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Remembering the US Capitol Building Shooting of July 24, 1998

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JC Scull taught an MBA program and often writes about business, history and culture.

A Capitol Police Honor Guard salutes the coffins of Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson in the Capitol Rotunda as they lie in repose.

A Capitol Police Honor Guard salutes the coffins of Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson in the Capitol Rotunda as they lie in repose.

Covering well over 1.5 million square feet, several miles of corridors and more than 600 rooms, the U.S. Capitol stands as one our country’s symbols of freedom and democracy. Words that have reverberated through its halls and chambers have often found their way into the world’s history books.

It is where the Senate and the House of Representative meet to pass the country’s laws. Additionally, it is where presidents are inaugurated and deliver their annual State of the Union addresses. Perhaps, because of these highly politically charged events, emotions have often run high. Consequently, in a history that expands more than 220 years, the U.S. Capitol has seen its share of fistfights, fires, break-ins, shootings, even murder.

J.L. Magee's famous political cartoon of the attack on Sumner.

J.L. Magee's famous political cartoon of the attack on Sumner.

Violence in the Capitol Building Over the Years

  1. During the War of 1812 with England, British troops burned the Capitol along with the White House. This occurred in 1814 as retaliation for the burning of the city of York in Ontario, Canada by U.S. forces.
  2. In 1856, pro-slavery Representative Preston Brooks beat anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner with his cane rendering him nearly unconscious. He accomplished this feat of savagery right on the Senate floor. Later, Brooks claimed to have used the cane as his weapon of choice as he didn’t want to break an 1838 law against congressional dueling.
  3. Among some of the other more notorious acts of violence between representatives from opposing parties, the halls of the Capitol were witness to a fistfight between some thirty congressmen in the House of Representatives. This occurred on February 6th, 1858 at 2:30 AM, after a pro-slavery congressmen threatened anti-slavery representatives with pistols and canes. Merely two years later, in 1860, a group of pro-slavery congressmen threatened an anti-slavery congressmen with pistols and canes during his speech against slavery on the House floor.

Capitol Violence by Non-Members

However, violence in the U.S. Capitol has not just been perpetrated by those who represent the people. Non-members of Congress have placed bombs, fired weapons, committed murder and as we recently experienced, stormed the Capitol in order to stop the newly elected president, Joseph Biden, from taking office.

The more notorious cases of violence in the U.S. Capitol by non-members of Congress have included the bombing on July 2, 1915 by former German professor Erich Muenter; the attack by four independence-seeking Puerto Rican Americans who fired guns at the House of Representative on March 1, 1954 injuring five members of Congress; the bombing in the Capitol by the Weather Underground group on March 1, 1971; the November 7, 1983 bombing on the second floor of the Capitol by the Armed Resistance Unit.

remembering-the-us-capitol-building-shooting-of-july-24-1998

The Events of July 24, 1998

Perhaps the most vicious attack perpetrated by one person, was the shooting of two Capitol Police officers by Russell Eugene Weston Jr. on July 24, 1998. Weston, a mentally ill person who had spent approximately fifty days in a mental hospital in Montana, shot and killed Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson.

On that fateful day, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., entered the Capitol and opened fire, killing Officer Jacob Chestnut immediately. Detective John Gibson died during surgery at George Washington University Hospital.

On the day of the shooting, Officer Chestnut and an unarmed, civilian security aide were assigned to operate the X-ray machine and magnetometer at the Document Door entrance located on the East Front of the Capitol. This particular location was open only to Members of Congress and their staff. Detective Gibson was assigned the dignitary protection detail of Tom DeLay (R-TX), the then House Majority Whip.

Weston, armed with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, entered the Document Door at 3:40 p.m. As Officer Chestnut provided directions to a pair of tourists, Weston walked through the metal detector, setting off the alarm. As part of normal procedure, Chestnut requested him to go back through the detector. Weston, suddenly produced the gun and shot Chestnut in the back of the head at point-blank range, killing him instantaneously.

Officer Douglas McMillan, who normally worked outside the Capitol, was inside the building retrieving a wheelchair for a tourist when Weston shot Officer Chestnut. He immediately returned fire, causing Weston to fire back, wounding him.

remembering-the-us-capitol-building-shooting-of-july-24-1998

Weston then ran away from McMillan, turning into the first nearby open door that he found. As tourists darted for cover, Weston went down one of the corridors that led to a group of offices used by senior Republican representatives including Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, future Speaker of the House.

Upon hearing the gunfire, Detective Gibson, who was in plainclothes, immediately began to instruct the office staff to hide under their desks. Within seconds he was mortally wounded by Weston. In spite of his wounds, Gibson managed to shoot back and hit Weston with four rounds, severely wounding him. Weston was apprehended at once by two other officers.

