Hometown of a Shooting Suspect Copes With a Media Frenzy

Ties to the man charged in the Capitol shooting put an Illinois village on the map - and the front pages.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Village clerk Laurie Brown and part-time police officer Larry Gardner are friendly but tight-lipped, as reporter after reporter files into the newly-built emergency services building.

It's Saturday, the day after a gunman stormed the Capitol Building 800 miles and a world away, and a herd of reporters is storming Valmeyer, Ill., in search of leads about the suspect - local resident Russell "Rusty" Weston Jr. Reporters' pointed questions are mixed with idle chit chat:

"How does the fact that this suspect hails from your hometown make you feel?" asks a correspondent for The Miami Herald, one of the first reporters to trace Mr. Weston to Valmeyer. The suspect's father lives on the outskirts of town, where farmhouses dot flat farmlands and rows of dense corn grow eight feet tall along both sides of narrow country roads, creating an eerie feeling of desolation. "I feel for the families of the two officers who were killed," replies Ms. Brown, who also owns the only convenience store in town.

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"What did you think when you heard it was one of your neighbors who did this?" asks a Los Angeles Times reporter.

"I started going down the list of troublemakers in town, and wondering who was crazy enough to do something like this," Brown laughs.

And so it went throughout the day: Citizens of Anytown USA, cutting their lawns, cleaning their garages, and watching big-city strangers wearing designer shades and beepers emerge from satellite trucks, news vans, and rental cars, looking for information on one of the town's own - one who kept to himself and never caused any obvious trouble, they say.

After two quick interviews with local TV reporters out in the parking lot, Officer Gardner - who serves as acting chief while the chief is on vacation - retreated to his squad car and began his patrol of the city where a young Rusty Weston grew up. It's called the bottoms, and now only 15 families - including the Westons - remain in the area after the great flood of 1993, when the entire town was submerged for weeks under 20 feet of Mississippi River water.

All that remains of the high school Weston attended is a small patch of concrete, the rusty shell of a utility shed, and a baseball diamond. The new high school sits about a mile away, high on the river bluffs and safe from any future flooding.

Before showing off the town's new sidewalks, school, and businesses, Gardner cruised among the water-rotted homes of the "old town" area and reflected on the incident that has led to his new celebrity.

"It just goes to show it can happen anywhere," he says of the shooting at the Capitol. "If you wear a gun, anywhere, you better also be wearing a vest."

With seven years as a police officer here in Monroe County, Ill., Gardner feels a kinship with the two slain Capitol Police officers, who apparently saw little "action" during their tours on the Hill. Kids egging houses, a stolen bicycle, and a fire in a school locker are his most serious cases in recent memory.

But two days ago, Rusty Weston began a shooting spree on the family farm, where he reportedly killed 15 cats, and then, armed with a .38-caliber handgun and plenty of ammunition, traveled to Washington to do battle with what he allegedly believed to be a government out to get him - all this while Gardner worked his second job as a full-time maintenance man for Holy Family Church in nearby Cahokia, Ill.

During this ride-a-long, Gardner acknowledged having no media-relations training but divulged the three-officer department's plan for handling an event that led newscasts across the US.

One involved keeping the heat of the bright camera lights away from off-duty officers so they could rest for what would likely be a busy week. Officers normally take their patrol cars home, but "we left the cars in the department parking lot, so the press couldn't track down officers at home." It proved to be a wise strategy, given that reporters were crawling the town in search of sound bites - anyone from Weston's Boy Scout leader two doors from the police station to his high-school classmate on the other end of town.

Another strategy was a press release by village administrator Dennis Knobloch, left in the police-station lobby, which read in part: "The tragedy that was played out in Washington ... proves just how fragile our lives are. One individual, through mindless, deranged actions, can ... change the lives of many individuals forever. Residents of ... Valmeyer shared a zip code with Russell E. Weston, but not much else.... We join all the people of the world in expressing our sympathy to the families of those involved." Poignant words from a man representing yet another town with no special claim to fame, but where senseless violence was spawned.

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