Descent Into Fear, Rage Ended at Capitol
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page A1 He had very little to call his own an old red Chevy pickup, a modest monthly government disability check but his mind was full of grandeur. He burned with gold fever, and spent hot summer days squatting beside chill Montana streams panning for his fortune. He bragged of his ties to the Kennedys, and later complained that his friend Bill Clinton had betrayed him. He offered his services to the CIA and imagined himself important enough that the government would conspire to keep an eye on him.
And he was drawn, in some terrible way, to the grandest building of Washington, the white marble Capitol that rises over the Mall like an ecstatic vision of power. There, Russell Eugene "Rusty" Weston Jr. burst through a public entrance Friday afternoon and killed two Capitol policemen before he fell, wounded four times. A bystander was wounded as well.
It is, sadly, an old Washington story from Charles Guiteau, the religious fanatic who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881 because he imagined himself entitled to be ambassador to France, to John W. Hinckley Jr., who wounded President Ronald Reagan in a weird bid to win the affections of a Hollywood actress.
Now Rusty Weston.
Weston, 41, had few friends, but plenty of people knew him, or knew of him. To his neighbors in the Montana mountains and the Illinois corn country, he was the man who shouted at satellite dishes, believing that they were being used to spy on him. To the Supreme Court of Montana, he was the fellow who sued an elderly woman for assault and battery, then appealed his loss to the state's highest tribunal.
Doctors at the state hospital in Warm Springs, Mont., knew him. He spent 52 days there in 1996, committed involuntarily after a confrontation with police. He was released when they decided he posed no threat.
Sheriff's deputies in Lewis and Clark County, Mont., knew him. They got calls, from time to time, complaining that Weston was not taking the medication that controlled his delusions.
The Secret Service knew of him, too. He was on their list of those who might pose a threat to the president of the United States. They did not perceive his threat to be serious.
As one resident of Weston's Illinois hometown explained yesterday, it was widely known that Rusty Weston was on medication for mental problems, but "no one was afraid of him. ... I think people thought him a little strange, but that's about it."
In other words, he was known as a disturbed man, but harmless.
In other words, at one very important level, he was not known at all.
'Normal, Average Kid'
Westons have lived for four generations around Valmeyer, Ill., the neighbors say. In interviews yesterday, the family was described as quiet and reclusive, and also churchgoing and well regarded attributes that are not necessarily inconsistent in this part of the world.
It is a small town, fewer than 350 families, on the banks of the Mississippi River 23 miles south of St. Louis. Mark Twain likely steamed past during his days as a riverboat pilot. A place where the former high school principal can look at a yearbook nearly 25 years old and remember just about every student.
"Looking over his class, there would be half a dozen others I'd suspect of this before him," H.R. Baum said of Rusty Weston in an interview with the Associated Press.
Classmates expressed similar feelings. Weston was a fat kid, they recall, shy, never a joiner. "He wasn't involved in sports or any after-school activities," said Perry Riechmann, who attended Valmeyer High School with Weston. He made few, if any, close friends, but he didn't make any trouble, either.
"Rusty was basically overweight and in small towns like that it's terrible, but kids like that tend to be outcasts," said Jeff Berry, another classmate.
Jim Early, a local scoutmaster, said the adolescent Weston was a Boy Scout in the late 1960s. "He was just a normal, average kid. He never gave me any problems. If he went bad, it was after he left the Scouts."
After graduating from high school in 1974, Weston entered a school for draftsmen, his father told the Miami Herald. He never found steady work. At some point in his twenties, he drifted west to Montana, where he came to be known by Tim Campbell, undersheriff of Jefferson County. By the time he reached Montana, Rusty Weston was no longer average.
"I know Russell well, since 1982," Campbell told the Helena (Mont.) Independent Record. The Weston he knew, Campbell said, was fearful of the government and suspicious of conspiracies. He issued threats and he bore grudges. In 1983, he demanded that local authorities press charges against Dorothy Cole, his 86-year-old landlord who Weston claimed had struck him with her cane "without warning and while [Weston] was unprepared to fend off said blow," as Weston later put it in a lawsuit.
