Paying Respects to Slain Police Officers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page D01
The nation's week-long public mourning over the slayings of two U.S. Capitol Police officers turned to private sorrow yesterday in a quiet church 25 miles south of Washington, as family, friends, colleagues and neighbors of slain Detective John M. Gibson remembered him in silent prayer and hushed words of comfort.
Thirty-one police motorcycles lined the entrance to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in the Prince William County community of Lake Ridge as a two-hour afternoon viewing began. Dozens of officers lingered inside the vestibule of the sunlit church, where Gibson's body, dressed in his dark-blue dress uniform, lay in an open casket beneath a large crucifix, flanked by a two-man police honor guard.
His family, led by his widow, Evelyn, and three teenage children, filled the first six pews on one side of the sanctuary. On the other side, a line of mourners 30 deep at times slowly streamed down the side aisle, people pausing to kneel and say a prayer or lightly touch the dark-wood casket before moving on to say a few words of condolence.
"Thank you, thank you," Evelyn Gibson said quietly as one mourner after another stooped to take her hand, brush her shoulder or offer an embrace. Kristen Gibson, 17, the couple's oldest child, stood and hugged several friends and classmates from nearby Woodbridge High School as they came through the receiving line.
The two families met for the first time earlier this week and resolved to help one another get through the shattering ordeal that now connects them, Hamilton said.
Chestnut and Gibson were killed Friday when a gunman burst past a security checkpoint on the Capitol's first floor and opened fire with a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson. In the frenzy that followed, a female bystander and the suspect, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., also were wounded by gunfire.
Gibson, 42, and Chestnut, 58, were both 18-year veterans of the U.S. Capitol Police force, but the two men's families did not meet until Tuesday's nationally televised memorial ceremony in the Rotunda of the Capitol that was attended by President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and many other dignitaries.
Hamilton described the families' initial meeting as "a very powerful moment" and said they decided then that they would "go through this together," each attending the other officer's wake and funeral as a way to support one another.
"That's a tremendous statement," the priest said, "that these two families, united in a grief-stricken moment, are helping one another."
Chestnut's viewing will be from 6 to 9 p.m. today at Ebenezer AME Church on Allentown Road in Fort Washington, where his funeral is due to begin at 10 a.m. tomorrow, with burial afterward at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gibson's funeral will be at 10 this morning at Seton Church, with interment also at Arlington. Prince William County police, advised that law enforcement officers are coming from across the nation to pay tribute to the two slain officers, are bracing for one of the biggest motorcades in recent memory. Gibson's funeral cortege will travel up Shirley Highway's car-pool lanes, cross the 14th Street Bridge and then go up Independence Avenue before sweeping past the Capitol and down Constitution Avenue. It then will continue across Memorial Bridge to the cemetery.
Chestnut was an Air Force veteran and automatically entitled to burial at Arlington. Gibson, a native of Waltham, Mass., who did not serve in the military, will be buried in the nation's most hallowed military cemetery under special permission from Congress. Mourners outside Seton Church yesterday said it was a fitting tribute to a man who gave his life defending others.
"He was really a great street cop. He loved being a policeman . . . and he had the proper instinct to do the right thing," said Henry Gallagher, of Chantilly, who recently retired after 25 years with the U.S. Capitol Police. Gibson came to his retirement party, Gallagher recalled yesterday, adding, "I'll miss him a lot."
Gallagher was accompanied to the church by his son, Drew, 25, who joined the Capitol Police last year and stood tall yesterday in his smartly pressed uniform. "It's in the blood," the young man said, describing how he always wanted to follow his father into the fraternity.
Now that he's there, he said, "it's very upsetting" to lose a brother officer. "You never think it's going to be your department, but it's a fact of life . . . and, unfortunately, it's part of the job," he said.
Capitol Police Detective Kim Rendon, who knew both slain officers, said their loss has hit the 1,295-member department very hard, "but having the support of each other and knowing how the whole world feels has helped."
Hamilton, the priest, said yesterday that the Gibson family is coping "as best as can be expected. When you lose a father and you lose a husband, it's very difficult."
Barbara Causseaux, a teacher at Lake Ridge Elementary, where Evelyn Gibson is a school crossing guard, said her heart "just broke" for the couple's children: Kristen and her two younger brothers, Daniel 14, and Jack, 15.
"We feel like this is part of our family that has a terrible hurt," Causseaux said, expressing the hope that when the children "do reflect on the last few days, as painful as they are, they will feel such pride . . . that their father gave his life in such an honorable way."
One of the first to pay her respects yesterday was Andrea Coble, who lives across the street from the church, where she is a parishioner.
Although she did not know the Gibson family, Coble felt moved to dress her own two little girls Piper, 5, and Misha, 7 in fancy cotton dresses and big hair bows and lead them by the hand over to the church.
"I wanted to teach my children that law enforcement is something to be honored," Coble said, "that officers need to be respected. Most of us go to work, sit at a desk, and it's safe. But for these people, it's not."
Nodding toward Piper and Misha, the young mother added: "And I'm letting my girls know that this is someone's daddy. This is not just someone you saw on TV."
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