Six weeks before he opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard, Aaron Alexis complained he was being followed, spoken to and kept awake by unseen harassers, prompting a police officer to warn naval authorities they might have a contractor who was “hearing voices.”
It would be at least the fourth time that Alexis, the 34-year-old technology contractor and former Navy reservist who fatally shot 12 people and injured eight others Sept. 16, would be flagged by law enforcement in the years preceding the massacre without losing the security clearance that allowed him access to military facilities.
The U.S. Department of Defense plans a security review of military facilities amid scrutiny over how Alexis kept his security clearance given his arrest record, troubled military career and history of mental illness. The Pentagon’s inspector general also released a report yesterday documenting lapses that allowed 52 convicted felons routine access to naval bases.
While Alexis was involved in a series of run-ins with law enforcement, none is known to have led to a criminal conviction or serious legal consequences. Warning signs were surfacing as recently as a few weeks before the shooting rampage.
Alexis called police to his Newport, Rhode Island, hotel room early Aug. 7 to report that he believed three people had been sent “to follow him and keep him awake by talking to him and sending vibrations into his body,” according to a police incident report. He told the responding officers he was a naval contractor and said he thought the people had been sent to harass him by a stranger with whom he had argued at the airport in Virginia while boarding his flight to Rhode Island.
Because of the voices, Alexis said, he had switched hotels three times -- at one point checking into one on a Navy base. He said he continued to hear the voices, telling police he was afraid he would be harmed by the people, who he said were using “some sort of microwave machine” to send vibrations to penetrate his body.
Alexis “stated that he does not have a history of mental illness in his family and that he has never had any sort of mental episode,” the responding officer wrote in the report, adding that he informed Alexis to stay away from the people following him and call the police if they attempted to make contact with him.
An officer who approved the incident report was concerned enough about the episode and Alexis’s stated connection to the Navy to notify the Naval Station Police, he wrote in a subsequent report.
“Based on the Naval Base implications” and Alexis’s claim that he was “hearing voices,” that officer wrote, he contacted on-duty Naval Station Police personnel and faxed over a copy of the incident report.
The second report indicates that the Naval Station individual who was contacted, whose name was not released, told the officer that he or she “would follow up on this subject and determine if he is in fact a naval base contractor.”
A public affairs officer at Naval Station Newport referred all questions to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the inquiry into the rampage. Jacqueline Maguire, an FBI spokeswoman, said the agency was aware of the police report.
“It is part of our investigation to track back and look at Mr. Alexis’ past, his history, his activities,” Maguire said in an interview. She declined to comment on whether the information recorded by the Newport police officer was pursued.
The Newport episode was one in a series of contacts with police by Alexis -- including gun-related incidents in Forth Worth, Texas, and Seattle that didn’t lead to convictions.
In 2010, Fort Worth police arrested Alexis after an upstairs neighbor who said she was “terrified” of Alexis reported that a bullet came through her floor from his apartment below, missing her by only feet.
Alexis told officers he was cleaning a gun when it went off, according to police records, and Tarrant County believed him, declining to charge him with recklessly discharging a firearm.
In 2004, Alexis was arrested in Seattle for shooting the tires on a car belonging to a construction worker parked near where he lived, according to an incident report posted by city police. Alexis told police that he’d shot his gun and then suffered from a “blackout” fueled by anger, after he believed the construction worker had mocked and disrespected him.
Alexis also told the arresting officer he had been “disturbed” by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and, in a subsequent interview, his father told authorities his son had “anger-management problems” the family thought stemmed from stress following his involvement in post-9/11 rescue efforts.
Charges in the Seattle incident were never pursued, for reasons that aren’t clear to law enforcement authorities there.
Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for the Seattle city attorney, said the police report -- which contained allegations of property destruction and discharge of a firearm -- “did not get to our office -- unknown why -- and thus it was not considered for charges.”
The King County prosector’s office handled Alexis’s initial court appearance the day of his arrest June 4, said Dan Donohoe, a spokesman, and Alexis was released on personal recognizance on the condition that he not have contact with the construction worker and return to court on June 7. Because no charging decision had been made by that date, Alexis’s case was cleared from the calendar, Donohoe said.
In 2008, Alexis was arrested for disorderly conduct in DeKalb County, Georgia, and spent two nights in jail after being ejected from a local club, WGCL Television in Atlanta reported.
Scrutiny of military security came as law enforcement officials released more details on the shooting, the deadliest since the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.
Authorities believe Alexis entered the base on the morning of Sept. 16 with a shotgun he had purchased legally in Virginia, according to Valerie Parlave, assistant FBI director in charge of the Washington field office. He also may have gained access to a handgun after he began shooting inside the facility, she said.
The attack lasted more than half an hour, from start to finish, Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters at a briefing yesterday. Officers entered the building where Alexis was within seven minutes and engaged him multiple times before he was shot to death, she said.
Alexis gained access to the Navy Yard on Sept. 16 with a valid identification card because of his status as a government contractor, Parlave said.
Alexis, who was born in New York City, enlisted in 2007 and was last assigned to a logistics support squadron in Fort Worth, according to the Navy. He was granted his secret-level clearance in March 2008, according to a defense official.
While in the Navy, he was reprimanded at least eight times for misconduct, including extended, unauthorized absences, according to another defense official.
He asked to leave the Navy and was honorably discharged in January 2011 because the Navy wanted him to separate from the service, according to a Navy official. The officials asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters.
After departing the Navy, Alexis retained his clearance, which was good for 10 years, and wasn’t subject to a reinvestigation, one of the defense officials said.
About 3.5 million Americans held secret or confidential clearances as of October 2012, including about 582,524 who worked for contractors, according to data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
‘Hard to Believe’
Alexis had a history of mental illness, which was first revealed during interviews with family members in New York, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the case who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. The symptoms, which included hearing voices, had been apparent for an extended period of time, the official said.
“It really is hard to believe that someone with a record as checkered as this man could conceivably get clearance, could get credentials, to be able to get on the base,” Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said during an interview yesterday with CNN. “This is one of the most secure facilities in the nation.”
At the time of the shooting, Alexis was employed by the Experts firm, 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.
The Experts said in a statement that it confirmed his secret clearance with the Defense Department and that two background checks revealed no issues except a minor traffic violation.
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at email@example.com; William Selway in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Gopal Ratnam in Washington at email@example.com