A Loner's Odyssey
By Evan Thomas and Peter Annin
The man with the jaunty feather in his cap started to go around, not through, the metal detector at a door in the east front of the U.S. Capitol. When policeman J. J. Chestnut challenged him, the man allegedly pulled out a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver and shot Chestnut through the eye. Standing nearby, another Capitol policeman reached for his pistol and opened fire. As gunshots echoed through the marble hallway, tourists screamed, dived behind pillars, tried to cover their children.
A bullet, possibly a ricochet, grazed the head of Angela Dickerson, 24. Another woman tried to duck away from the carnage, down a small hallway and through a door marked private. do not enter. The gunman, possibly in pursuit, possibly in flight, followed close behind.
Inside the door, in a warren of offices reserved for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, staffers were drinking champagne to celebrate a legislative victory that afternoon on health-care reform.
Hearing the gunfire, Special Agent John Gibson jumped up from his customary guard post near the door and shouted to staffers to get down. When the fleeing woman burst in, Gibson pushed her aside and leveled his 9mm pistol at the marauder in the feathered cap.
The heroism of the Capitol police last Friday saved the lives of staffers, tourists and conceivably Hill leaders like Speaker Newt Gingrich, who routinely pass through the doorway used by the gunman. But the mad assault left many Americans feeling vulnerable.
Weston was the latest in a series of deranged loners who have lashed out at society, as if killing government officials or research scientists or innocent bystanders would somehow assuage their inner demons.
Hate groups pop up all the time, blustering and menacing, but it seems to be the truly lonely desperadoes who act out most violently. Ronald Reagan's assailant, John Hinckley; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and suspected Southern bomber Eric Rudolph who is still outfoxing the Feds in the woods of North Carolina all seem to have found spectacularly lethal ways of attracting attention. Weston spent much of his time in the Montana outback, only 40 miles from the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
At the Broadwater Market in Montana, where both Kaczynski and Weston regularly stopped in for supplies, owner John Luft recalled that Weston, too, seemed to think he was a candidate for infamy. "Did you ever hear about me?" he would inquire, proclaiming that a government conspiracy was out to get him.
Lots of disturbed people see government plots everywhere, and more than a few make threats. For the government, the nearly impossible task is keeping track of them all. Weston's name was in the Secret Service database of possible troublemakers along with about 25,000 other people. Only the obviously dangerous can be monitored, and of those only the most clearly menacing can be detained. Weston's threats were vague and obviously addled; neither local nor federal authorities could foresee that he would try to storm the Capitol with a handgun.
Only in hindsight does Weston's descent from drifter to conspiracy theorist to alleged cop killer take on a grim inevitability. Investigators were just beginning to piece together the details last weekend, but it is possible to follow his dark passage from growing up unhappy in an Illinois farm town to paranoid fantasizing in the Montana mountains to making mayhem in the U.S. Capitol. It is a story full of sad turns, some of them, perhaps, avoidable.
Rusty Weston's high-school friends in the tiny town of Valmeyer, Ill. (population: 500), barely remember him. He was said to be meek, quiet and overweight. He joined the Great Books book club and the Future Farmers of America as a freshman but dropped out.
"He had nothing to do with sports or band or anything like that. He was a loner," recalls classmate Randy Esker, 42. "He went to school and took what he had to take and that was it."
Weston's own memories of high school were apparently sour. Invited to a class reunion a few years ago, he wrote back an obscene letter saying that "he didn't want to have anything to do with the class or even Valmeyer anymore," says Esker.
Weston drifted west after high school; like his more sociable sister, Becky, he went out to Montana. There he reportedly discovered the hippie life. He was arrested for selling a "dangerous drug" in 1991, but the charges were dropped. He apparently never held a steady job but friends said he once worked for a short time at a mental hospital in Montana.
In 1986, he sued an elderly woman for hitting him on the head with a cane, claiming that he could not work for years afterward. (The suit was dismissed.) At some point, he began collecting disability checks from the federal government.
Weston's hometown was inundated by the great Mississippi flood of 1993. Many residents were forced to move into trailers, derisively known as "Femaville," after the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency. It is possible that Weston's antigovernment feelings grew after the flood, but no one seems to remember his protesting or complaining. His paranoid delusions seem to have come from within, and to have been more lurid than grumbling over insensitive federal bureaucrats.
