Before the Shootings, a String of Excesses
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 1998; Page A1 VALMEYER, Ill.The last known public obsession was wood, carefully chopped and carefully stacked. Now there is an enormous pile of black walnut in front of the green clapboard house, facing the railroad tracks, and another in the back, where the small homestead ends and the corn begins. More wood, abandoned cords of it, await disposal at the home of a patient neighbor.
It is all the tidy, meticulous handiwork of a person with enormous physical energy and a disordered mind. Before he headed east and was charged with killing two police officers in a deadly and still unexplained assault at the U.S. Capitol, Russell Eugene Weston Jr. spent most of his time in the solitude of the woods here, pockets of tall trees visible for miles and set in a monotonous landscape dominated by endless fields of corn and soybeans.
The most salient image of Weston, in the aftermath of the shooting, was of a man prone to shouting at a satellite dish near his remote cabin in Montana. In his madness, he saw menace in the dish.
But here, where he was raised and where he spent most of the last 19 months, his odd behavior was far more nuanced, often camouflaged by the constant work he assigned himself.
Rusty, as he is known in the family, hacked at dozens of tree trunks that had not survived the Great Flood of '93, when the Mississippi River overwhelmed the levee and for two months occupied the town and the surrounding countryside.
Russell Weston Sr., accustomed to Rusty's passionate if fleeting interest in projects, encouraged the woodcutting by offering to pay $25 for deliveries, content to see his 41-year-old son, once diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, focused and seemingly productive.
But the wood eventually threatened to overrun the Weston homestead, which has stood by the railroad tracks in this remote and unpopulated corner of southwestern Illinois since the Depression. The father finally had enough. "Please, Rusty," he pleaded with his son, "don't bring any more wood. I just got so much."
It was the last of Rusty's obsessive acts, but for family members it followed a prescribed pattern that stretched back years, from mining in the foothills of Montana to wood-chopping in the flatlands near the Mississippi.
Each began as a worthwhile project. Each became excessive. Each was eventually abandoned. What started as a normal enterprise with a clear goal suddenly turned abnormal, at times pathologically obsessive.
Today, Rusty Weston is in stable condition at D.C. General Hospital, shackled to his bed, recovering from gunshot wounds he suffered in the Capitol shootout.
A federal judge in Washington last week granted his mother, father, sister and brother-in-law permission to visit him in the hospital, but his mother said the family likely would not make the 750-mile trip for several more days.
In a way, Rusty's work mirrored his personality. He was perfectly normal, for a while, until the passage of time revealed a penchant for wild stories and wacky theories. His behavior alienated people. He was a solitary figure even in the company of others, and he was often left to himself, alone with his obsessions. Even his sister, April, stopped seeing him.
His tolerant parents tried to comprehend him and couldn't.
"You wouldn't know there was anything wrong with him. He'd talk just like we're talking right now. But the people he knew, they didn't want him coming around because he'd tell all these crazy stories," said Russell Weston Sr. "We loved him. I'm a warehouse worker, so I'm not too well versed in that stuff," he said, focusing on the illness that consumed his son and left them helpless.
"We just kept telling him we loved him, and we still love him. But it really wears on you. All the time. All the time. All the time."
Before the wood there had been the obsession with a large vegetable garden, which yielded far too much bounty for a family of four -- tomatoes, corn, green beans, climbing-pole beans, lettuce, broccoli and peppers. Without saying anything to anyone, as was his habit when embarking on one thing or abandoning another, Rusty left the garden to the weeds.
Just days before the shootings at the Capitol, he decided to pick flowers, from his parents' garden, from his grandmother's garden, from his neighbor's garden, far too many for any practical purpose.
It was the same with the cats. His grandmother, Lillie Weston, told him to do something about them because they were a growing nuisance. He shot 14, burying 12 and leaving two in a bucket.
Much has been made about this incident because it occurred within two days of the attack on the Capitol -- the behavior was so shocking that Russell Sr. ordered his son to leave within 10 days. But the cats, the horrifying results aside, was another job that Rusty may have taken too far, carried away by a task that suddenly consumed him.
It was assigned by a grandmother who doted on her grandson and who often gave him money. And, just as with the wood, the garden and the flowers, there was a disturbing excess to the way he carried it out.
"He'd just go on kicks like that, and he'd go overboard," the father said. "Rusty was not lazy. He'd start work in the morning, work all day and up until late evening."
With the exception of May 1 to mid-June of this year, when he returned to his cabin in Montana, Rusty Weston spent the last 1 1/2 years in Valmeyer, returning home in December 1996 after he was released from Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.
He settled in the outskirts of a town that ceased to exist after the '93 flood. A new Valmeyer is on higher ground, on a 500-acre parcel that sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. It has 115 new homes, new streets, rows of saplings, few residents. The overall effect is surreal.
The Weston homestead is about 15 miles away, in the middle of a flat expanse farmed by a giant grain consortium. Westons have lived there since 1937, when Rusty's grandfather got a job as section foreman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, now the Union Pacific.
After his return in 1996, Rusty Weston led an isolated life in this isolated place, interacting so seldom with people that reconstructing his daily activities is simple if only because there is so little to chronicle.
