A July Friday afternoon at the U.S. Capitol. Tourists milling about, both inside and outside the historic building.

The Senate was just finishing up a rare Friday session. The House had finished with legislative business and and gone into “special orders,” reserved time where members of Congress get up and pontificate on whatever topic they choose. The chamber is mostly empty. The speeches are for the C-Span television cameras.

Capitol Hill Police Officer Jacob J. “J.J.” Chestnut was working his usual duty station at the Document Room entrance, a ground-level entrance near the center of the sprawling building. Staff members greeted the popular 18-year-veteran by name as they passed in and out of the entrance. Tourists and staff members alike walked through the airport-style metal detector. When it buzzed, J.J. would politely ask them to empty their pockets.

Sallie Shockley of Norman, Oklahoma, has just finished passing through the magnetometer at 3:40 p.m. and had turned to wait for a friend when she saw a small, wiry man with bushy hair walk around the metal detector and head into the building. Chestnut turned towards the man and said, “Sir, I’m sorry but you need to…”

Chestnut never finished the sentence. The man whirled around with a revolver in his hand and fired one shot into Chestnut’s head. The officer fell, blood gushing from a head wound, his service weapon still holstered.

“He never had a chance,” Shockley said. “The shot was deafening. It just reverberated through the hall.” She and her friend ran for cover.

Another Capitol Hill cop who had left to get a wheelchair for a tourist and was returning to the checkpoint, yelled “gun!”, drew his weapon and fired several shots at the gunman, hitting him at least once in the leg. The gunman returned fire, missing the officer. In the fusillade, two bullets struck 24-year-old Angela Dickerson, a Northern Virginia resident visiting the Capitol on her day off. Dickerson went down, wounded in her face and shoulder.

One woman at the entrance ran for a door marked “Private: No Entrance.” It was the entrance to the offices of Majority Whip Tom Delay of Texas. The gunman, wounded but still on his feet, chased her through it.

John Gibson carried the title of Special Agent in the Capitol Hill police force, a plain-clothes officer assigned to protect members of Congressional leadership. He heard the first shots and the cry of “gun!” and headed for the entrance hall to the offices, yelling at staff members to get down. The woman chased by the gunman ran by Gibson. He pushed her down, out of harm’s way as the gunman came through the outer door.

Gibson had his service weapon in his hand when he met the gunman in the entrance hall between the inner and outer doors of the office. The gunman fired one shot, striking Gibson in the chest. As he went down, Gibson returned five shots, at least one striking the gunman, who stayed on his feet.

Screaming employees cowered behind desks as other Capitol officers rushed to the entrance. One brought the gunman down with a single shot. Another straddled the prostrate gunman and kicked away a .38 caliber revolver. He pressed his service weapon to the gunman’s head and screamed at him to lie still. Only 23 seconds had passed since the first shot was fired.

Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, a heart surgeon who always keeps a medical bag nearby, rushed from the Senate floor to Delay’s office to give medical attention to both Gibson and the gunman. Outside the office, Ronald Beamish, a 69-year-old tourist from England held Chestnut’s hand and kept telling him “You’re gonna be alright. You’re gonna be alright.” He felt his pulse. It was faint. Chestnut was unconscious.

Inside Delay’s office, First gave cardiopulmonary resuscitation to Gibson, whose chest wound was pumping out blood. Like Gibson, he was unconscious. He also applied the same aid to the gunman, who was conscious.

Chestnut and Gibson never regained consciousness. Both died on the way to the hospital. Angela Dickerson went home the following day.

The gunman, a 41-year-old loner named Russell Eugene Weston, Jr. Weston, known as “Rusty” to those who knew him in him hometown of Valmeyer, Ill., was listed in the U.S. Secret Service computer as a “potential but not active” threat to the President, based on past investigations of threats he had made against Clinton. He survived.

Chestnut and Gibson were the first Capitol Hill police officers to die while defending those they served.

But they were not the first to die on duty. The first casualty came in 1984, when an officer was shot during a training exercise.

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC