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Gunman Shot Outside of the White House

Aired February 7, 2001 - 4:02 p.m. ET


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Here is the latest we have on the shooting today at the White House. At last report, alleged gunman Robert Pickett of Evansville, Indiana is awaiting surgery. He was shot in the leg by the Secret Service after a 10 to 14 minute standoff on the outer side of the White House fence. The White House press secretary says, agents on routine patrol heard gunshots this morning and spotted the suspect near the southwest White House gate. Law enforcement officials say the man appeared intent on harming himself, and at one point placed his gun in his mouth.

At the time of the incident, President Bush was in the White House residence, and his spokesman says he was never in any danger. Vice President Cheney was in his West Wing office, and, likewise, he was never in any danger.

As for the suspect, he is identified as Robert Pickett, a 47- year-old tax accountant from Evansville, Indiana. Pickett described by a friend as kind, but a man who'd suffered emotional problems. After a heightened state of security, the White House is back to normal at this hour, and officials say new security measures are not being considered at this point.

Joining us now by telephone from the alleged gunman's home is Melinda Roeder of WTVW-TV. Ms. Roeder, thank you for joining us again. What can you tell us about what is happening there?

MELINDA ROEDER, WTVW-TV CORRESPONDENT: Right now, the scene here is just swarming with police, with media, we have got several local law enforcement on the scene, and also a couple of agents from the U.S. Secret Service. They did apply for a search warrant this afternoon and I am told that they have gotten that search warrant and have not gone into Pickett's house yet. At this point, they say they are just looking for any evidence that might prove to be valuable in the case; they're not looking for anything in particular.

And we've been talking with neighbors here, because this afternoon, it's a quiet neighborhood. A lot of schoolchildren are just getting home now. A lot of adults are getting home from work. They're wanting to know what is going on. They're watching it on the news, they're hearing it on the radio on their way home from work. A lot of questions here.

Police have just blocked off the street where his home is located and we've been able to talk with a few neighbors to find out a little bit about Robert Pickett. What we're hearing is that he is a certified public accountant, he works here for a firm in Evansville, and other than that, we know that he is kind of a quiet man, and keeps to himself. He lives by himself -- he used to live with his parents, and they passed away a few years ago. His father was also a CPA -- they worked at the same firm.

At this point, we are hearing that nobody has any idea why he was in Washington, D.C. A couple of neighbors said that they hadn't seen him in months. One neighbor I talked to said she thinks she may have seen him just yesterday here outside of his home, getting his mail. And they all say that he is very quiet, does not talk politics, does not talk much about his business other than occasionally say hi to neighbors.

FRAZIER: We do have a report, Ms. Roeder, from an attorney who represented Mr. Pickett that he was fired from his job years ago from the IRS and sued a number of people, saying that that was unfair. Do you know anything about that?

ROEDER: That is what we were hearing as well on the scene, but we have not been able to confirm that with the firm that he was working for. We're still working on that. At this point, they have not released a lot of information. The only thing that the police are able to concern is that Pickett does not have a criminal record here with local law enforcement, at least not in this tri-state area.

However, in 1993, he was reported missing by his father -- he seemed to disappear for a few days. Police did not follow up on that very closely, because he was an adult and they said he did show up a couple of days later. But they say that's not a pattern -- he wouldn't have just left town without telling anybody why or where he was going.

FRAZIER: Melinda Roeder joining us from the front lawn of Mr. Pickett's home in Evansville, Indiana. Ms. Roeder, thank you very much.

Now, to be absolutely clear, the only person we understand is hurt in the incident near the White House was the alleged gunman himself. CNN's Charles Bierbauer is outside George Washington University Hospital, where the suspect is right now, and he can fill us in on Mr. Pickett's condition. Charles, good afternoon.

CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Stephen, Mr. Pickett is awaiting surgery later this afternoon here at George Washington University Hospital. Earlier this afternoon, we did hear from hospital officials, Dr. Yolanda Haywood, who was the emergency medical physician who treated him when he was brought here. Here is her description.