When the sheriff's office refused, Weston began making veiled threats. "One time he came up to me and said, 'You better watch your back,' " Campbell told the Helena paper. He sought money from the Montana Crime Victims Compensation Fund, claiming that the cane attack had left him unable to work and penniless. He wrote letters to the editor decrying the injustice. He alleged that the sheriff was protecting Cole because she had given him a sweetheart deal on some mining equipment.
He returned to Valmeyer for almost two years to live with his family. "I remember he used to wear a leather vest and looked like he hadn't taken a bath in a couple of years," said Berry, who remembers that Weston seemed to bounce lazily between Montana and Illinois.
By October 1986, he had bounced back to Helena. That is when he filed suit against Cole, alleging assault and battery. When the suit was dismissed, Weston took it to the state supreme court. When he lost, he demanded a rehearing. The case dragged on for almost two years.
In 1991, Weston was arrested for selling drugs in Helena, but the charges were dismissed. Sheriff Chuck O'Reilly told the Helena Independent Record several other incidents brought his office into contact with Weston. "They were not violent incidents," he said. "It was more of a mental illness type of contact, kind of delusional. He didn't commit any violent acts here that we know of."
In the summer of 1993, the waters of the Mississippi rose about as high as Weston had ever seen them. Towns and cities from Minnesota to Louisiana battled to stem the flood. Valmeyer lost its fight. When the waters receded and the damage was surveyed, local leaders and federal officials agreed the town needed to be entirely rebuilt on higher ground.
Rusty Weston returned to help his father, a retired railroad worker, rebuild the family place. Russell Weston Sr. lives with his mother (Rusty's grandmother) in two adjacent single-story brick homes about six miles north of town.
As the younger Weston worked on the houses, he cut a memorable figure, neighbors said, wearing a helmet that resembled something a firefighter would use.
He complained repeatedly that a satellite dish in a neighbor's yard was spying on him, the neighbors remember. Sometimes he would wave wildly at the device, yelling "Here I am!"
Rimini, Mont., lies in the shadow of Red Mountain, about eight miles up a gravel road from the highway that links Helena with Missoula, in a narrow valley flanked by steep slopes carpeted with lodgepole pines and fir trees. It has the look and feel of a ghost town, with weathered and abandoned two-story buildings that once housed shops and saloons.
It was a mining town, one of scores that sprang up after gold was discovered in Helena in 1864. Rimini turned out to be rich with silver, instead, and by the late 19th century it was home to 3,000 people and shipped its ore as far as Wales. Then the mines went bust and locals discovered that Helena, 20 miles to the northwest, had acquired the local water rights and that was the end of Rimini.
For all intents and purposes, anyway. About 30 people still live there, people who like solitude and tend not to like authority. The great communal passion is the water litigation against Helena. "Most people up here like to be left alone," said Roger Siewert, 54, a self-employed contractor who lives in Rimini.
Just down the road from Siewert, on the east bank of Ten Mile Creek adjacent to the Helena National Forest, is a piece of property valued by the tax collector at $1,265 plus $400 worth of improvements. This land, with its serviceable but modest 16-by-20-foot, one-room log cabin, was purchased by Rusty Weston's sister April about six years ago. When Weston returned to Montana after the flood, this was his home.
Rimini residents describe him as friendly but obviously disturbed particularly when he neglected to take medication prescribed for him. It was at those times, several neighbors said, that Weston became particularly delusional, insisting that government agencies like the CIA and FBI were out to get him and were monitoring him through satellite television dishes.
Weston told Siewert that he was "a close confidant" of the Kennedy family and intimated that his knowledge of the murder of President John F. Kennedy was why the government was seeking to kill him. The FBI and CIA "were out to assassinate him and it was to do with the Kennedy assassination," Siewert said. "He was almost normal except for that."
"If he was on his medication, he was fine," said Ken Moore, a 76-year-old retired carpenter and neighbor. "If he went off his medication, he went off the deep end." Moore said Weston would stand beside Moore's satellite dish waving his arms and say "they were watching him from Washington."
Weston also complained to the Lewis and Clark County sheriff that a surveying crew working on an adjacent property was observing him.
