FBI Director James Comey said evidence suggests that Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis carried out his rampage without targeting a particular person and there’s no sign that he had accomplices.
The Sept. 16 shootings left 12 people dead, not counting Alexis, who was killed by security personnel. Comey said that yesterday he visited the team that is gathering evidence at the Navy Yard building where the shootings occurred, and that he had reviewed videos.
“It appears to me that he was wandering the halls and hunting people to shoot,” Comey told reporters at the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington today. “He appears to be moving without particular direction or purpose,” and didn’t seem to be “looking for a particular person or a particular group.”
Alexis, a 34-year-old Navy contractor, entered the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters with a valid pass and had a secret clearance even though he had an arrest record, a troubled military career and a history of mental illness. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged yesterday that the military failed to pick up “red flags” in Alexis’s background.
Hagel said authorities would investigate and plug holes in security at facilities worldwide, and weaknesses in the clearance procedures that allow access to them.
Comey, 52, who took office Sept. 4 to serve a 10-year-term at the FBI, said investigators haven’t determined whether Alexis said anything during the shootings or whether he had any grievances about his job.
“We’re attempting to understand as best we can his life up until the moment of that shooting, which would include whether there were issues related to work,” the FBI director said.
Alexis entered the Navy building with a Remington 870 shotgun that was sawed off at both ends -- the barrel and the stock, Comey said. He went to a fourth-floor restroom carrying a bag, and came out without the bag and carrying the shotgun, the director said.
Almost immediately, Alexis began shooting people on the fourth floor, then on the third floor and then he went to the lobby, where he shot a security guard and took the guard’s Beretta semi-automatic pistol, Comey said. After Alexis ran out of ammunition for the shotgun, he began shooting with the pistol, the director said.
Security officials cornered Alexis and there was a “sustained exchange” of gunfire in which he was killed, Comey said. The director said he couldn’t characterize what wounds Alexis suffered or how many.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said yesterday that Alexis twice requested emergency treatment for insomnia in the month before the shooting. That was just a few weeks after he had summoned police to his Rhode Island hotel room complaining that he was hearing voices and being stalked by unseen harassers -- prompting a concerned officer to alert the local naval station.
There’s no evidence any of the incidents set off alarms. The Navy has found no sign that the police officer’s warning was communicated up the chain of command, a Navy official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity about a continuing investigation. The VA said Alexis told its doctors he wasn’t having thoughts about harming himself or others.
Comey declined to say when Alexis decided to carry out the shootings, and he didn’t disclose what information investigators have found among his possessions, including electronics.
“We’re doing a lot of work to understand” that information, the FBI director said. He also said the FBI’s behavioral unit would study this case and others to try to find ways to identify potential mass shooters before they act.
“Are there things, are there flags, are there markers that would be of use to preventing tragedies like this?” Comey said. “I don’t know the answer to that at this point.”
As federal law enforcement and military officials carried out sweeping inquiries into the shooting, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire wrote to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus today asking why Alexis received an honorable discharge even though he had a “pattern of misconduct.”
“Had Alexis received a general discharge, future employers would have been more likely to give his background extra scrutiny,” Ayotte, a member of the Armed Services Committee, wrote. “This additional scrutiny may have helped potential employers identify Alexis’ reported arrests in three states and better informed their hiring decisions.”
Hagel yesterday told reporters at the Pentagon that there would be separate reviews, by the Defense Department and an independent panel, of military facility security and the clearance process.
“Where there are gaps, we will close them; where there are inadequacies, we will address them; and where there are failures, we will correct them,” the defense secretary said.
President Barack Obama plans to attend a memorial service on Sept. 22 to honor those killed at the Navy Yard.
Alexis’s mother in New York released a statement yesterday apologizing to the families of her son’s victims, saying she was heartbroken.
“Aaron is now in a place where he can no longer do harm to anyone, and for that I am glad,” Cathleen Alexis said in the statement, according to audio posted by NBC News on its website.
Warning signs were surfacing as recently as a few weeks before the rampage in southeast Washington.
Alexis called police to a 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’d argued.
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 a copy of the incident report.
A public affairs officer at Naval Station Newport referred questions to the FBI. Jacqueline Maguire, an FBI spokeswoman, said the agency was aware of the police report.
Alexis was born in New York City and enlisted in the Navy in 2007. He was granted a 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, according to a Navy official who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters. Alexis kept his clearance, which was good for 10 years, and wasn’t subject to a reinvestigation, one of the defense officials said.
At the time of the shooting, Alexis was employed by 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 company spokesman.
To contact the reporters on this story: Laurie Asseo in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at email@example.com; Gopal Ratnam in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org