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Dwight Watson

From Academic Kids

Dwight Ware Watson (b. September 28, 1952), dubbed the "Tractor Man" in the media, was a tobacco farmer from Whitakers, North Carolina, who brought much of Washington, DC to a standstill for two days after driving a tractor into a pond on the National Mall and claiming to have explosives.

On March 17, 2003, at around 12:30 pm (EST), Watson, wearing a military helmet and displaying an upside down American flag, drove a John Deere tractor towing two vehicles into a shallow pond in Constitution Gardens near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Watson said that he was protesting the cutting of federal tobacco subsidies (on which he blamed his own farm's failure) and the government's treatment of Gulf War veterans. He claimed to have explosives that he would detonate if police approached him.

In response to Watson's threats, the United States Park Police cordoned off a large area on the Mall extending from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Several nearby government offices were also evacuated and major traffic arteries in the area were closed, which caused massive jams and paralyzed rush-hour traffic across the Washington metropolitan area.

A SWAT team composed of around 200 FBI and Park Police officers kept the pond surrounded as Watson drove his tractor around in circles, dug up part of an island in the pond, and communicated with authorities and the media on a cell phone. Watson finally surrendered to federal authorities on March 19 after a 48 hour standoff. No explosives were found.

Watson was subsequently convicted by a jury on September 26, 2003 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for making a false threat to detonate explosives and for destroying federal property. During the trial, Watson had unsuccessfully tried to subpoena such figures as Bill Clinton and Jesse Ventura, and had claimed that his comments about explosives were misunderstood.

Watson's sentencing was repeatedly delayed, including for a psychiatric evaluation ordered by the presiding judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson, who questioned Watson's mental health. Judge Jackson finally sentenced Watson to six years, far above the federal sentencing guidelines of sixteen months, based on what he saw as Watson's menacing conduct and the chaos his standoff had caused. However, following the Supreme Court's ruling in Blakely v. Washington that judges could not impose stiffer sentences based on facts that a jury had not decided, Judge Jackson reduced the sentence to sixteen months on June 30, 2004. As Watson had already served over fifteen months by that time, he was released the next day.

The fact that one man had managed to disrupt so much of the nation's capital and hold federal law enforcement officers at bay for two days raised many concerns over the vulnerability of Washington to future terrorist attacks, especially coming mere months after the Beltway sniper killings and coinciding with the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many criticized the authorities for their passive handling of Watson, as he was even left alone to sleep aboard his tractor during the two-day standoff. Others argued that the threat of a possible explosion on the Mall required patience and a peaceful resolution.

In 1982, an incident similar to Watson's ended differently. After a ten hour standoff, police shot and killed nuclear weapons protestor Norman Mayer, who was threatening to blow up the Washington Monument.

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