At the onset of the gun battle, Angela Dickerson, a female tourist, was grazed by shrapnel on her face and shoulder from a marble wall. She was treated for her injuries and released. Immediately after the shooting, Senator Bill Frist, a heart surgeon who had been presiding on the Senate floor just before the shooting, kept the gunman alive and later accompanied him to D.C. General Hospital.

Russell Eugene Weston, Jr.

Born on December 28, 1956, Weston grew up in Valmeyer, Illinois. He attended Valmeyer High School, a small school of 900 students. Shortly after graduation in 1974, Weston moved to Rimini, Montana where he lived in a cabin next to the lower Tenmile Creek located in sparsely populated southern Lewis and Clark County. While there, he occasionally worked as a miner of various ores in the foothills of Montana.

He rarely returned to his home town of Valmeyer to visit. His inveterate loner lifestyle was confirmed when upon receiving an invitation to a class reunion from his schoolmates, he returned it with obscenities written across it.

Weston's cabin next to the lower Tenmile Creek in Montana following a search by the police

Weston's cabin next to the lower Tenmile Creek in Montana following a search by the police

While in Montana

Many of Weston’s Montana neighbors disliked him and often ignored him, as they considered him unusual and eccentric. It is reported he had once thought that one of his neighbors was using his television satellite dish to spy on his actions. Another of his delusions involved the belief that Navy SEALs were hiding in his cornfield.

In 1992, he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and spent fifty-three days in a Montana mental hospital after making threats to an area resident. He was released after testing as being of no danger to himself or others.

In July of 1996, two years before the shooting, Weston bought a new suit and embarked on a cross-country road trip during which he visited the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in McLean, Virginia. At the entrance of the agency, he said his operative name was “The Moon,” and claimed to have important information for the CIA director.

He was surprisingly allowed in, based on nothing more than this claim. After being interviewed by an unnamed CIA officer, he was summarily dismissed and sent on his way. To this day, it is not known why Weston, who had no security or intelligence community connections was granted access to a high-security headquarters such this.

Sometime in January of 1997, Weston moved back to Valmeyer from Montana. Once back home, his father Russell Weston, Sr., offered his son $25 per delivery of chopped wood. It is reported Weston Sr. did this as a way of keeping his son busy, knowing Rusty (as Russell, Jr. was called at home) liked projects. This would have been an obvious way of keeping his 41-year-old son, once diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, focused and productive.

However, the volume of cut wood eventually began to overrun the Weston property. The father, in time had enough and pleaded with ‘Rusty’ not to bring any more wood. For the family, this was another of Weston, Jr.’s many obsessive acts, similar to his mining endeavor in the foothills of Montana.

Finally, in an act that perhaps foreshadowed the Capitol shooting, Weston killed fourteen cats with his single barrel shotgun. This, after his grandmother asked him to do something about the annoying nearby stray cats. He ended up burying twelve of them and leaving two in a bucket. Even this horrible act, showed his inability to finish any project he initially set out to do.

In a way, his actions mirrored his personality. Seemingly normal for a while, later telling wild stories, wacky theories and for aberrant behavior to follow. Consequently, he was a solitary figure even among his family and people who knew him. Worst yet, he was often left to himself allowing for obsessions to fester.

remembering-the-us-capitol-building-shooting-of-july-24-1998

The Aftermath of the Capital Shooting

Following the shooting, both Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson received the tribute of lying in honor in the United States Capitol rotunda. They were the first police officers, and Chestnut was the first male African American, to receive the honor.

The following year, Weston, who had stopped taking the medication previously prescribed to treat his schizophrenia, was found incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness. Consequently, Weston was transferred to a psychiatric center at Butner Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina. During his time there, he explained to a court-appointed psychiatrist that he stormed the Capitol to prevent the United States from being destroyed by disease and legions of cannibals.

In 2001, A judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered that he be treated with anti-psychotic medication without his consent. In 2004, it was again determined by a court that Weston was still not competent to be tried despite psychiatric treatment. Criminal charges were suspended at this time, although criminal charges were not dismissed.

Interestingly, prior to the shooting, Weston was known to the United States Secret Service as a person who had threatened the President of the United States. Unfortunately, no action was taken that could have prevented this tragic act by a deranged person.

Watson remains in civil commitment indefinitely.

Resources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on January 23, 2021:

Thank you for commenting John.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 23, 2021:

Wow, I had no idea the Capitol had such a history of violence. Thank you for sharing its interesting history, JC.

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