The shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard was the work of a lone gunman, a government contractor named Aaron Alexis, who entered the facility legally with a valid identification card, according to authorities.
Even as those details came into focus, Washington’s mayor and police chief still couldn’t say why Alexis went to the base where he worked, about a mile from the U.S. Capitol, and opened fire, killing 12 people, before he was shot to death by police.
Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said officials see no sign of terrorism, though he offered no other clues to Alexis’s motive. Alexis had twice been arrested in shooting-related incidents over the past nine years, police records show, and he was removed from the Navy Reserve because of a pattern of misconduct during his service years.
“This is a horrific tragedy,” Gray told reporters.
The incident marked the nation’s deadliest mass shooting since 20 children and six adults were killed at a Connecticut elementary school in December, raising the prospect of renewed debate over limits on gun ownership. Alexis’s ability to gain access to the military facility -- after a previous firearms arrest helped prompt his discharge from the Navy Reserve -- spurred questions about oversight of government contractors.
Alexis had been treated since August by the Department of Veterans Affairs for mental health issues, including paranoia and a sleep disorder, the Associated Press reported today, citing law enforcement officials it didn’t identify. The Navy hadn’t declared him mentally unfit, which would have ended his security clearance, the news agency said.
Authorities began releasing the names of victims last night and said none of the dead was an active-duty member of the military and that all were civilians or contractors. Eight people were injured in the incident, including three who were shot, and all are expected to recover, Gray said.
This morning, workers began returning to the Navy Yard, a complex of brick buildings surrounded by walls and iron gates. Jarnard Brown, a contractor at the Navy Yard, recalled the gunfire he heard in Building 197 yesterday, which sent him rushing for cover in his cubicle, as he arrived at the gate today.
“I’m glad we’re alive,” he said. “You never can tell what’s going to happen when you go to work -- or life in general.”
The shooting, carried out with a high-powered weapon, unleashed a day of chaos in the nation’s capital after it was reported about 8:15 a.m. Washington time at the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command, where about 3,000 people work. Alexis had an AR-15 assault rifle, and a shotgun and handgun he took from a police officer, the AP reported, citing law enforcement officials.
Gary Humes, a program manager, arrived at work at Building 197 -- the site of the attack -- about 8:20 a.m. yesterday when he heard a loud blast and a crowd rushed out the front door.
Tim Jirus, a Navy commander, rushed down from his fourth-floor office at the Washington Navy Yard into an alley, where a man stopped to ask him what was going on. A bullet struck the man in the head.
Alexis had legal access to the Navy Yard as result of his work there as a contractor and used a “valid pass” to gain entry, according to Valerie Parlave, assistant FBI director in charge of the Washington field office.
Representative Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement last night the incident raised concerns that “access control systems at our nation’s military facilities have serious flaws.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation identified Alexis as the shooter, and a portrait emerged of a man drawn to Buddhist meditation who was rattled by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and had encounters with police in Texas and Washington State after gun-related incidents. The agency asked the public for any additional information on the suspect.
Alexis, who was born in New York City, enlisted in the Navy in 2007 and served in recruit training and logistics in Illinois and Texas, according to the Navy. He was last assigned to a logistics support squadron in Fort Worth, Texas, according to the Navy.
Pattern of Misconduct
He was removed from the Navy Reserve in 2011 because of a pattern of misconduct during his service years that included an arrest in Texas, according to a Navy official who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters.
Fort Worth police arrested Alexis on Sept. 4, 2010, after an upstairs neighbor reported that a bullet came through her floor from the apartment below, where Alexis lived.
The neighbor said Alexis had called the police several times complaining she was being loud, and that several days beforehand, Alexis had confronted her in the parking lot for making too much noise.
Alexis told officers he was cleaning a gun when it went off, according to police records. The woman told police that “she is terrified of Aaron and feels that this was done intentionally,” according to the report.
Alexis was arrested, though Tarrant County authorities declined to file a case against him for reckless discharge of a firearm after determining that he was cleaning his gun.
In 2004, Alexis was arrested by Seattle police on suspicion of shooting out the tires of a construction worker’s vehicle, according to the Seattle Police Department. Alexis told police that he had been mocked and disrespected by construction workers. The police didn’t say how the case was resolved.
Alexis worked for The Experts Inc., a subcontractor of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) on a contract to upgrade equipment on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network, according to a statement by Michael Thacker, a Hewlett-Packard spokesman. He held a valid military ID card, called a common-access card, permitting entry into most facilities, the Washington Post reported, citing Experts Chief Executive Officer Thomas Hoshko.
“We are actively cooperating with the FBI and other authorities in relation to the investigation on the suspect,” according to a statement from Experts.
Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, 30, the owner of a Thai restaurant in Fort Worth, said he had known Alexis for more than three years and was once his roommate. He said he never heard Alexis complain about the Navy and was surprised to learn about yesterday’s events.
“I’ve never known him to be angry,” he said, adding that Alexis had worshipped with him at a Buddhist temple.
Police last night released the names and ages of seven of those killed in the shooting spree. They include: Michael Arnold, 59; Sylvia Frasier, 53; Kathy Gaarde, 62; John Roger Johnson, 73; Frank Kohler, 50; Kenneth Bernard Proctor, 46; and Vishnu Pandit, 61.
A man who answered the phone at a North Potomac, Maryland, residence confirmed that Vishnu Pandit had lived at the house and said the family wasn’t “in the mood to talk” to the media about the shooting. Efforts to reach other the victims’ family members last night were unsuccessful.
Jirus, the Navy commander, said he was in his fourth-floor office when the fire alarm went off and he fled to an alley outside. He stopped to speak with another man, whom he didn’t know, when he heard what sounded like gun shots. He saw the man shot in the head.
“To hear the gunshots and realize you were that close makes me a little unnerved,” Jirus, who works for Naval Sea Systems Command, told reporters outside the Navy Yard. “It makes me like life a lot today. I’m going to hug my kids the next time I see them.”
Captain Mark Vandroff, who works in the Naval Sea Systems Command facility, known as Building 197, said he was meeting with his staff, preparing for a presentation at the Pentagon next month, when the shooting began. Two rounds passed through his conference room on the third floor, though no one was injured.
Vandroff and his staff barricaded the door with furniture until about 10 a.m., when police escorted them to another building in the complex. He said a friend whom he declined to identify was killed.
“I lost a friend today,” he said. “I lost someone who I served with at the Pentagon years ago. I haven’t processed that yet.”
Humes, the program manager, said he took shelter in nearby building 201, which housed as many as 150 people who fled the gunfire. Like other workers, he spent the rest of the day locked in, watching television news reports about what went on outside and counting himself lucky not to be among those killed.
“I decided to come to work a little late this morning,” he said. “I guess God was with me on that one.”
To contact the reporters on this story: William Selway in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Kathleen Miller in Washington at email@example.com; Tony Capaccio in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org