• U.S.

Murder In The House

13 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

The U.S. Capitol can feel like a World’s Fair on pretty afternoons in late July. People dress well for the White House tour, keep their voices down because that is the President’s House, but this is Our House. That was the whole idea. We come by the hundreds, thousands, in tank tops and flip-flops, to see where Webster debated and wars were declared and National Mushroom Month was inscribed onto the nation’s calendar. Boy Scouts pose for pictures, senior citizens wear buttons and troll for a Congressman to pester, Pentecostal pilgrims deliver copies of the Ten Commandments and pray outside on the lawn, heavyweight champs and movie stars with a cause and CEOs come to call and oh, yes–the lawmakers themselves can walk the halls unmolested because no one really recognizes them unless they have a ribbon of reporters around them. The People have the run of the place; no guides required.

The lawmakers may be the only suits in the city who haven’t been cutting out early for the weekend. It’s the busy season: they work late and start again early because the Do-Nothing Congress needs something to run on in November. And so last week saw everything from a vote to send condolences to Florida for its wildfires to trade votes, abortion fights and a health-care bill passed just moments before the bell rang shortly after 3:10 p.m., telling lawmakers that school was out, the week’s work was over and they could go home. John Boehner, the fourth-ranking House Republican, was sitting in his hideaway, the small office he often uses for meetings on the Capitol’s first floor. There is a wheelchair access ramp outside, and when he heard a strange noise in the hall, “I thought it was just somebody pushing a cart up the ramp outside the door.”

Officer Jacob Chestnut, 58, an 18-year veteran of the Capitol Police who was looking forward to retiring in a few months, was smiling, greeting visitors at the security checkpoint at the Document Room entrance on the House side. It was about 3:40 when Russell Weston Jr., 41, came through the doors, dressed in khakis and a hat, and tried to go around the metal detectors. Hold on a minute, Chestnut said, moving to stop him as he tried to barge through. Weston pulled out a revolver and shot him in the head, then ran down the hall toward the Crypt, the busy crossroads directly beneath the vast Capitol Rotunda. Tourists began screaming, “He’s got a gun!” and dropped to the floor, grabbing children, rolling behind columns, trying to get smaller. Weston came to a door marked PRIVATE: DO NOT ENTER. It was the back door to House majority whip Tom DeLay’s suite, the door staff members use to slip in and out of the warren of offices.

Around 30 House-leadership staff members were inside, cleaning up the week’s business after the final big health-care vote, toasting their success with champagne. DeLay himself was back in his private office. His plainclothes guard, Special Agent John Gibson, 42, was sitting near the rear entrance when the normal merry chaos of the afternoon was punctured by sharp explosions in the hall. Gibson knew it was gunfire and had his hand on his hip as he moved toward the door. A leadership staff member yelled “Everybody get down, get down!” and pushed people under the desks and into side offices.

Weston came charging into DeLay’s suite, already hit by the hail of fire from the other cops at the entrance. “They were laying down some lead,” says a staff member who was inside. Gibson, also an 18-year veteran, saw the gun and did it by the book. He yelled, “Drop your weapon!” Weston got off two shots, hitting Gibson in the leg and chest; Gibson shot him in the leg, and both men went down, Weston’s gun landing on a staff member’s desk. DeLay burst from his office at the sound of the shooting and began grabbing people and pushing them into his office, herding some of the women into a private bathroom and locking the door. There was blood everywhere. With so much gunfire, a source inside says, “we didn’t know if it was terrorists or not.” As Chestnut and Gibson lay dying, Capitol police swarmed in, surrounded Weston, got his gun and trained theirs on his head. He was woozy, bleeding from multiple wounds in his legs and chest, but conscious as emergency medics arrived and went to work. “Thank God there was a good guy with a gun,” says the staff member, “or there would have been a lot more dead people.”