He was known to issue threats, though few of his neighbors seem to have taken them seriously. "He was just a regular guy when he didn't have this problem," said Moore. "Everybody said, 'He's harmless.' "
Cathy Maynard, 44, a soils scientist for the Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service, said she "heard a little bit about him being an unstable kind of guy," and elected to "just stay out of the way." She said she avoided him because she was concerned for her young daughter.
Now and then, though, neighbors were concerned enough to call the police and report that Weston was off his medicine. In October 1996, he was taken before a district court judge who ordered him committed to the state hospital in Warm Springs. According to Andrew Malcolm, press secretary to Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, Weston was delivered to the hospital on Oct. 11, 1996, and was given an "immediate and intense evaluation." That was followed by "an involuntary program of treatment," which, in the case of schizophrenics, includes drugs to adjust brain chemistry.
While he was at Warm Springs, Weston worked at the hospital warehouse, according to Jerry Swihart, a hospital employee at the time. He spoke often of his betrayal by his friend the president of the United States. "He would rant and rave about how he was a personal friend of Clinton and his family and then Clinton turned on him," Swihart told the Helena Independent Record. "He'd say things like 'I've got dirt on him but if I tell you, Clinton will get me.' "
On Dec. 2, after 52 days in the hospital, "the medical staff deemed [Weston] no longer a threat to himself or others," Malcolm said. At that point, "there was no legal ability or reason to hold him."
A Last Trip Home
The day before the bloodshed in the Capitol, Rusty Weston was back in Valmeyer, his father told the Miami Herald. He came and went often from Valmeyer, his father said; this most recent trip home had lasted "a month or a month and a half."
His father's brief comments paint the picture of a man adrift, here six weeks, gone a month or two. Weston had been to Washington once, his father said, returning with a stack of newspapers and other documents. He told his dad he had applied for a job at the CIA.
He complained that his home in Rimini had been seeded with landmines by the government. He talked of being "a colonel in the Army ... under Kennedy," which made his grandmother scoff. "He wasn't but seven years old," she told the Miami paper. "He's a schizophrenic, and he gets it in his head he's something big."
The senior Weston said the visit ended in anger. Russell Sr. found a dozen of his pet cats dead near the family woodpile. "His grandmother paid him to shoot the cats," the father told the Herald. "She said we had too many cats."
The father ordered the son out of the house. Apparently he paused long enough to grab his dad's .38-caliber Smith & Wesson. Apparently he climbed into his 1983 Chevrolet S-10 pickup and drove the 755 miles from Valmeyer to Washington. He must have driven long and hard, because he had reached the Capitol in one day.
His life may have been saved by a U.S. senator.
Sen. Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) is a heart surgeon and trauma specialist and had rushed to the shooting scene in time to conclude that Officer Jacob J. Chestnut of the Capitol Police was going to die. He spotted another man on a gurney, a man with red hair, biggish ears and an almost gaunt appearance. One would never guess he had once been a fat kid.
Surgeons at D.C. General Hospital battled through the night to save Weston's life. When he reached the trauma center at 4:20 p.m. Friday, he had bullet wounds in his chest, right arm, left thigh and right buttock. Hospital officials said yesterday that he had been shot several times, but declined to specify how many.
Weston's left femur bone and artery were shattered, cutting the flow of blood to his leg, said Paul Oriaifo, the hospital's trauma director. The suspect was talking to doctors at first, but quickly lapsed into unconsciousness. Surgery began within about 20 minutes.
Norma Smalls, director of surgical intensive care, said she removed one bullet from Weston's thigh; the doctor declined to say what type of bullet, nor would she say if one bullet was responsible for Weston's four wounds.
Sometime after midnight, Weston's blood pressure began dropping and Smalls operated again. The suspect is listed in critical condition, and Smalls estimated his chance of survival at 50-50.
"My objective is to save his life," Smalls said. "This is a very sad incident which has occurred and we are hoping to get information as to why someone would do something like this."
That prospect the lure of information, of an answer why had officers from the U.S. Capitol Police, the Secret Service and D.C. police all waiting at the hospital to question Weston. But he wasn't talking. Heavily sedated, breathing through a tube, Rusty Weston was unable to say a word.
Von Drehle and staff writer Wendy Melillo reported from Washington, Kenworthy from Rimini, Mont., and Jeter from Valmeyer, Ill.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company