DR. YOLANDA HAYWOOD, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: The patient is medically stable, he has been shot in the leg, doing damage to the right knee joint. He will need surgery later today to remove the bone fragments and, if available, the actual bullet. In the meantime, the patient will undergo a vascular surgery and psychiatric evaluation.


BIERBAUER: Dr. Haywood described the patient as a man who is calm and conscious and, in fact, in the 20 minutes or so, that she spent with him, she said that he was noncommunicative. He did not speak with her, gave her no indications of pain, in fact he laid apparently still, while he was being treated. As we indicated, he is also being given psychiatric evaluation, which Dr. Haywood, and Dr. Riley suggested is somewhat standard procedure for anyone who is shot in the neighborhood of the White House.

Of course, the psychiatric evaluation information has not been shared with us as to what may or is likely to have been found. We are told that there will be an update on his condition at some point, following the scheduled surgery on his knee. That surgery is scheduled for approximately 5:00 our time here. No indication of how long it will take or when that additional update might come to us -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Charles, was it your understanding, as I heard it from Dr. Haywood, that Mr. Pickett was not interviewed by the police, at least while she was with the patient?

BIERBAUER: Well, he was noncommunicative in the span of time that she was with him. She indicated that he did not speak, gave any signs of pain. An additional doctor, Dr. Williams, who is the dean of the medical school here, pointed out that the unusual nature of that particular behavior suggesting that people who are shot and brought here -- and that does happen at this hospital -- are generally in great pain and showing that pain and often very angry about their situation and certainly in anguish and there was none of that kind of behavior evident in this patient --Stephen.

FRAZIER: Charles Bierbauer outside of George Washington University Hospital. Thank you, Charles, for that update.

As you might imagine, it was a hectic day at the White House. Let's turn now to CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace. Kelly, who I recall correctly, you were on the grounds when this all began, is that right?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Stephen. It was quite hectic here, but the situation has turned back to normal. Marked contrast, as you mentioned, five hours earlier, when we saw the officers around the White House grounds, definitely an increased amount of activity going on. And just to refresh our viewers of exactly what we know. We're told, at the White House, at approximately 11:30, Secret Service agents doing a routine patrol of the White House, heard shots. Eyewitnesses say the man, the suspect, Robert Pickett, they say that he allegedly fired two or three shots and went into some bushes, at which point, officers tried to talk to this man.

Now, we understand from the White House, that about a 10--minute, in the White House's words, standoff ensued; at which point, authorities say the man did talk about killing himself and he even pointed the gun in his mouth. After that, one U.S. Secret Service officer did, in fact, shoot the man as we know in the knee.

Again, at this whole time, the White House saying that the president was never in any danger, he was notified by Secret Service agents that there was an incident going on at the southernmost tip outside the White House gates, and here's what Ari Fleischer told reporters, a lengthy exchange from Ari Fleischer a short time ago.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president was working out in the residence at the time.

QUESTION: We have seen some people leave. Was there any time where visitors and tourists were asked to leave the White House? Any evacuation, temporary evacuation that went on?

FLEISCHER: The tourists -- the White House was opened at that moment for tourists. And tourists were asked and escorted out the gates of the White House as a routine precaution.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that this wasn't an act of terrorism?

FLEISCHER: Again, the whole matter will be under investigation, but I've seen no evidence that would suggest that.

QUESTION: Was this a handgun that the suspect had? Did he, himself, fire the shots?

FLEISCHER: That will be under investigation.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea what his motive or intent was?

FLEISCHER: Again, it's all preliminary. The investigation is under way.

QUESTION: How many shots were fired?

FLEISCHER: I will decline -- that will be part of the investigation.


FLEISCHER: There were a number of shots.


FLEISCHER: A number of shots. I'm not going to indicate a specific number.

QUESTION: Fired at him? Is that what you're saying?

FLEISCHER: The suspect fired a number of shots.

QUESTION: Were they shot at the White House, the White House steps?

FLEISCHER: That is part of the investigation.

