Chestnut's Family Mourns, Prepares
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 1998; Page C01
A week of ceremony, cameras, cards and flowers and sympathetic words from the president of the United States had passed, and the family of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut was left alone with its grief.
In the hour before hundreds arrived last night to pay respects to the fallen hero, before the widow, Wendy Wenling Chestnut, collected herself to shake every hand, familiar or strange, that reached out to her, the son, daughters, brothers, nieces and grandchildren of J.J. Chestnut wept over the body of a man who set out for work on Capitol Hill a week ago today and never came back.
Alone around the flag-draped open casket, "we finally saw him, and we realized it was true. He was gone," said Betty Johnson, the officer's sister-in-law. "The last few days, we didn't accept it had happened."
Chestnut, 58, and Detective John M. Gibson, 42, both 18-year veterans of the U.S. Capitol Police force, were killed a week ago when a gunman burst past a security checkpoint into the Capitol and opened fire. A female bystander and the suspected gunman, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., were wounded in the gun battle.
Gibson was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery yesterday after a funeral in Prince William County, his home. The funeral for Chestnut will be at 10 a.m today at Ebenezer AME Church on Allentown Road in Fort Washington. He, too, will be buried at Arlington.
Last night, mourners came to Ebenezer AME Church for a three-hour visitation that drew some of the same people, including fellow officers of the two men, who had spent the day alongside the Gibsons.
Hundreds waited in line to file past the open casket in the church, which Chestnut's 21-year-old daughter, Karen, attends.
Periodically, an honor guard of three Capitol Police officers marched into the church to leave two and retrieve two officers who stood guard on either side of the baby-blue satin-lined casket.
At one point, about a dozen Capitol Police officers filed solemnly past the rest of the mourners to stand over the casket of their fallen comrade. One officer sobbed as she fell into the arms of Wendy Chestnut, who many times last night was engulfed in the arms of a mourner. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," the officer told the widow. "We loved him."
As an organist played hymns, a line of mourners wound out of the sanctuary to a lobby where, in hushed voices, some talked of a man they never knew and others wept for a friend and fellow police officer.
Margaret Vanzego is a neighbor who remembered Chestnut had walked his children to the bus stop when they were younger. She remembered a husband and wife who used to stroll around the quiet, middle-class neighborhood where they made their home.
"He was a very nice person," Vanzego said. "He was the type who was always happy. A lot of people are hurting. He was a husband, father and grandfather."
Inside the church, which can seat 4,000 in the sanctuary and hundreds more in other rooms designed to handle overflow crowds, mourners congregated under a Bible verse that was stenciled high above them: ". . . For mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people."
Most who gathered were African American, fellow residents of Prince George's County, where Chestnut, who was retired from the Air Force, had lived since 1980.
Lyndra Marshall, an administrator at the church, said Wendy Chestnut insisted that the public be able to see her husband and to pay their respects.
"She knew there were going to be a large number of political people, Capitol Police, other police, but she wanted to make sure that the church opened itself to the common people," Marshall said. "That's what she wanted, the common people."
Delores Bennett, a Fort Washington resident, had a beautician whose name was Chestnut. The beautician was a niece of J.J. Chestnut, it turned out, and Bennett said she came last night because "it's just so awful."
Michele Washington didn't know the family, but she works at the Pentagon and sees guards just like Chestnut every day.
"I came to let them know that we care about what they do," said Washington, a Mitchellville resident.
Chester McKenzie, of Hillcrest, brought his wife. "It was an opportunity to pay my respects to a fallen hero," he said. "I just think that he should be honored."
Charlenea Banks, of Mitchellville, said she was sad "for the family and for us, the United States."
"I think it was something I needed to do because I'm a human being and an American and they were, too," she said.
Officer Chestnut attended a Baptist church down the road, but his family decided that the much larger Ebenezer church could hold the thousands expected to attend his funeral today.
Marshall said that the church has prepared for 10,000 mourners and that those who cannot be accommodated in the main building will be seated across the street in the old Ebenezer church.
This adopted church family sprang into action two days ago when they were summoned to open "God's House" to a shocked and somber American people who have grieved for a week over two men who died to protect them, to protect the Capitol, sometimes called the "People's House."
Before the 6 p.m. visitation was scheduled to begin, female ushers in white dresses and white gloves stood at the church entrances. A minister rushed into the church office to ask if someone could make sure the flag on the coffin was in the proper place. Parishioners who never knew Chestnut directed traffic and brought in flowers.
Eric Galloway Sr., a member of Ebenezer, prepared plates of fruit and meats for the family to eat. "They needed me, so I came," he said.
Marian L. Colter, who works with Wendy Chestnut at a computer firm that manages software for St. Elizabeths Hospital in the District, rushed into the church with a tub of turkey salad and a cake that some of her colleagues had made.
She said Wendy Chestnut would survive this most horrible of trials.
"As long as you've got God with you, you don't have to worry about anything," she said.
Staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company