A Hero's Final Journey
and Patricia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 31, 1998; Page A01
On Shirley Highway overpasses, they waved tiny flags as the long funeral cortege passed. On the freeway below, they pulled over and climbed out of their cars. On the streets of a grieving capital, small children were hoisted onto their parents' shoulders to watch this last journey of a hero they never knew.
And on a sultry summer afternoon yesterday, beneath the shade of a red maple tree at Arlington National Cemetery, slain Capitol Police Detective John Michael Gibson was laid to rest.
The 1,000-vehicle motorcade that traveled 35 miles from a Prince William County church to the Mall and then on to Arlington halted lunch-hour routines and, for many, became a somber reminder of American values.
Along the Mall, souvenir and refreshment sales slowed to a trickle, and families picnicking on the grass looked up to catch a glimpse of the hearse carrying the body of Gibson, 42. Office workers, tourists and police officers saluted or placed their hands over the hearts as it passed, some in tears.
The motorcade stretched for more than 14 miles and took about a half-hour to pass by. It began after Gibson's funeral at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Lake Ridge, traveled up Interstates 95 and 395 and went past the U.S. Capitol, where Gibson worked for 18 years and where he was slain last Friday.
Law enforcement officers turned out in droves, from as far away as California and Canada, to lead the tribute to Gibson, whom mourners described as an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing in sacrificing his life to save others in the shootout.
"You didn't have to know him personally," said Sgt. Thomas Maksym of the Nassau County (N.Y.) Police Department, holding a damp handkerchief as he stood at Gibson's grave site. "You know the risks he faced every day. It could have been you."
Thousands of onlookers lined the funeral route, waiting in the blistering heat for the cortege to pass. An honor guard of 260 motorcycle officers led the way.
As the procession traveled up Shirley Highway in the center car-pool lanes, vehicles in the north- and southbound lanes pulled to the shoulders, and motorists got out to watch.
About 130 people waited at the Seminary Road overpass in Alexandria, some arriving 90 minutes before the motorcade started to come by at 12:30 p.m.
Christine DeRiso, who once worked for the Montgomery County police, was moved to tears as she watched the long line of police cars and motorcycles. "That's why they call it a brotherhood," said DeRiso, 30, of Sterling.
Gibson and another 18-year Capitol Police veteran, Officer Jacob J. Chestnut, 58, were killed when an armed intruder rushed past a security checkpoint in the Capitol. Chestnut was shot without warning near the visitors' entrance. Gibson, a plainclothes officer assigned to protect House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), was fatally wounded in an exchange of point-blank gunfire with the assailant. DeLay and others have said that Gibson's quick actions saved many other people's lives.
The suspect, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., 41, is in D.C. General Hospital, continuing to recover from his gunshot wounds.
At his funeral Mass, Gibson was remembered as a loving husband and father of three teenage children; a devoted, disciplined law enforcement officer; and a transplanted Bostonian who never lost his accent or his love of baseball's Red Sox and hockey's Bruins.
The assembled congregation, which included DeLay and several other lawmakers and Hill aides, quickly filled the 1,500 seats for the 10 a.m. service, spilling over into the nearby parish hall and onto the sidewalks.
When the Capitol Police ceremonial unit arrived, two dozen members quietly exited the bus. While straightening their dress uniforms and buffing their leather straps, the officers kept their hats low over their eyes and shook their heads solemnly. "It's just too difficult," one officer muttered as he prepared to get in formation.
Among the last to arrive, walking slowly up the long driveway leading to the red-brick church, were Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his wife, Victoria, who held hands as they entered the building. Kennedy said earlier that he empathized with the two officers' families because "my family, too, has suffered the sudden loss of loved ones, and I know that there is no greater tragedy, no greater sadness for a family."
Chestnut's family, who will bury their loved one at Arlington today, also attended Gibson's services to offer support and comfort to his widow, Lynn, and the couple's three children. The Gibsons will do the same at Chestnut's funeral today in Fort Washington.
