Suspect's Family Recalls His Ailing Mind
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 1998; Page A1
VALMEYER, Ill., July 26 When Russell Eugene Weston Jr. complained about the CIA's effort to kill him, or the government spies watching him from a neighbor's satellite dish, his relatives urged him to visit the doctor or get his prescription refilled.
His battle with paranoid schizophrenia, they said, seemed to make him a danger only to himself, but with the illness untreated and unmedicated, the voices in his head seemed louder, his edginess heightened.
"He would argue with a fence post," Russell Eugene Weston Sr. said of his son today. "But the only person I worried about him hurting was himself."
The 41-year-old Weston, who goes by the nickname "Rusty," is charged with killing two U.S. Capitol Police officers Friday. In a lengthy interview here today, the elder Weston, his wife, Arbah Jo, and their daughter, April Callahan, described the disintegration of Rusty Weston's life since his mental illness was diagnosed more than a decade ago. In his unsteady mind, the world was full of conspirators out to get him.
He wrote a letter accusing President Clinton of sending CIA agents to assassinate him. His own parents, he believed, had tried to kill him by planting a bomb in the family's cable television converter box. People talked to him through the television and the government spied on him through a neighbor's satellite dish, he often said.
"We couldn't get him to a doctor," said Weston's father, Russell Eugene Weston Sr. "Most of the time, we would try to say to him, 'Rusty, you know that's not true,' and he would say, 'You're the one that's sick.' "
A stay two years ago in a Montana mental hospital seemed to do him a world of good. The medication that doctors prescribed for him seemed to soothe his nerves, and even after he stopped taking it last year, he seemed slightly calmer than before. When he returned for visits to his parents' home here in this remote, rural farm town in southern Illinois, he still spoke of fantastical government plots, they said. But he was less likely to engage neighbors and relatives in his hour-long rants.
"He is sick," his father said today. "But he was doing better. He was much more in control of himself."
The tragic collision Friday between flesh-and-blood reality and the fictitious world that Weston's delusional mind invented was completely unexpected by those who knew him. Until he allegedly killed two police officers in an exchange of gunfire in the Capitol, perhaps the most violent thing the quiet, 41-year-old loner had done was kill two house cats with a shotgun, his family said today.
For if Weston did battle with an ailing mind for nearly half of his life, it was mostly a struggle played out in solitude, his relatives said. At his worst, Rusty Weston was never threatening, merely odd: a childless, unmarried man who was unable to keep a job and relied on federal disability benefits and his grandmother's kindness as his only means of financial support. He spent most of his days here including the day before the Capitol Hill shootings gardening, sawing wood and running errands for his grandmother in his old and dusty pickup truck.
Opening their home to dozens of reporters and photographers today, the Westons showed childhood photographs of their son and described him as an ordinary but overweight boy. He was a Boy Scout, and if it was mechanical, they said, he could fix it.
A relative once handed Rusty, then 5, a broken watch to play with, recalled his sister, a year older. When her brother handed the watch back minutes later, it was working again.
But as he grew older, his father said, he seemed to distance himself from others and the real world. He said that he first took notice of the inner workings of his son's peculiar mind when he was a high school senior. A C student, he told his father that he could have been valedictorian of his class, but chose not to because the honor meant more to a friend.
When his father pointed out that his grades suggested otherwise, the teenager argued tediously.
After high school, Weston never kept a job for long. He clashed with supervisors or co-workers or merely walked off the job and never returned. A job at a nearby mushroom farm ended after Weston woke up one sunny spring morning and just decided not to go, his father said.
"He didn't take instructions real well," the father said.
Bouncing from job to job, he also began to drift between the family's home in this town along the Mississippi River and the family's creekside cabin in a tiny town in Montana 17 miles southwest of Helena.
In 1984, said his family, he applied for federal disability, or SSI, benefits, claiming that his neck had been severely injured when an elderly woman struck him with her cane. The allegations led to a civil lawsuit filed by Weston that was later dismissed by a Montana court.
But the certification process for the monthly benefits required a physician to examine Weston, which eventually led to a psychologists' diagnosis of Weston as a paranoid schizophrenic, according to his relatives. He has been receiving SSI payments for his mental condition ever since, they said.
His condition worsened, however, and Weston's anti-government sentiments seemed to escalate. He accused his parents of trying to steal the modest amount of gold he had mined in Montana, and the calls and letters to local authorities and officials in Washington increased.
A letter to the White House in 1996 accusing Clinton of sending CIA agents to kill him led state health officials in Montana to involuntarily commit him to a public mental institution in October 1996. He was released two months later on the condition that he vacate the Montana cabin and continue his treatments at a clinic in Waterloo, Ill., near here.
But Weston stopped his treatments, and when his prescription expired last year, he did not get it refilled, said his family.
"He just would not go to the doctor," said his mother. "I kept hoping that maybe he would get picked up for something minor and the sheriff would make him go and get the help he needed."
Days before the shooting, Russell Weston Sr. ordered his son to leave the house after discovering two cats that Rusty Weston had shot in the head with his shotgun.
"I gave him 10 days to get out, but I knew that I was giving myself 10 days to cool off too. He's my son. He wouldn't have had to leave," he said, leaning on a cane, choking back tears.
Neighbors in this close-knit community describe the Westons as a respected, churchgoing family that has lived here for four generations. Sitting at a kitchen table inside their modest, single-story home decorated with figurines of rabbits, ducks and deer, the Westons held each other's hands and wiped away tears while repeatedly expressing remorse for the families of the two slain officers, John Gibson and Jacob J. Chestnut.
Police say that Weston used a .38-caliber handgun in the shootings; his father said that he discovered his .38-caliber pistol was missing when a reporter called hours after the shooting and asked whether the gun was still inside the home.
Just the day before, Rusty Weston had left the family's home to replace a worn fan belt and perhaps pick up some groceries for his grandmother.
"He didn't seem angry," said his father. "He didn't seem mad. We had no idea he had gone to Washington until we started seeing the television reports that night."
Weston said that he has supported capital punishment his entire life and would not stop now. "If a jury were to decide that my son should receive the death penalty, then that's the way it will have to be. I just hope that they take into account that this is a very sick man who did this."
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