Outside DeLay’s office, Justin Brown worked at the little gift shop right off the Crypt. “The first thing I heard was a big boom,” he says. “I looked to my right. I saw a guy with a gun. The first thing I thought was ‘Duck!'” Brown says more shots were fired in a matter of seconds. “It was like a running gunfight.” He saw the flash of a gun, then saw Chestnut on the ground bleeding heavily. “Officer down!” someone shouted. Angela Dickerson, a 24-year-old tourist from Virginia, was wounded in the face and shoulder. One man threw his wife to the ground and lay on top of her. Families were separated in the melee as they raced to find someplace to hide. Jered Addotta from Rockford, Ill., 14, was in the Crypt when the firing began. “We saw people fall like a wave when they heard the gunfire,” he says. He panicked. “I tried to go beneath a table; no room. Then I saw my dad running, so I followed him, but I lost him.”

Ronald Beamish, 69, visiting from England, went over to Chestnut and felt for a pulse; it was failing. “You’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ll be all right.” Over on the Senate side of the Capitol, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, a heart surgeon in his former life, got word of the shootings and raced across to the scene as medics poured in from the ambulances outside. He worked to resuscitate first one victim, then another. “I was really just focused on keeping their hearts and lungs moving,” he said. Gibson was hustled out to a helicopter and whisked away to Washington Hospital Center; DeLay gathered his staff to pray for the officer. Frist meanwhile stayed with Weston, unaware that he was the shooter, helping to keep him ventilated as they rode in the ambulance to D.C. General Hospital.

When one of Boehner’s staff members opened the office door to peer outside, Capitol policemen were stationed in the hall. “The policeman told us to lock the door and stay inside,” he says. Other officers gathered up tourists and shoved them into whatever offices they could, telling them to stay put as they tried to restore order and determine whether Weston was acting alone. The building was sealed, and officers began a room-to-room search, blocking stairways and elevators. When they had determined that this was not a coup, not a conspiracy, but rather another loner with a gun, they finally let people leave, filing back out into the sunshine, past the ambulances and fire trucks and microphones, while the FBI, Secret Service, ATF and D.C. police arrived to join in the search for evidence and answers.

We know a lot more now than we used to about angry boys who kill cats for sport; “Rusty” Weston made it to age 41 before he started killing people too. He divided his time between his parents’ home in Valmeyer, Ill., and a shack on a half-acre plot in Rimini, Mont., a dirt-road hamlet in the shadow of Red Mountain named by isolated Irish miners smitten by a touring performance of Tchaikovsky. He panned for gold with little luck, tinkered with junked cars and lived on government disability payments that were based on a history of mental illness. Neighbors knew enough to keep a polite distance; he used to tell them he was John F. Kennedy’s illegitimate son.

In the ’80s, before moving to Rimini, he lived in neighboring Jefferson County, where he at first stayed in a broken-down cabin in exchange for caring for the owner’s many dogs. He made a habit of harassing the local sheriff and his deputy, complaining they were incompetent. In 1983, according to undersheriff Tim Campbell, Weston began saying that Campbell and his brother were covering up an abduction of a four-year-old girl. Campbell does not have a brother. Weston was probably retaliating for being questioned in the case. He was then living about 2 1/2 miles from where the girl disappeared. She was never found, but he was ruled out as a suspect. His anger at local officials moved up the hierarchy. In 1991, says Sheriff Tom Dawson, Weston, who had by then moved to Helena, Mont., wrote two angry letters to the Governor (“I am writing this letter to represent my hate for you”).

Growing up in Valmeyer, Rusty Weston was almost unnoticeable. A former schoolmate describes him as a “basic farm guy.” In the Valmeyer high school yearbook, Weston posed with other members of Future Farmers of America. Looking over the yearbook, his principal, H.R. Baum, said, “There would be a half-dozen others I’d suspect of this before him.”

Weston had been with his parents in Illinois for about a month when he got into a fight with his father, Russell Sr., 66, last Thursday. Apparently he had shot more than a dozen family cats with his .20-gauge, single-barrel shotgun, the Miami Herald reported. “I made him get out,” Russell Sr. told the Herald just hours after the Capitol shooting. “I got mad, told him, ‘You gonna have to leave.'” By Friday, Russell Jr. was gone, as was his father’s Smith & Wesson .38 Special, which he kept beside his bed under a heating pad. A law-enforcement source told CNN that Rusty may have driven his red pickup directly from Illinois to Washington. The same source said that investigators found writings in the truck in which Weston referred to himself as a “brigadier general” and made allusions to space science-fiction TV shows. Asked by the Herald whether Weston bore some special grudge against the government, his father said, “No more than anybody else, I guess.”

