United in grief, Congress mourns Capitol officers Members pay homage, approve benefits for the victims' families

'We honor these men'

July 28, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As members of Congress returned to the Capitol yesterday for the first day of business since last week's deadly violence, a pall descended -- placing partisan battles over health care and campaign finance into perspective.

"Even the big things seem out of place," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, as he left the office suite where one of two Capitol Police officers, Detective John M. Gibson, was shot to death Friday. "Even the big things don't hold a candle to this."

Congress struggled to life yesterday after the deaths of Gibson and Officer Jacob J. Chestnut. Flowers, cards and drawings piled up on the Capitol steps. Black bunting draped the doorway to Rep. Tom DeLay's office suite, the scene of the shootout that left Gibson dead and the gunman, Russell E. Weston Jr., seriously wounded.

"I woke up and something inside said to me, 'Do something,' " said Olivia Brooks of Washington as she prepared to lay a black velvet-covered tablet with a gold lace cross on the pile of tributes.

Inside, members eschewed partisanship, canceled political events and came together in their grief. DeLay, a Texas Republican, tearfully eulogized Gibson, his bodyguard, as his guardian angel who was "everything good about America."

"I saw J. J. Chestnut every night when I left the building," DeLay said. "He was always standing there by the document door. He was always grinning, and he was always giving me a hard and hardy, 'Good night, congressman. You take care of yourself.' And every night, I would respond, 'J. J., you be careful.' "

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, paid tribute not just to Chestnut and Gibson but to "the 700,000 [officers around the country] who daily leave their homes to take to their duties to defend American principles."

"We are the land of the free because we are the home of the brave," Hoyer said as he and DeLay introduced a resolution formally honoring Chestnut and Gibson. "This resolution honors two of those brave. We honor these men because they ensured we are in fact the land of the free."

After their tributes, Hoyer and DeLay -- two of Congress' fiercest partisans -- embraced.

"Partisanship is what they do for a living; this is about life," said John Feehery, DeLay's spokesman. "Sometimes you forget about what you do for a living and just live."

The resolution cleared the way for the officers' caskets to be viewed today in the majestic Capitol Rotunda, an honor reserved for the nation's most cherished figures and heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, the unknown soldiers of four wars and the renowned soldiers Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Such honors have been bestowed only 24 times in U.S. history and never before for law enforcement officers.

The caskets will be on public view in the Capitol from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore will pay tribute at 3 p.m.

"These men died defending the Capitol of the United States of America, the symbol of freedom across this world," DeLay said.

Congress also established a Capitol Police Memorial Fund and set aside funeral expenses and a year's salary for the officers' families. Plaques will be hung at the sites of the officers' deaths.

The president announced that Gibson would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, an honor generally available only to military veterans. Army Secretary Louis Caldera formally approved the decision, declaring the cemetery "a final resting place for special Americans who have fought to preserve and protect our nation's freedom and democracy."

Chestnut, a 20-year Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, also will be buried at Arlington.

Weston's condition was upgraded from serious to stable. He remained in a heavily guarded room at D.C. General Hospital, with a shattered left thigh bone and a broken right upper arm. Doctors said he had improved markedly, but still estimated his chances of survival at 50-50.

Represented by his lawyer, the suspect was arraigned in U.S. District Court, charged with one count of killing a federal officer, a crime that carries the death penalty. Other charges are pending.

Weston spoke yesterday with his court-appointed lawyer, A. J. Kramer, for the first time. Kramer said his client was alert and talkative during a 45-minute conversation. Dr. Norma Smalls, one of his physicians, said Weston has displayed "some confusion" and has been medicated "to calm him down."

Weston's parents have met with reporters at their home in Valmeyer, Ill., and described their son's long history of mental illness, including a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

"I feel so bad about it," Russell E. Weston Sr. said yesterday. "I feel so bad for the people that he killed. I apologize to the nation."

According to a government official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, Weston visited CIA headquarters on July 29, 1996, sat with a CIA security officer and rambled on about "some pretty bizarre stuff."

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