Hill Recalls Fallen Officers

Posted July 18, 2003 at 6:54pm

The reminders are everywhere.

There are the formal ceremonies and the Capitol itself, but also the small tributes, like the photo of an American flag posted on a Web site about University of Massachusetts basketball, simply labeled with initials and a date: “JG 7/24/1998.”

That tribute honors Capitol Police Detective John Gibson, who was killed in the line of duty five years ago along with Officer Jacob Chestnut when a gunman opened fire in the Capitol.

As Thursday’s anniversary of that event approaches, current and former Congressional staff, police officers and Members reflected on the lives of two men killed in the line of duty.

“I don’t think a day or a week goes by where I don’t think about the sacrifice of the two officers and what they did,” said Tony Rudy, who worked for then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Rudy often talked about Massachusetts basketball with Gibson, a fellow Bay State native, when he manned a post in DeLay’s office.

“Their actions will certainly never be forgotten by anybody who was there. You just don’t know how many lives they saved with what they did,” said Rudy, now a partner in the Alexander Strategy Group. “In the five years, I’ve had two children, and all these other things, and you wonder, ‘What if Detective Gibson hadn’t been at that desk?’”

Staffers’ Saviors

It was 3:40 on a Friday afternoon when Russell Weston Jr. entered the Document Door, located left of the Capitol’s center steps.

After setting off a magnetometer, Weston allegedly shot Chestnut and then moved toward the Crypt on the first floor.

As Weston attempted to enter the Majority Whip’s office through a rear entrance, Gibson, a plainclothes special agent assigned to DeLay, confronted him, and a gun fight ensued.

Both law-enforcement agents would later be pronounced dead at local hospitals, while a third officer, Douglas McMillan, tourist Angela Dickerson and the alleged gunman would be wounded.

“When I think back to that day, it’s like the images and details are just burned in my memory,” recalled Mary Ellen Bos, who worked as a scheduler at that time.

Numerous Congressional staff, both current and former, shared similar memories about the events of the day — recalling the smell and images of smoke, as well as bodies and blood — while also expressing praise for the officers they credit with saving their lives.

Many staff members, as well as DeLay and then-Chief Deputy Whip Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) wife, Jean, were in the office on what normally would have been a relatively quiet day as the House finished voting on the Patient Protection bill.

Hastert spokesman Pete Jeffries recalled walking through Statuary Hall, when “all of sudden the radios on the Capitol Police officers in the Hall of States started to explode. The chatter was unbelievable.”

Meanwhile, in DeLay’s office, then-policy adviser Autumn VandeHei, who shared an office with chief counsel Rudy and senior aide Tim Berry, recalled: “I remember the three of us standing up at our desks hearing the first few shots, that first moment of confusion where you know something’s wrong, but you can’t believe what you’re hearing is what you think it is.”

While many staffers took shelter under their desks, DeLay and other aides sought safety in a private bathroom.

“Those two gentleman saved my life and everyone else in the office, I firmly believe that,” said John Russell, now a floor assistant in the Speaker’s office.

Finding Comfort

Both officers were buried in Arlington National Cemetery and their funeral processions drew thousands of spectators, who lined the roads to pay tribute.

“It was very touching to see that and to see that people appreciated the sacrifice,” said Scott Hatch, a former DeLay floor assistant who is now a managing partner at Capitol Management.

Around the same time, staff members had returned to the Whip’s office, where one recalled being separated from the crime scene by a makeshift wall as investigators worked on the other side.

But many said returning to the office was actually beneficial. Bos, now a consultant in New York, praised DeLay in helping the staff handle their emotions.

“I think that working in Tom’s office at the time was a really good place to heal from an experience like that,” Bos said. “Politics aside, Tom as a person was nurturing and walked us all through the recovery process. It was really beneficial. You never know how you were suppose to react to something like that.”

Though counseling was made available to Members and staff, many said they found more comfort in one another.

“We found just sitting there talking, late at night, privately, one on one, was probably the best way to deal with it and get through it,” said a former Republican aide.

Added VandeHei: “I think we were in shock for a long time afterwards, I think longer than most of us would admit.”

While Chestnut and Gibson have been honored with wreath-laying ceremonies at the renamed Memorial Door, as well as an annual moment of silence at the time the incident began, other, less formal, traditions also have taken place.

At a 1998 ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, where both officers laid “in honor,” DeLay and his staff wore matching panda bear neckties, given to the group by the Texan after his wife visited China in the mid-1990s.

The tie was a favorite of Gibson’s, and his was buried with him.

Since that time, the group has continued the tradition, Hatch said: “There’s a whole bunch of us, who … always wear our red panda ties on that day for that ceremony in memory of John.”

The staffers also said they contact each other, as well as family or friends, on the anniversary, and some have visited the grave sites of both officers, often leaving flowers or notes.

Aiding the Families

Many of those interviewed said their thoughts about the shooting center on the officers’ families.

“One of the hardest things afterwards for us was trying to express to them how grateful we were and how horrible we knew their loss was,” said VandeHei, now a senior adviser at the Health and Human Services Department.

Likewise, Susan Hirschmann, DeLay’s former chief of staff, said: “I think a lot about John’s family because of the loss that they still feel everyday.”

While both the Gibson and Chestnut families declined to be interviewed for this article, aides said they either keep in touch with the families or will pass along gifts to the officers’ children through the families’ official police liaisons.

“If their families ever needed anything there would be a group of Tom DeLay staffers that would be there for them for whatever they needed, whenever they need it, forever,” Rudy said.

In addition to the public ways in which Members have helped the officers’ families — such as the Capitol Police Memorial Fund — many have contributed in intensely private ways.

“What we have done for the families is not public,” Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said. “We all felt a responsibility to try to ease the pain. We’ve been helpful in a number of ways.”

And although the intensity of gratitude and empathy is strong among Members, it is, in a way, omnipresent with the officers.

“We’re conscious of it every day,” one officer on duty said last week.

As for the long-term effects, Dan Nichols, who then served as the force’s spokesman and now commands the K-9 unit, said that while Chestnut and Gibson’s sacrifice won’t be forgotten, it’s inevitable as time goes on, the events themselves will begin to fade.

“What I think fades is that people don’t realize that there’s a potential for that here every day. Somehow that is looked at as something that’s an isolated incident. And it isn’t.”