QUESTION: When you say the "southernmost tip," that means the part where you'd have a clear line of vision.

FLEISCHER: That's correct. I've seen a number of press reports that say it was the southwest gate. That's not correct. It was very close to the southernmost tip, just slightly west of the southernmost tip.


WALLACE: And again, Ari Fleischer saying that the president never in any danger, neither -- the same with Vice President Cheney, who happened to be in his West Wing office. Sources do tell CNN that a five-shot revolver was recovered as well as several shell casings. Sources also do believe that the suspect did fire a number of shots.

Stephen, back to you.

FRAZIER: Kelly, we're glad for your safety that you're on the north side of the White House grounds. We ought to set the scene a little bit. You're on the north side of the White House, to the side that you can see if you're on Pennsylvania Avenue as a tourist. Is that right?

WALLACE: Exactly. I'm here on the north lawn. Right outside here is Pennsylvania Avenue, which is currently closed to vehicle traffic, and the south lawn would be sort of directly behind the White House looking from the south side of the White House.

So we could not see from our vantage point when we were here earlier today around 11:30 or so, we could not see what was happening. All we could see of course was the increased amount of activity on the White House grounds.

FRAZIER: Kelly Wallace, thanks for that update. Thanks for your report today. We are going to turn now to an inside expert on what kind of events happen when this sort of things happens. Dwight Ellison joins us, as he has been earlier in the day, currently in his position as director of security for Turner Corporation, but also in his earlier capacity as a Secret Service officer yourself.

An amazing event, but one which you said went exactly according to plan, according to rules, at least the response.

DWIGHT ELLISON, FORMER SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Pardon me. Agents are trained repeatedly to do this thing. What you saw today on television was a direct response and reaction, and in effect, a direct -- an obvious example of how they're trained, how well they are trained, and how routinely this thing happens.

I mean, nobody was excited. Nobody lost their cool. Everybody did exactly as they were supposed to. FRAZIER: But not TO minimize the kind of tension they must have been facing, these were Secret Service officers responding as they were on their vehicular patrol, and I guess a big Suburban, a four- wheel Suburban, heard the shots, saw the gunman there.

Now, what do you think it must have been like as they were talking him down face-to-face for that 12-14 minutes that they were with him on the south grounds?

ELLISON: It's kind of hard to say, especially since there are reports that this man had emotional problems, was threatening suicide. It's -- it's virtually impossible for me to assess what it was like, primarily because each and every individual's different and is going to respond differently to stimuli. I -- I'd rather not even -- I'd rather not venture to enter into that one.

FRAZIER: Well, to help characteristic that and to joins us in the middle of this conversation is our Eileen O'Connor, who spent all of the day at the actual scene of the shooting and the scene of the confrontation itself.

Eileen, what can you fill us in on how those moments played out?

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what I can tell you, Stephen, is what eyewitness told us and also what the U.S. Park Police has said, that basically what happened, according to eyewitness, is that cars were driving along here. According to one woman, she saw a man, described him as in baggy pants, who was brandishing a firearm, a handgun, and was firing. But she said somewhat aimlessly.

She got out of her -- she reversed her vehicle, tried to get out, got out of the vehicle eventually, went down to the ground, another man joined her behind her vehicle to take cover. And then they said a police officer came upon the scene, and the U.S. Park Police said that a District police officer, who was also going around this area on a routine patrol, heard the shots, came over to investigate, then engaged the suspect, Robert Pickett, in a conversation. And then as well immediately upon the scene came the Secret Service agent, Uniformed Secret Service agents.

And of course, in the perimeter of the White House grounds, then the response that Kelly Wallace talks about, Secret Service agents taking up positions as they were all radioing each other that there was a disturbance outside the gates. And we heard from other eyewitnesses who said that they were coming through the self-tour of the White House and that they, as they were leaving -- these are tourists -- they were leaving, Secret Service agents told them to back up, to only exit certain areas, through certain gates. And again, they said that it was only after they heard a shot that then the Secret Service agents relaxed and went forward to where the suspect was.