In fact, Weston seems to have aspired to join it. He had visited Washington in recent years, stopping in at the CIA to see if there might be any openings. On the other hand, he wrote to complain that government officials had planted land mines on his Montana property; he received a letter back saying he was mistaken. “He was an odd fellow,” says Rimini’s unofficial mayor, K.D. Moore. “He was convinced that the government was watching everything he did, and you couldn’t convince him otherwise.” Weston worried about Moore’s large satellite-dish TV antenna, swearing that it was a government listening device pointed at his house. “I never saw him with a gun,” Moore says. “I knew he was off his rocker, but I never suspected that he was violent.”

The Secret Service did, though. Weston was already known to local police because of his minor record on drug charges, but in 1996 his antigovernment ramblings–some of which focused on a conspiracy against him directed by the President of the U.S.–became menacing. At one moment he would say he was working for the President on a secret spy mission; the next he would say that the President was having him followed and had ordered him killed. It was strange enough that local officials tipped the Secret Service.

Such calls are routine for the Secret Service, whose duty it is to investigate potential threats to the President or any other of their so-called “protectees,” including the Vice President, the First Family, some Cabinet members, and former Presidents and First Ladies (see box, following page). The Service dispatched agents twice to interview Weston. At some point, Weston mentioned Chelsea Clinton. Both times the Service referred Weston to a local medical facility for psychological evaluation. Both times Weston was deemed delusional but not an immediate threat to any of the Service’s protectees. The agents kept a file, but he never made it onto their watch list of dangerous suspects. Meantime, shortly after the verbal threats against the President in October 1996, Weston was committed to the Montana State Hospital for two months. Upon release, he was to be given access to treatment at a mental-health center in Waterloo, Ill.

Not so long ago, anyone at all could walk up to the Capitol, open a door and wander pretty much at will. Visitors have long needed a pass to enter the House or Senate chamber, but it was only after 1983, when a bomb when off on the Senate side, that certain corridors to the leadership offices were cordoned off, magnetometers set up at the entrances, building passes required for employees and reporters, anti-terrorist planters installed in the parking lots, streets near the Russell Office Building closed off and sweeps by bomb-sniffing dogs ordered. There have been proposals every so often to tighten security at such an obvious target; for instance, to close the Capitol plaza to the public and install a wrought-iron fence around the building’s 130-acre grounds, like the one that encircles the White House. But such measures have always been voted down in favor of maintaining the informality of access.

“Some of our technology goes back to 1971,” said Capitol Police spokesman Sergeant Dan Nichols after an in-depth security study in 1996. “Maintenance is a problem. Finding parts is a problem. It was considered to be an emergency.” A supplemental appropriations bill, passed earlier this year, included $20 million for improved Capitol perimeter security. But it is unlikely any of that would have ensured that Weston would be blocked. In the hours after the shooting, lawmakers were united in their determination not to shut down access in response to the incident. Late that night Nichols announced that the Capitol would be open for tours and business as usual the following morning. “We don’t want to dissuade anyone from coming to the nation’s capital, to experience this great building or to have access to their government.”

By 6 p.m. Friday, the flag flying over the Capitol was lowered to half-staff. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Florida Senator Connie Mack visited Gibson’s family at the hospital and stopped at the Chestnuts’ home to see the officer’s wife and children. Gingrich told them their father was a hero. But tragedy did not distract some politicians from the opportunities at hand: by 6:30, staff members for New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli were distributing a press release to reporters calling for tighter gun control. Weston, after emergency surgery during the night, lapsed into a coma and was placed on a ventilator. On Saturday morning doctors gave him a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. He was charged with the murder of two federal police officers, a death-penalty crime. Police and FBI agents blocked access to the Weston home in Valmeyer, and the phone was disconnected.

–Reported by James Carney, Chandrani Ghosh and J.F.O. McAllister/Washington, Julie Grace/Valmeyer and Pat Dawson/Rimini

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com