Early reports suggested there were three shooters blasting away inside the Washington Navy Yard on Monday morning. But the number dwindled to two as police swarmed around Building 197, headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command, which drafts blueprints and oversees production of the Navy’s fleet. By lunchtime, it was becoming increasingly clear — as in so many of these cases — there was only a lone gunman involved.
But this case was different: it didn’t involve a location somewhere far from the seat of the national government. In fact, it happened inside a secure and historic U.S. military facility, almost within the shadow of the U.S. Capitol dome.
And it involved an ex-sailor, who had been studying Buddhism and, according to colleagues, regularly meditated and embraced its nonviolent ethos. Yet initial reports suggest that beneath Aaron Alexis’ mild-mannered exterior lurked a man familiar with guns and anger, a combination that reached critical mass, for reasons still unknown, at the Navy Yard at 8:20 a.m. on Monday.
A red flag that might have averted the massacre was missed: Alexis had been visiting the Department of Veterans Affairs for mental-health care, law enforcement sources told the Associated Press, including treatment for paranoia. But the Navy hadn’t ruled him mentally unfit, which would have terminated the security clearance that let him work at the Navy Yard.
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Alexis, 34, served as a full-time Navy reservist from 2007 to 2011. In January 2011, he received a general discharge — one step down from the usual honorable discharge — for what Navy officials said was “a pattern of misconduct.” Originally from New York City, Alexis spent his last three years in uniform at the Fleet Logistics Support Squadron at the Fort Worth, Texas, Naval Air Station, reaching the rank of aviation electrician’s mate third class.
He had earned the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal during his service, simply for serving (the first is known as the “pizza stain” because it’s so common). Alexis was also pursuing an online degree in aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
After leaving the Navy, he went to work as a waiter at the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant not far from his old post, the former Carswell Air Force Base. “He was such a quiet, unassuming guy, you almost expected him to be wearing a pocket protector,” says Bud Kennedy, a columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who had been served Thai food by Alexis at the Happy Bowl.
“He seemed a little geeky,” Kennedy adds, “and didn’t seem to know that much about Thai food.” But Alexis was studying the Thai language, and becoming involved in Buddhism and its message of nonviolence.
Kennedy said the family that runs the restaurant reported that Alexis had left nearly a year ago to do computer work for a defense contractor, including stints in Washington. Alexis had been working for a company that computer giant Hewlett-Packard hired to help maintain the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, basically the sea service’s in-house Internet. According to HP, Alexis was employed by The Experts, an entity helping Hewlett-Packard maintain the network.
“He lived with me three years,” Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, owner of Happy Bowl, told the Star-Telegram. “I don’t think he’d do this … He has a gun, but I don’t think he’s that stupid. He didn’t seem aggressive to me.”
But Alexis had fired guns — at least once in anger — before. He had been arrested in 2010 after discharging a firearm — accidentally, he said — through the ceiling of his Fort Worth apartment and into a neighbor’s unit above. The two had quarreled in the past — he said she was too loud, according to a Fort Worth police report — and she said she believed the shooting was deliberate, and that Alexis “terrified” her. Alexis was arrested on suspicion of discharging a weapon in a municipality, held overnight in jail, but never charged.
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And in 2004, Alexis shot out the tires of a construction worker’s car in Seattle during what he later called an anger-fueled “blackout,” according to the report filed by Seattle police. He blamed his action on the 9/11 attacks, when he had been living in the New York City area, and had tried to help rescue those killed in the terrorist attacks, according to what his father later told police. He was never charged in that incident, either.
Alexis’ motive for the shooting remains cloudy. Led by the FBI, Navy officials said they would explore every possibility, ranging from workplace troubles to a lone-wolf terrorist attack. Until recently, Alexis worked, at least occasionally, as a contractor at the Navy Yard.
The dearth of information as to motive was palpable. “The FBI is asking for the public’s assistance with any information regarding Alexis,” the bureau said on its website, where it posted two photographs of him, about eight hours after the shooting.
“No piece of information is too small,” implored Valerie Parlave, the assistant director of the Washington field office of the FBI, at a Monday afternoon briefing. “We are looking to learn everything we can about his recent movements, his contacts and his associates.”
Witnesses and police said Alexis, clad in black, apparently used a shotgun to shoot a security guard to gain entry into Building 197. He took the guard’s pistol, and then made his way to the building’s fourth floor, also armed with an AR-15 he may have taken from a second police officer he shot. On the fourth floor, which rings an atrium over a first-floor cafeteria, Alexis sprayed gunfire at those down below. “He didn’t say a word,” Navy Yard worker Todd Brundage told CNN.
Navy Sea Systems Command — NAVSEA — is the largest of the Navy’s five system commands, and about 3,000 people work in its headquarters building. With a fiscal-year budget of nearly $30 billion, NAVSEA accounts for one-quarter of the Navy’s annual spending. Its 60,000 civilian, military and contract-support personnel design, build, buy and maintain the Navy fleet.
The Navy Yard is a onetime shipyard and ordnance facility located on 126 acres (51 hectares) in the southeast quadrant of Washington, about a mile south of the U.S. Capitol. It is the ceremonial home of the U.S. Navy, and the residence of the Navy’s top officer, the chief of naval operations, is on its grounds. In 1996, Admiral Jeremy “Mike” Boorda killed himself with a shot to the chest on a bench outside that house, after questions surfaced about whether or not he had earned a pair of combat decorations he had been wearing.
Alexis’ family issued a statement following the shooting. “Our hearts go out to you. We apologize for the inconvenience of losing a loved one,” it read. “We also lost a loved one.”
— With reporting by Elizabeth Dias