A man who authorities said took out a gun and pointed it at officers as he tried to enter the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Monday was shot by police, prompting a scramble by law enforcement amid heightened security after terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris.
Authorities identified the wounded suspect as Larry Russell Dawson, a minister from Tennessee. The 66-year-old Dawson previously was arrested in October in the District after he allegedly disrupted Congress by shouting that he was a “prophet of God.”
Police said Dawson walked into the visitor center about 2:40 p.m. Monday and was going through security screening when at least one officer opened fire. In the chaotic moments that followed, loudspeaker alerts warned tourists in the center of an “active shooter,” and officers yelled at people to get down.
“My husband said he heard a shot followed by a full clip,” said Diane Bilo of Ohio, who was in the cafeteria as her husband and two of their children were in the visitor center.
“Police started running this way, and then some people started running in the opposite way,” said Robiann Gilbert, a high school principal at Northside Methodist Academy in Dothan, Ala., whose group of two dozen parents and students had just wrapped up a tour of the Capitol. “And then chaos started.”
Police swarmed the Capitol grounds, raised barricades and put the Capitol building and, briefly, the White House under lockdown, upending an otherwise tranquil day when Congress was in recess and tourists were flocking to the cherry blossoms and the White House Easter Egg Roll. Officers with long rifles stood guard at District intersections.
Two hours later, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Matthew R. Verderosa calmed nerves by saying that investigators “believe this is an act of a single person who has frequented the Capitol grounds before. There is no reason to believe this is anything more than a criminal act.”
Monday night, police said Dawson had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon and assault on a police officer while armed. They said he was in stable but critical condition and would appear in D.C. Superior Court after his release from the hospital. Two officials familiar with the case said Dawson was shot in the chest and thigh.
Verderosa said the security screening worked as intended. No officers were injured, but a female bystander between 35 and 45 years old suffered what appeared to be a minor injury and was taken to a hospital, the chief said, without elaborating on how she had been hurt. Two police officials said she had a wound on her face that they believe was caused by a bullet fragment.
The chief said that police recovered a weapon on the scene and that the suspect’s car was found on the Capitol grounds.
It was not clear why Dawson was at the visitor center Monday, but Verderosa said the suspect was known to authorities in the District. On Oct. 22, police said in an arrest affidavit, Dawson stood in the House chamber gallery, “where he began shouting Bible verses which disrupted the normal flow of Congress.”
A police officer tried to grab his arm to escort him out, according to the affidavit, but he “refused to comply” and pulled away. Two other officers grabbed him and pushed him outside the gallery. Police said he broke free again and ran toward an exit, where he was caught by officers and handcuffed.
Dawson was charged with assaulting and resisting police and disorderly conduct in the October incident. A judge freed him pending his next court hearing and ordered him to stay away from the Capitol and surrounding streets.
After failing to show up for a hearing in November, he wrote the court in January, saying: “I have been called chosen and sent unto You this day. I am not under the Law! . . . Therefore, I will not comply with the court order, nor will I surrender myself unto your office.”
The letter adds: “For sin shall not dominion over you. For you are Not under the law, but under Grace!!!” It concludes, “No longer will I let myself be governed by flesh and blood, but only by the Divine Love of God!!!!”
Kristie Holliman, who said she is Dawson’s daughter, said the family had not been contacted by authorities about the shooting as of late Monday afternoon. She declined to offer any information about her father or talk about why he might be in Washington.
“I’m just trying to figure out what happened,” Holliman said during a brief phone interview.
Dawson’s attorney in the October disorderly-conduct case did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
There have been several previous incidents of gunfire on the Capitol grounds. In April, a man fatally shot himself on the building’s west front in an apparent suicide.
In October 2013, a Connecticut woman was shot and killed by law enforcement officers after she tried to drive through a White House security checkpoint, then raced down Pennsylvania Avenue and drove her car into a security barricade on the northeast side of the Capitol grounds.
In 1998, a mentally ill gunman opened fire at an entrance to the Capitol building, killing two Capitol Police officers. Those officers, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, are the only officers from that force to have died in the line of duty.
Moments after the gunfire Monday, visitors reported a burst of chaos and then tension. Amy and Kai Gudmestad of Minneapolis were at the visitor center with their two children for a tour when officers suddenly started yelling at them to get down.
“There was just yelling, and they told us to get down, and then the officers got us into the theater,” Amy Gudmestad said. The family said they did not hear gunshots.
“It happened very fast,” said Eli, her 10-year-old son, who described the experience as “more confusing” than the fire and tornado drills he has been through at school.
“He was calm. I was scared,” added his 8-year-old sister, Lucy.
The Gudmestads said that large groups of teenage tourists were in the visitor center at the time of the incident and that officers and staffers worked to move everyone to safe locations.
Eventually, officials told them there had been a shooting — though Kai Gudmestad said he had already figured that much out from Twitter.
Trevor Kussman, a textile executive visiting with his wife and children from Chicago, said his family was inside the visitor center watching an educational movie when an announcement was made about “shots being fired.” The movie continued to play, but some people got up to leave.
Gilbert, the school principal, said her group was “quickly exited out” through tunnels and locked down in a cafeteria for 45 minutes. During the wait, Gilbert said, they got periodic updates from police.
One parent, Tony Ward, said that it’s “a shame that this is a part of reality today.”
Mike DeBonis, T. Rees Shapiro, Spencer S. Hsu, Karoun Demirjian, Justin Jouvenal, Victoria St. Martin, Jennifer Jenkins and Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.