His dementia started showing up right after high school, according to a friend, Miguel Engbring, who traveled with Weston to Montana. "His behavior got more and more bizarre to the point where I really didn't want to be around him," says Engbring. "I remember him saying he was being spied on by the government. He would just tell stories that made no sense. You couldn't convince him of anything different." He fluctuated between seeing himself as the victim of Big Brother and boasting that he was a top secret government agent protecting the president. He liked to stake out his neighbors, just as the FBI monitors criminals. "He'd just sit in his car and watch people for hours and days in town and out in the country," says Engbring's wife, Kathleen. "People just shrugged it off and knew he was crazy."
Weston believed that his own wristwatch had been bugged, and that the Russians were brainwashing Americans through microwaves, TVs and VCRs.
His obsessions led him to a strange encounter with the Central Intelligence Agency. Just after 9 a.m. on July 29, 1996, Weston pulled into the main gate of the CIA in Langley, Va., and informed security officers that he wanted to "report stuff," according to a CIA memorandum described to NEWSWEEK. He was led into a security office, where, for the next two hours, he rambled on like the outtakes of an Oliver Stone movie. He was "the son of JFK," he announced. He had been "cloned at birth," he said. The president had also been cloned; indeed, "everybody was a clone." He went on to say that President Clinton "had planned the assassination of JFK because Kennedy stole his girlfriend, Marilyn Monroe." Weston concluded by saying that he would get back in touch with the CIA "in another 10 to 15 years." He wrote a few months later to say that he "had invented a time-travel device and that people had stolen it from him," a CIA source told NEWSWEEK, and sent another letter informing the agency that he was a brigadier general.
Because Weston had mentioned the president, the CIA informed the Secret Service. The president's bodyguards, as it turned out, already knew about Weston. Earlier in the spring of 1996, he had made some vague threats against President Clinton, who was running for re-election. The threats were enough to get Weston into the Secret Service database, and to cause agents to visit him. But few alarm bells went off. Weston was judged to be deranged, but not particularly dangerous.
In Montana and Illinois, local authorities showed about the same level of concern. "The sheriff was aware the young man had delusions that somebody was after him," Robert Rippelmeyer, chairman of the Monroe County (Ill.) Board of Commissioners, told NEWSWEEK. "He said he had some secret information they wanted. It was just off-the-wall stuff. No one considered him violent in any way. He had never been charged with anything in Monroe County. People thought he was odd, but there was no fear he'd do anything."
Weston inhabited his own dream world. In Montana, he panned for gold. He lived in an old barn without running water or sewage, along the banks of a creek polluted by arsenic, copper and iron from earlier miners. Out front sat a handful of junker cars. He shed his fat from high school and became almost gaunt.
He was garrulous at times, says his neighbor Roger Siewert. "He'd say, 'I'm a favorite son of the Kennedys. I've got their ear'," says Siewert. Weston apparently believed that he was being watched by the TV satellite dish of another neighbor, Ken Moore. Weston would stand in front of the dish "waving his arms, talking to it, saying, 'Here I am'," says Moore.
Weston was convinced, says Siewert, that he was being tracked because the government suspected him of having something to do with the Kennedy assassination.
The local police mostly shrugged off Weston's fantasies. "Rusty was always calling the sheriff," says Moore. "He claimed that people were walking around his house." Moore says he told a state investigator, "You better watch that guy. He's not right." According to Moore, the investigator replied, "We know. We're watching him. He's harmless."
Still, one of the county sheriffs, Tim Campbell, told reporters, "One time Weston came up to me and said, 'You better watch your back.' I have." And Weston apparently did something to step over the line in the fall of 1996, though authorities refused last week to say exactly what.
On Oct. 11, 1996, a state court in Helena ordered that Weston be committed to a Montana state hospital for up to 90 days for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he spent 52 days there, undergoing intense therapy and receiving medication.
Friends say Weston behaved fairly normally on medication. But he apparently stopped taking it. "He believed there was a conspiracy to drug him, so he was reluctant to take drugs," said Engbring. "I kinda feel like he fell through the cracks," says Phil Maynard, 37, an artist who owned land next door to Weston in Montana. Weston began writing the government that someone was burying land mines on his property. Traveling back to Illinois, he wore out his own family with his constant anti-government harangues.
Neighbors say that his parents, Russell Sr., 66, a retired warehouseman, and his mother, Joey, a clerk at the local Wal-Mart, are kind and loving. But last week Russell Sr. finally threw Weston out of the two-house compound where he was staying with his parents and grandmother.