FRAZIER: Eileen, we're operating under the belief that you are the only reporter to actually be at scene of the shooting. Now, what have you found actually at the scene? O'CONNOR: Well, there have been other reporters here, too, now being able to take somewhat of a tour of where this took place. And basically, there were about 1,800 feet, 600 yards from the back of the White House. And now, the U.S. Park Police said that the type of handgun that was -- that was confiscated, if it was an unobstructed view to the White House, could -- a bullet could have reached the White House. But there are a lot of trees, a lot of bushes between this sidewalk, where the suspect was, Robert Pickett, and the White House, so that there was obstructions, mainly trees and bushes.

And again, apparently, he was walking along that sidewalk. And what we have been seeing after is you can see right over there by that wrought-iron fence -- and what we've been seeing for the last couple of hours is the police, Secret Service agents doing -- lining up, Stephen, and then walking very slowly, both along the sidewalk, and of course, also inside the grounds of the White House.

They say what they're looking for are casings, shell casings to prove the eyewitnesses were correct: They say that they heard shots, but law enforcement agents basically are not sure, were not sure originally. And also, they were looking for other weapons or anything else.

Again, this is an active crime scene -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Eileen O'Connor, from the crime scene, thanks very much for those insights.

Now turning once again to Dwight Ellison -- I guess one of the reasons why they respond so aggressively even when it does end up playing out to be relatively uneventful at the end of the day is because he could not -- it's possible that he wasn't the only person involved in this. Is that right?

ELLISON: Exactly. You have to take into account any time an incident such as this occurs is that it could very well be a diversion.

FRAZIER: A diversion.

ELLISON: It could very well be a diversion. And in this case, you've got an incident occurring near the southernmost tip of the south grounds. There are other -- two other primary points of entry nearby where gates are located, and this incident could have been enacted to draw attention from either of those other two. You never know.

So the officers and agents have to respond thinking and foremost to neutralize the immediate threat, but then to prepare themselves in case there is a subsequent attack from another area of the grounds.

FRAZIER: Which we now know they did very well today.

ELLISON: Oh, yes. Training one more time...

FRAZIER: Yes. ELLISON: ... proved its worth.

FRAZIER: Well, Dwight Ellison, thanks for those insights on how things go. Thanks very much.

ELLISON: My pleasure.

FRAZIER: As fast as events occurred this morning, the account of what actually happened came together over several hours. Here's some of what we heard as the story was breaking.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At 11:36 this morning...


O'CONNOR: There's a helicopter circling the White House perimeter.

KING: A single gunman was seen outside of the southwest gate of the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We saw guns drawn, we saw police running as fast as they could in different directions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I was just exiting the self-guided tour, and as I was walking out, they started closed the big iron gates behind us and a few of the security people tried to usher us out, real -- real orderly, but they were definitely telling you to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I made a joke -- they're going to shoot us, huh? And he said, oh, that was just fireworks, firecrackers (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He said, but you know what, they'll be here in a minute, the police and stuff.

And we looked around, they were there just like that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Within three or four minutes several police cars were pulling up. I was directly on the opposite side of the street as the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and I didn't realize how serious it was until the police were jumping out of their cars with their guns drawn and they were hiding behind large trees.

So, that's when I got down, and they probably talked to him for, I would say, a good, 10, 15 minutes, and all I could make out was, you know, drop the gun, it doesn't have to be this way, we can talk to you.

O'CONNOR: So has that appeared to have been the time that he was shot? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, there was just a single gunshot. The police had him surrounded for a good 15 minutes before I heard that single gunshot. And then immediately they all just converged on him, and then they brought an ambulance in, and they were gone shortly after.


FRAZIER: For more on the U.S. Secret Service, which is a branch of the Treasury Department charged with protecting the president, the vice president and other officials, you can visit its Web site -- here it is -- at

And here we're going to take a break. It's hard to imagine, but there actually are other stories occurring this afternoon, and when we come back, we'll give you some details of those.



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