WASHINGTON—Nearly 1,500 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty throughout our nation's history, but the deaths of two U.S. Capitol police officers have struck a special emotional chord in America. These officers, killed when an apparently deranged loner burst into the Capitol July 24, have been honored as fallen heroes.
The tragic drama began when Russell Eugene Weston Jr. ran into one of the building's entrances and mortally shot Officer Jacob Chestnut. Weston then fled toward the office of the House majority whip, Rep. Thomas DeLay (R-Texas). Detective John Gibson, who was guarding DeLay's office, was killed in a gun battle with Weston.
Chestnut and Gibson, each of whom had served 18 years on the force, became the first Capitol policemen killed on duty. Weston was shot by Gibson and another officer, and remains hospitalized. A woman visiting from Virginia also was injured in the gunfire.
The 58-year-old Chestnut was a retired Air Force military policeman, who had served in Vietnam. He and his wife had five children and lived in Fort Washington, Md. His community remembered him as a respected family man and neighbor.
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in a July 28 ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, told Chestnut's family, “He was a man I saw every day, as did most members of the leadership, because that was the door we went in and out of every day.”
“He was always courteous. He was always firm. He was always disciplined. He always did his job. He will be very sadly missed, but your family can be proud that your father is a genuine hero,” Gingrich said.
The sequence of events in the Capitol on that hot Friday afternoon allowed John Gibson to capture the nation's heart with his heroism. For the past three-and-a-half years, he had been assigned to protect DeLay. He died safeguarding the lives of DeLay's staff members.
When Gibson heard the gunfire, he immediately went into DeLay's office and told everyone to remove themselves from danger. He then confronted Weston, directed him to drop his weapon, and exchanged shots when his command was ignored. All accounts acknowledge that he sacrificed his life to save those he was assigned to protect.
DeLay, who had developed a close bond with Gibson, was emotional about the officer's death.
“John Gibson was a member of my security detail, of my staff, and of my family,” he said. “John and I went everywhere together. We had many long talks about life, about family, about duty, and about country.
“John Gibson was a solid man. He was a patriot. He exemplified all that is good about America,” he said.
DeLay's staff, too, had a close relationship with the 42-year-old father of three. Gibson was remembered as a professional, a friend, and a Catholic who lived his faith.
Staff member Frank Maguire proudly said, “I had described John to my wife as my vision of what a Catholic priest would be like who was allowed to marry and to raise a family.”
Another staffer, Pamela Mattox, said, “In church [during the funeral Mass], I looked up at the crucifix — and for the first time truly understood the sacrifice of giving up one's life for others. That is what John Gibson did for all of us in the whip's office. We lived because he cared enough to protect us.”
“But in reflection, every day he did more than that. His way of life exemplified the best of the Golden Rule — at worship, at home, at play, at work. John Gibson was, in a most unassuming way, simply the best,” she said.
Another touching memory was offered by Deana Funderburk, who described how disappointed she was that she couldn't attend the welcoming ceremony for Mother Teresa at the Capitol in 1997. Gibson accompanied DeLay to the event.
“The ceremony commenced and in remembrance of that momentous event, each person in attendance was given a pendant with an engraving of the Virgin Mary on it.
“After the welcoming ceremony was finished, John came to my desk and held out his hand in a fist. He said that since I was not able to attend, he wanted me to have his special pendant.
“I cannot express how much that gesture meant to me and how generous and kind [a] man he was. I still have the pendant which I will always treasure,” she said.
Another DeLay staff member, Autumn Hanna, said, “He gave his life protecting us, and I am still reassured by his presence. Our guardian is now in heaven instead of at the back door, but he will always be with us.”
One other staffer, Tony Rudy, remembers the fun-loving nature of the Massachusetts native, who followed the Boston Red Sox hockey, and who enjoyed country music.
“My fondest memory of John is when we used to rush to get the four o'clock mail and try to get The Boston Herald and the [Boston] Globe. We would talk about UMass hoops and the [Boston] Bruins.”
Gibson's wife, Evelyn, is the cousin of Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.). Moakley, too, spoke of Gibson's character, dedication, and faith.
“John was a religious man who sought strength and comfort from his Lord,” Moakley said. “As a family man, John excelled. He always made time for his wife and their three children.”
His wife, daughter, and two sons were comforted by an enormous out-pouring of tribute and affection during the viewing of Gibson's casket at a ceremony at the Capitol; a viewing and Mass of Christian burial at their parish church; an unprecedented 35-mile motorcade procession into Washington, D.C.; and burial at Arlington National Ceremony.
The services at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Lake Ridge, Va., attracted enormous crowds representing friends and neighbors, official Washington, and — most prominently — the brotherhood of policemen.
Representatives from police forces came from throughout the east coast, several states in the Midwest, and as far away as California, Washington state, and Canada.
The funeral cortege was unique, even to Washington, which has been the site of many important modern-day ceremonies. More than 1,000 vehicles, including 250 motorcycles, made up a procession that spanned 14 miles. Much of metropolitan Washington, D.C., stopped to pay tribute to Detective Gibson and his family.
During his homily, the Gibsons' pastor, Father Daniel Hamilton, urged mourners to use the tragic event to help build a better, more loving society.
“You and I need to be committed, committed to passing laws, enforcing laws, and living laws that root out violence as much as possible,” the priest said. “We can do that — we can do that — by rooting it out of individual lives and then as a collective society, begin to right the wrongs in our society so that violence is something that we don't resort to and we don't have.
“Oh, there are going to be senseless acts from time to time,” Father Hamilton continued, “but you and I as a committed group today can agree just in our lives to do what is right, to do what is just for everyone that we meet, for everyone that we deal with, for all of our people.”
“And what can happen is a changed and transformed society. And I believe that Officer Jacob Chestnut and Officer John Gibson would be more proud of that than anything else that we could do,” he said.
In the aftermath of the officers' deaths, Congress is reconsidering safety in the Capitol. One proposal receiving renewed attention is the construction of a visitors' center, which would reduce security concerns by removing tourists from the Capitol Building. Such a center might be dedicated to Chestnut and Gibson.
In addition, Congress immediately established a fund for the families of the two officers. A spokesperson for the Capitol Police said contributions began arriving July 27, the first workday after the shooting. (Donations may be made to the U.S. Capitol Police Memorial Fund, Washington, DC 20515.)
Washington, a city associated with weighty political issues and sometimes viewed with skepticism around the country, has been gripped with a profound sense of loss. Perhaps it is because the capitol, the nation's citadel of democracy, was brutally assaulted and two dedicated police officers died. In addition, however, there is a realization that in a time of cynicism and frequent polarization, the country still has heroes — unassuming heroes who love and laugh, live and die, all the while taking strength from their Creator.
Joseph Esposito writes from Springfield, Virginia.
(See related “Perspective,” page 8)