"John truly loved his work," Gibson's best friend, Capitol Police Sgt. Jack DeWolfe, said in his eulogy. But his "greatest accomplishment in life was marrying Lynn and having Kristen, Jack and Danny. You were his whole world," DeWolfe said.
"John, my best friend, I love you. I will miss you," DeWolfe concluded, his voice starting to crack. "You will be in my heart forever."
Among the mourners was Holly Balcom-Mensch, who taught both Gibson boys in fourth grade at Lake Ridge Elementary School, where Lynn Gibson is a crossing guard. Balcom-Mensch said she wrote the boys a letter in which she said that their father died a brave man and that his legacy would always be a part of them.
Outside the church, neighbors lined the streets of the quiet suburban neighborhood, awed by the turnout and the emotion evoked by the ceremony.
Shortly after noon, the motorcycles led the cortege away from the church, riding two abreast, their blue and red lights flashing. As the procession turned onto Old Bridge Road, it passed under the extended ladders of two fire trucks, a large U.S. flag suspended between them.
Spectators gathered along the grassy median and shoulders of the road leading to the interstate. They stood in front of shops, gas stations and convenience stores, some with signs, others with more flags, large and small.
In Washington, when the first motorcycles came into view over the 14th street bridge, a hush fell over the crowd, and parents standing two- and three-deep on the sidewalk lifted their children to see the procession.
"As people started watching, there was just a quietness," said Charles Houston, 51, a truck driver who lives in the District. "When something like this tragedy happens, it awakens something in all of us, and you see a unity among people. This is going to be a part of history, remembered for a long time."
As the motorcade slowly wound its way around the Mall, onlookers snapped photographs, while others were brought to tears. Bikers, joggers and tourists saluted or held their hands over their hearts as Gibson's hearse passed them.
Jonathan Stephens, 45, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, said he wanted to show his respect because he once worked as an administrative aide at the Capitol.
"It just gives you the chills to see this," he said. "The pomp and circumstance of the procession is overwhelming."
Among the 500 people gathered on the Capitol's west side was 11-year-old Eugene Herring of Hamilton, N.J.
"This is sad, that a maniac can come to the Capitol and shoot police," he said, adding that "all these people have come out of respect because those officers did their job as they were supposed to do."
George Anderson, visiting Washington from his home in Clearwater, Fla., learned that the funeral procession was coming as his family waited in line at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and decided to stay for it.
"It touched me, the way the whole nation was touched by it," he said of the shootings in one of the nation's most treasured buildings. "It's just [a] horrible waste. One insignificant person made such an impact on so many people today."
As the hundreds of police motorcycles and cars first appearing in the summer haze as one giant, unified vehicle rounded the Lincoln Memorial and started over Memorial Bridge, a red D.C. rescue boat in the Potomac River shot streams of water several hundred feet into the air. A line of officers on horseback met the procession at the cemetery's front gate.
When a cadre of officers waiting at Gibson's grave site learned that the motorcade had arrived more than an hour after it had left the church they fell silent and snapped to attention. Soon the haunting sounds of police bagpipers from Chicago and New York could be heard across the nation's most hallowed military cemetery.
Although Gibson was not a military veteran, he was granted special permission to be buried at Arlington. His grave, under a shady red maple tree in Section 28, is in "a peaceful part of the cemetery," said Arlington historian Tom Sherlock, "off the beaten track."
As four police helicopters flew past in tribute, several officers in full dress uniforms began succumbing to the heat. Some were led away to air-conditioned buses.
Although not a military funeral, the half-hour service included a 21-gun salute and the sounding of taps. Lynn Gibson, her children seated next to her, was presented with the American flag that had draped their father's coffin.
At the end of the ceremony, she slowly stood and, leaning forward, placed a long-stemmed red rose on her husband's casket. Carved into the polished dark wood surface was the name "John Michael Gibson" and the emblem of the police department he so loved.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company