door swung open. The gunman confronted Gibson as he rose. The gunman fired, mortally wounding Gibson. But Gibson fired at least once, striking the gunman.
DeLay appeared near tears last night. He said in a statement, "I have no doubt that John saved the lives of many people today."
Other officers, drawn by the commotion, then surged into the room, where employees still crouched behind desks. One of the arriving officers apparently fired a single shot, striking the gunman, according to the account.
Meanwhile, tourists, employees and others inside the Capitol reacted in a variety of ways. "I heard a boom and thought something fell," said Linda Addotta, a tourist from Rockford, Ill. "Then I heard a boom, boom," and everyone ran. "We didn't know what to do," she said.
"I have never seen such panic before," said Whinery, 68, who added: "I think I am 98 right now."
Amid the explosive sounds of the gunfire and the screams of "Gunshots! gunshots!" Ronald Beamish, 69, a visitor from England, saw an officer apparently Chestnut crumple to the floor.
In the first, fearful seconds, Beamish darted into an office. Then he came out, walked to where Chestnut lay and felt for his pulse.
It was faint, Beamish said.
The tourist tried to reassure the fallen officer. "You'll be all right," he said. "You'll be all right." But, Beamish said, Chestnut had lost consciousness.
Chestnut lay about 15 feet from the door to DeLay's office, according to Rudy. Inside the office, Rudy said, he got up, walked across the room and found Gibson and the gunman lying on a blood-smeared floor.
Police later recovered a .38-caliber revolver believed to have been used by the gunman.
A fellow Capitol Police officer, William C. Cleveland, who is a Republican member of the Alexandria City Council, said Chestnut worked at the Document Room Door as a permanent assignment.
Cleveland said Chestnut liked the interaction with tourists at the door. "You meet a lot of people coming through that door," Cleveland said, and Chestnut, he added, didn't mind answering the same questions over and over again.
He described both officers as devout men with "very, very good personalities."
Chestnut was described by friends and colleagues as a Vietnam veteran and generous neighbor who lived in Fort Washington with his wife, daughter and granddaughter, and "would do anything for you."
Gibson was described as a particularly devout man who retained a Boston accent and a fondness for Boston's athletic teams.
Gibson was taken by U.S. Park Police helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead. Chestnut died at George Washington University Medical Center.
Capitol Police officers are issued bulletproof vests but are not required to wear them. The vests protect only part of the body. One officer said he doesn't wear his inside the Capitol "because things like this aren't supposed to happen."
Only one other Capitol officer has died in the line of duty since the force was established in 1828. Sgt. Christopher Eney, 37, of Silver Spring, was killed during a training exercise on C Street NE in 1984.
In what appeared to be the only comparable shooting incident, six people, including five members of Congress, were wounded in 1954 when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the visitors' gallery in the House.
Immediately after yesterday's shooting, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is a physician, went to the scene. He apparently helped treat one of the two fatally wounded officers.
He also gave cardiopulmonary resuscitation to another wounded man, apparently the gunman. Frist rode with the man to D.C. General Hospital, where the gunman was being treated last night.
The suspect was conscious as he was taken to D.C. General but said nothing, according to Wayne Moore, head of the D.C. ambulance service. He said the suspect had been hit at least twice.
Government officials said last night that Weston was brought to Secret Service attention twice in the spring of 1996 by police in Illinois in connection with "threatening statements" made there about Clinton.
According to the officials, the Secret Service had mental health professionals examine Weston at that time and they determined that he was not a danger.
There was no indication last night from the officials of any connection between Weston and any groups believed threatening or dangerous. There were no indications that he had sent letters or made visits to the White House or had possessed illegal weapons or explosives. Weston, the officials said, was not on a "watch list" of possibly suspicious individuals kept by the Secret Service.
"The worst thing we can do is cower in fear," Thomas, the California congressman, said last night. "We will not shut down the Capitol."
He said that what happened "was not the fault of security." The gunman, he said, "was determined to blast his way into the Capitol."
Contributing to coverage of the shootings at the U.S. Capitol were staff writers Peter Baker, Helen Dewar, Juliet Eilperin, Maria Elena Fernandez, Patrice Gaines, Amy Goldstein, Steven Gray, Marcia Slacum Greene, Hamil R. Harris, Tomoko Hosako, Anita Huslin, George Lardner Jr., Jennifer 8. Lee, Allan Lengel, Nancy Lewis, Bill McAllister, Peter A. McKay, Bill Miller, John Mintz, Sylvia Moreno, Caryle Murphy, Philip P. Pan, Eric Pianin, Valerie Strauss, Roberto Suro, Avis Thomas-Lester, Cheryl W. Thompson, Linda Wheeler, Yolanda Woodlee and John Yang and Metro Resource Director Margot Williams. Online graphics by Paul Compton and Mark Hill.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company