An off-duty U.S. Capitol Police officer has died; law enforcement officials cite suicide
By ALLISON KLEIN | The Washington Post | Published: January 10, 2021
U.S. Capitol Police on Sunday announced the death of off-duty officer Howard Liebengood, the son and namesake of a former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, lobbyist and Hill staffer.
Two law enforcement officials told The Washington Post that Liebengood, 51, died by suicide over the weekend, days after being on the scene of Wednesday's violent siege of the Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob.
Statements by the Capitol Police and its union did not release a cause or date of death for Liebengood, who had been with the department since April 2005 and was assigned to the Senate Division.
"We are reeling from the death of Officer Liebengood," Gus Papathanasiou, head of the Capitol Police union, said in a statement. "Every Capitol Police Officer put the security of others before their own safety and Officer Liebengood was an example of the selfless service that is the hallmark of USCP. This is a tragic day."
The statement from the Capitol Police says: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends, and colleagues."
Friends described Liebengood as humble and reserved, and said he shared a love of race car driving with his father.
Charlie Ostlund, 70, taught him at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., in the 1980s, and mentored him as his wrestling coach. He remembers Liebengood as a team player who often surprised opponents with his strength and physical talent.
Ostlund said the younger Liebengood looked up to his father, Howard S. Liebengood Sr., who served as the Senate Sergeant at Arms from 1981 to 1983. The sergeant at arms is the chief law enforcement officer of the Senate, charged with ensuring security in the Capitol and Senate buildings, as well as protecting members of the Senate.
"He was a great student and great kid," Ostlund said. "This is just so, so sad."
Liebengood Sr. oversaw the Capitol Police as part of his duties as Sergeant at Arms. He left that position to become a lobbyist, eventually starting his own firm with another former Hill staffer. In 2001, he returned to Capitol Hill to become chief of staff to his longtime friend, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and later to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. He died on Jan. 13, 2005, from a heart attack, just two weeks shy of his retirement.
Frist spoke about Liebengood Sr. on the Senate floor after his death, according to a 2005 Senate transcript. "Howard Liebengood loved the Senate. He loved the purpose of this institution; he loved its tradition; and, above all, he loved its people. The Senate was his extended family," Frist said.
Another friend of the younger Liebengood, Stu Wilkinson, who also was on the wrestling team at Madison High School, said his friend's relationship with the Washington political elite dates back to their childhood.
He remembers that during a school trip to the White House in the 1980s, members of the secret service took Liebengood aside to have him speak with then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Henry Baker Jr., R.
"Here comes Senator Baker shaking Howie's hand," Wilkinson said. "(Liebengood) was so humble ... None of us had any clue how they knew each other."
Wilkinson said that when he saw news reports of the Capitol riots on Wednesday, his mind went straight to Liebengood. He scanned the television footage, hoping his friend was all right.
"He was an outstanding guy," Wilkinson said. "A quiet, silent leader."
The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.