Officers Lost Their Lives Saving Others
By Saundra Torry and David Montgomery, The Washington Post Staff Writers, 7/25/1998

Whether it was a closed meeting of Republican House leaders or a TV interview at one of the networks, U.S. Capitol Police Special Agent John Gibson was always right there, a comforting shadow by the side of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut, known as "J.J." to his friends, had a less glamorous post, standing guard at an entrance to the Capitol. He was "very diligent and precise," one colleague said. And as an 18-year veteran of the force, he was just months away from retirement.

Yesterday, Gibson and Chestnut were at their appointed posts, and congressional staff members said their presence turned out to be far more than comforting or precise. It was lifesaving.

Both men were fatally wounded by a gunman who had burst into the Capitol. After shooting Chestnut and a bystander, the man entered DeLay's office, where Gibson confronted him.

John GibsonJacob J. Chestnut

"John Gibson is a hero," Tony Rudy, a top aide to DeLay, said minutes before learning that Gibson had died. "We all believe he saved our lives."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called both officers "true heroes of democracy. ... If not for their quick and courageous action, more than just one innocent civilian could have been injured."

Gingrich and the House sergeant-at-arms visited Chestnut's family at their home in Fort Washington for about 10 minutes last night.

Both Gibson and Chestnut were married. Gibson, 42, of Woodbridge, had three children; Chestnut, 58, of Fort Washington, had two children from his current marriage and three from a previous marriage, according to a relative.

Gibson also had been on the force for 18 years, according to Officer Dan Nichols, a police spokesman. He had been assigned as DeLay's bodyguard for about three years, Rudy said, and was "more than just a security guard. ... He is part of the family."

"If we're working 15 hours a day, John is here the whole time," Rudy said. "He is always following us."

According to Don Carter, a neighbor, Gibson chatted with him a few days ago about the D.C. police officer who was shot to death at a nightclub early last Saturday.

Gibson "was telling me that he'd never had to use his weapon," Carter recalled. But Gibson added that "if he did, it would be tunnel vision. The adrenaline would be pumping. He'd be focused on what he had to do. I think he was focused on what he had to do today."

John Davis, another neighbor in the Lake Ridge subdivision of town houses, said Gibson was a generous man, whether it meant sharing extra gravel from landscaping his yard or offering advice on how to fix a car.

That spirit came through on the job, too, said Capitol Police Officer William C. Cleveland. "Gibson definitely lived by the Golden Rule."

Rudy described Gibson as a big sports fan who had a Boston accent and a love for that city's teams. He rooted for the Bruins, the Red Sox and the University of Massachusetts basketball team. "He'd come up to me every morning and ask for the Boston Globe," Rudy recalled.

There was another, quieter side to the plainclothes bodyguard, Cleveland said. Gibson "was a very devout, religious person. No matter what, he was there for the family. ... We were always talking about the Bible."

Shortly after Gibson was flown by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, DeLay gathered his staff and led a prayer for the officer. About two hours later, Rudy learned that Gibson had died.

Gibson's wife, Evelyn, is the niece of Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.). In a statement last night, Moakley described Gibson as "a loving husband and father who took pride in his family as well as his duties."

Chestnut, according to a colleague, was a Vietnam veteran and "an outstanding officer" who once was nominated as Capitol Police Officer of the Year. Both the colleague, who asked not to be identified, and a neighbor said Chestnut was close to retirement. The colleague remarked on the sadness of an officer's death when he's "almost done."

According to a family member, Chestnut lived with his wife, Wendy Wenling Chestnut, 50; his daughter, Karen, 21; and granddaughter Jasmine, 3, on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Prince George's County neighborhood. His son, William, 19, is a student at Florida A&M University.

Wendy Chestnut is a computer programmer at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the District.

Chestnut was in the Air Force for 20 years before he retired and joined the Capitol Police in 1980. He met his wife when he was stationed in Taiwan in the early 1970s.

The Chestnuts raised their children on Warburton Oaks Drive in Fort Washington, and Chestnut cared about keeping that picturesque section near the Potomac River a pleasant place to live. He was active in the Tantallon Square Area Civic Association.

"He was the type of person who would do anything for you," said Jerome R. Goldring, who lived near Chestnut on Warburton Oaks Drive. "He was just a tremendous neighbor and a tremendous person. ... Everybody should have neighbors like him."

Chestnut kept a vegetable garden, and he practiced his golf game on the front lawn, perhaps looking toward retirement, Goldring said.

"He loves his police work. Police and the garden, that's his life," said Betty Wenying Johnson, 49, Chestnut's sister-in-law, who is a hotel manager in the District. "He's the most wonderful man you would ever meet. ... He just wanted to enjoy his garden and enjoy his children."

Johnson added: "I used to joke that because of his military training, he was so square. You couldn't find anyone more square than him. ... Because of him, he saved a lot of people's lives. He insisted that that person had to go through the metal detector, otherwise who knows how many people would have gotten hurt. He gave his life to the country."

Those who knew Chestnut at work said his engaging personality and big smile were great assets for a serious job that also required plenty of contact with lost, tired or curious tourists. Chestnut told neighbors he liked the work.

"He talked to me about being a police officer," said neighbor William Broome, 29. "He talked about the benefits, how you could protect the country, protect the neighborhood."

Just before Goldring left work yesterday at the Department of Labor, he heard the report of a shooting at one of the entrances to the Capitol.

He said that as he drove home, "I was hoping against hope. ... I knew possibly he could be involved in this type of thing. ... I was hoping like hell that it wasn't him."

He learned the truth when he got home and turned on the television.

"He was just a true-blue officer," Goldring said. "It's like losing a family member."

Former Capitol Police deputy chief John Daniels, who oversaw the dignitary protection unit and worked closely with both Gibson and Chestnut, remembered them as exceptional employees.

"They were extremely good, head and shoulders above their peers," Daniels said.

Gibson handled his duties with care, Daniels said. "He was one of those guys who, everything he did, he did the right way."

Chestnut was particularly enthusiastic about working for Congress. "He always seemed thrilled to be working in the Capitol," Daniels recalled.

Capitol Police Officer M.E. Hood, who rushed to the Capitol when he heard about the shootings, reflected on the fact that they occurred on the same day as the funeral of the D.C. police officer, Thomas Franklin Hamlette Jr., who was slain last Saturday.

"What makes it so bad is we just buried one from the Metropolitan Police Department," Hood said. "This is like I lost a member of the family. They're all my brothers."

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