He had announced to friends that he would be leaving town. And last Sunday morning, Dwight W. Watson made his getaway -- but to a different place and for a different purpose than anyone suspected.
Shortly after 9 a.m., the tobacco farmer hooked up a trailer carrying a jeep to the back of his John Deere tractor. Then, averaging speeds of about 25 miles an hour, he set off on a journey from the old family homestead in Whitakers, N.C., up Route 301 -- "the country way," a neighbor called it -- toward Washington.
By the time his odyssey was through yesterday morning, Watson, 50, had done what might once have seemed improbable for a down-on-his-luck farmer from a town of 1,000: He had transfixed the capital city by staging a bizarre 47-hour public protest that kept scores of law enforcement agents at bay, shut down parts of federal Washington and drew media attention nationwide at a time when the country was preparing for war.
"I ain't trying to hurt nobody," Watson said in a cell phone interview about midway through the standoff, before he surrendered peacefully to police about 11:35 a.m. yesterday. "I'm just trying to get my questions answered from D.C."
The "mission," as he called it, was to protest the government's control of tobacco subsidies and the damage inflicted on farmers like him. But for the fifth-generation farmer, now broke and angry, the siege on the Mall was also a public way to show the country how life on tobacco farms had changed.
"I obviously wish he had not chosen to make the statement in the way he did, but it really is an example of the plight we see in rural America today," said Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge (D-N.C.), who recently held a public meeting at a home on the street where Watson lived -- a meeting at which Watson had suggested that neighbors stage a "tractor-cade" in Washington.
"Tobacco farmers see a way of life vanishing, a way of life they've lived all their life, not just a generation or two, but back to the Colonial days," Etheridge said.
At home, there is widespread sympathy for Watson. Nash County, where Whitakers is located, is tobacco country, but it is far removed from the Philip Morris plants in Richmond, which churn out billions of cigarettes. And even farther from Washington and the halls of Congress, where lawmakers regulate almost every aspect of the industry.
For friends and relatives, his surrender was a relief. "I just thank God it ended in a peaceful manner," said neighbor Beth Taylor. "Now we can get him the help he needs."
A Recent Change
Dwight Watson, a former military police officer, had always seemed a fairly strait-laced guy to his friends and neighbors.
Several months ago, he began to change. He dressed in military police gear he had last donned in the 1970s. His face sported a new beard.
When he walked into a Texaco station two weeks ago, it was to announce that he was moving to Florida. Watson had good reason to want to flee.
His mother had recently gone to live in a nursing home. His family's failing tobacco farm, already just a sliver of the 1,500 acres it once was, had failed to fetch a decent price at auction. He had been divorced for a long time. His dog, MP, was sick. Things were so bad, that one friend worried that Watson was contemplating suicide.
Jimmy Tanner, a former sheriff's deputy who rented a small house on the Watson homestead from 1995 to 2000, said Watson once covered his Ford Explorer with bumper stickers promoting the cause of tobacco growers and journeyed to Washington, where he delivered his message by driving in circles around town.
Last fall, when Tanner ran into Watson at a local park called City Lake, his former landlord surprised him by announcing that he wanted to run for president of the United States.
"He would go into spells," Tanner said. "As time went on, he'd talk about it more. If you leave farming out, he's really just super nice. You bring up farming, he can get on the soapbox. If you starting talking to him, it could be hours."
Prepared for a Siege
This was the ultimate soapbox.
At 12:30 Monday, a bystander called police to report a man "doing doughnuts" on the Mall. It was Watson, his tractor sloshing through a pool at Constitution Gardens. He wore a military helmet and waved an American flag upside down -- military code for distress.
U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers said the first officer to arrive on the scene couldn't hear Watson over the din of his tractor. "Hey, you got a cell phone? Can I have your number?" the officer asked, according to Chambers.
In the early hours of the siege, Watson claimed -- falsely -- that he had explosives. Federal authorities, playing it safe, decided to wait him out.
But Watson had food and water. He had toiletries and was even spotted shaving. He had long ago installed a television in his tractor, so he could have followed the media attention his protest was drawing.
In a cell phone interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, Watson said he was not worried about surviving the elements.
"Do you think you could handle this? Go three days and don't eat. . . . I went three days and didn't eat one time," he said.
Later that evening, in another interview, Watson said he had not slept in five nights. "What I told them I'm going to do is I'm going to hold this place for three days," Watson said, adding that he would surrender peacefully if negotiators treated him with respect.
Negotiators said Watson railed about government tobacco policies, U.S. soldiers' exposure to chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf War and his opposition to the country's pending war with Iraq.
Watson spoke with at least two female negotiators, one of whom he called a "nice lady." Three of Watson's relatives -- his brother Jim, cousin Skip and Skip's son Jason -- traveled to Washington early Tuesday to offer their assistance to federal officials.
Another brother, George Watson Jr., remained in North Carolina.
He said that he was told by relatives that agents kept close watch over Jim, Skip and Jason and at some point allowed only taped messages to be delivered to Dwight Watson.
Support for the Message
Authorities might not have wanted Watson to talk. But that didn't stop him. His cell phone was buzzing with calls from friends and family back home.
Watson told neighbor Kay Fisher that he did not intend to harm anyone and simply wanted to gain media attention for his message.
Although family members said they do not agree with the method Watson used to protest, they support his message. They also say it was just like Watson to take on the government, alone and against the odds.
George Watson said that their father, George Sr., was politically active and took on state leaders such as then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R).
Family members landed in trouble, George Watson Jr. said, when state prosecutors charged them with selling seed illegally to Canadian farmers. The case was settled out of court, he said.
In his calmer moments, Dwight Watson was a hard worker who would spend long days on the farm with his Mexican employees, tending to his many acres of tobacco plants.
When he was not working into the night, he would watch a basketball or football game, though rarely with friends, said Tanner, his former tenant.
But Watson could lash out and rant for hours about the treatment of veterans, his concerns about the dangers of pesticides and chemicals or the unfair treatment of farmers by the federal government.
One time, Tanner recalled, Watson angrily denounced Wal-Mart because he thought that the toy section was too close to the garden center and that pesticides could contaminate the toys.
Watson's outbursts were unusual, but his anger was born of the same desperation felt by many of his neighbors.
Eddie Foy, the executive director of the Contract Tobacco Growers Association, said farmers "have been here in Raleigh on tractors, and they are going to be here again soon if something doesn't happen soon. Thousands are in the same situation. These guys are under a tremendous amount of pressure."
Watson got down from the tractor yesterday after agreeing to the terms of his surrender. He backed up, slowly, with his hands above his head.
Several federal agents met him about 20 yards from the tractor. They frisked him, cuffed him and put him in a white van.
And then they drove Dwight Watson over the south hill of Constitution Gardens to begin his new life, one far removed from the tobacco fields of his youth, in a place where more government officials and legal proceedings were waiting for him.
Staff writers Dan Eggen, David A. Fahrenthold, Allan Lengel, Arthur Santana and Clarence Williams and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report. Shear reported from Whitakers.