The federal investigation into the shooting has already yielded scores of documents and other personal belongings retrieved from here, from the cabin in Montana, and from the pickup truck he left parked on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol.
The government's retrieval includes guns, gunpowder, ammunition, assorted books and documents, maps and even a receipt from a McDonald's where Weston ate en route to Washington.
Some of the material seized may be significant in light of what happened July 24 at 3:40 p.m. Weston is accused of bursting through a security checkpoint at the U.S. Capitol and provoking a gunfight that left two officers dead and a tourist wounded.
The government has notes, memos, videos and audiotapes that presumably record his views. The inventories now part of the court record are not detailed, but they provide telling hints. Something, likely a videotape, is labeled FREEMAN - CNN, a possible reference to the extremist group that had a long, and frequently televised, standoff with the FBI in Montana.
Two books have been mentioned by name. The first, "Spy Game," could refer to several works of fiction of that title, either in whole or in part. "Spy Game," written by John McNeil in 1982, focuses on computer crime. McNeil's other books have dealt with subliminal manipulation.
Another book, listed in the inventory as "Don't Bug Me," may refer to a 1992 nonfiction work by Michel Shannon, who specializes in high-tech spy methods.
Here in Valmeyer, authorities focused on two file cabinets that Weston kept locked. His father said that after he learned of the shootings, he thought of the cabinets and even considered opening them to see whether anything inside would explain his son's behavior.
The county sheriff stopped him, saying that the cabinets were now part of "the crime scene." The inventory from the seizures here is sparse and does not describe the contents of the metal cabinets. Some letters were retrieved from a brown satchel in Rusty's bedroom, and the inventory describes them as "LETTERS RE: US GOV - CIA/MILITARY."
All these documents may eventually shed some light on Weston's behavior, particularly in the days and weeks leading up to the shootings.
But for now, his parents have little to go on. His father said Rusty led an almost predictable, unremarkable life after his return from Montana, where he had gone shortly after graduating from high school. His mother, Arbah Jo, works at the Wal-Mart in Waterloo, the seat of Monroe County, and she told Rusty when he moved back that she would not be around to cook his meals.
His habit was to have one meal a day at home, at around 2 p.m., when he would eat cold cuts and as many as eight slices of bread in a row. He loved Diet Pepsi but only in 12-ounce cans. (He said the economical liter bottles his parents preferred lost their fizz.)
His mental illness earned him a disability check, and every month he received $494. The money was gone in less than two weeks, spent, as far as his parents could tell, on breakfast at Hardee's, cigarettes and other small purchases. A heavy smoker, he would frequently drive across the river into St. Louis County, Mo., about 11 miles, just to buy cartons of Winston cigarettes at a tobacco shop known for low prices.
The bizarre stories he told often placed him in a starring role, and in the weeks before the shooting, there were many such episodes. One day, he told his father that he and a woman had made a movie with President Clinton. He kept insisting it had happened.
"No, Rusty, you didn't," his father said.
"Yes," the son replied. "You even took me down to the theater. . . . You've just forgotten."
Rusty Weston's mining efforts in Montana focused on the Cousin Jenny Mine, which he still owns, and even while here in Valmeyer he sometimes talked about going back and resuming work.
Friends from Rimini, where he lived, said he was quite adept at the trade. Myron Goss, a onetime mining partner, dates Weston's problems with the government to 1988, when the two dug a 60-foot shaft in the abandoned gold mine and ran into problems with the U.S. Forest Service.
During his long stay here, Weston managed to save $2,000, and he told his parents that he wanted to buy an air compressor and an air drill for the mining operation.
"I'm going to do some mining this year," he told the family. "Of course, we heard that every year," his father said. "And he never did." Instead of moving back to Rimini, he bought a 31-inch RCA television, a shortwave radio, and an expensive watch. And just as suddenly, on May 1, he was gone.
His grandmother called neighbors in Rimini and finally found him. She gave him $130 so he could hire someone to dig a trench on the property for an underground electrical wire, part of Rusty's effort to bring the cabin up to code.
He showed up here in mid-June, again without warning, and plans to work on the cabin and resume the mining operation were abandoned.
Looking back on his son's life, Russell Weston Sr. finds nothing that foretells the tragedy that has now gripped the family.
Relatives have been remarkably open about discussing their son's life, and by now there is a resignation to the effort. "I just tell it over and over and over again," Russell Sr. said.
On the Monday after the shooting, reporters lined up at the front door, and the family patiently sat through interviews all day long.
They have received almost 500 cards and letters through the United Church of Christ, to which they belong. Many of them are from relatives of family members diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics, and the solidarity expressed has touched the Westons.
"We do appreciate the thought from people we've never seen," Russell Sr. said.
The Rev. Robin Keating, the family's spiritual adviser, said the Westons are relying on their faith, "basically believing, perhaps, that there is a higher purpose to this." The higher purpose, Keating said, may be illuminating the plight of the mentally ill, who he said are often left to their own devices.
But at the Weston homestead, where the piles of wood stand as an odd and imposing testament to their son's predicament, there are still more questions than answers. Reporters still drop by, not as many as before, but they are always welcome.
Asked why the family was so forthcoming, Russell Sr. said, "You must remember that we are Christians, and we feel that God will give us strength."
Special correspondent Mark Matthews contributed to this report from Montana.
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