Russell described the circumstances in an interview with The Miami Herald. The elder Weston, who lived with about 20 cats, claims that he came home last week to find that his son had shot some of his cats. "His grandmother paid him to shoot the cats. I got mad, told him, 'You gonna have to leave'."
Friends told NEWSWEEK that Russell Sr. was exhausted by his son's obsessions. "He'd heard about as much of the gibberish about the federal government as he cared to hear," said Mark McDonald, an Illinois State Police spokesman. Weston got in his red Chevy truck and drove off. But first he may have stolen his father's Smith & Wesson .38. Weston Sr. told The Miami Herald that someone had taken the gun from its place beside his bed, under a heating pad.
Weston had ample experience with guns. He grew up in a family that collected weapons and liked to hunt. Weston held a state firearm identification card, renewed within the past year. How did he get it after being committed to a state mental hospital in Montana? Illinois State Police, the agency issuing the cards, says it has no way to check mental-health records in other states.
It appears that Weston drove straight to Washington. He parked his car at the foot of Capitol Hill and, at 3:40 Friday afternoon, barged into an entrance known as the Document Door on the east front of the Capitol. His motive remains uncertain. Police found "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5" sci-fi magazines in his abandoned pickup truck. They also discovered what one senior official described to NEWSWEEK as "lots of his own rambling writings not a journal, just lots of writings." The official declined to describe their contents, but he did say there was no evidence that Weston was connected to any right-wing hate group.
The Capitol last Friday was jammed with tourists, as it usually is in summer, and both the House and the Senate had just wrapped up business. Over in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee was about to head home for the weekend when he saw a bulletin about the shootings on TV. Frist is a former trauma surgeon who only a year ago convened a meeting of medical staff and Hill police to prepare for just such an emergency.
He jumped in his car and headed for the Capitol a few hundred yards away. He walked into a scene of chaos and carnage. Officer Chestnut was lying on the ground, shot through the eye. Frist leaned over him. "He had no pulse, no blood pressure," Frist told NEWSWEEK. "I stabilized him, gave him an airway [to breathe] and CPR." When Chestnut got a heartbeat, he was evacuated to a hospital but died shortly thereafter.
Frist was hustled down the corridor into Congressman DeLay's suite. "There was blood everywhere," Frist said. Weston's shirt was off; he was soaked with blood. More blood gushed from a gaping wound that had severed an artery in his left leg. Frist "vented" him so he could breathe and dug into his chest to manipulate his heart. In the ambulance, Frist asked Weston whose mouth was covered with an oxygen mask if he was on medication. Weston grunted "no." Frist told him he'd be "OK." It didn't register, said Frist, that Weston might be the shooter. "In that kind of situation," he told NEWSWEEK, "nothing registers but the work you do."
It is more than a little ironic, of course, that a man who allegedly shot two Capitol Hill police was saved by a United States senator. On Saturday night, Weston was still in critical condition, but senior officials say they've been told he'll live.
If he does, he is facing charges of murdering federal officials, a capital offense that carries the death penalty. Any attempt by Weston to argue insanity will be bitterly contested, a senior law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK.
Officer Chestnut was a Vietnam veteran, a father of five and a much beloved figure on Capitol Hill. Gibson was another family man, a Boston sports fan who was deeply religious. NEWSWEEK has learned that, according to investigators, Weston fired only three of the six bullets in his revolver, and court papers revealed that he was carrying extra ammunition. Had he made it past Gibson, the death toll would have likely mounted.
Congressman DeLay, who was in his office a few yards from the final shoot-out, wept last weekend as he gave thanks for the fallen agent who saved his life. Federal officials want to make sure the body count does not go higher. Last weekend they used a remote-control robot to search Weston's home in Montana. They were afraid that he had left behind booby traps.
The Capitol shooting spree will undoubtedly make federal officials re-examine the security around Capitol Hill, as well as the Secret Service's procedures for checking out threats from the mentally deranged. But no one in government expects the Feds to check out everyone with paranoid delusions and a gun. Nor will they close off the people's chamber to the public.
With T. Trent Gegax in Rimini, Mark Matthews in Helena, John McCormick in Chicago, D. J. Wilson in Valmeyer and Mark Hosenball, Howard Fineman, Gregory L. Vistica, Matthew Cooper, Michael Hirsh, Daniel Klaidman and Eleanor Clift in Washington
© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.