A contradictory picture emerged of the suspect in the deadly Washington Navy Yard rampage. He meditated at a Buddhist temple yet spent hours playing assault-themed video games. He didn’t strike friends as violent, yet was arrested for firing his gun in anger.
As federal law-enforcement officials appealed for more information about Aaron Alexis, 34, who was shot dead by police at the scene, friends expressed surprise that he was being blamed for the attack yesterday that claimed at least a dozen lives besides his own. Authorities said he was the sole gunman.
“I don’t think he’s one who would shoot people,” Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, 30, of Fort Worth, Texas, a friend and former roommate of Alexis, said in an interview. “I don’t think he would do that.”
“I’ve never known him to be angry,” he said, adding that Alexis worshiped with him at a Buddhist temple and traveled to Thailand in the past year with his family.
A far different portrait was drawn by police reports of Alexis, a former Navy reservist and technology contractor whom relatives believed had trouble controlling his anger and may have been suffering from stress brought on by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Alexis was arrested in Seattle on June 3, 2004 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 me how he was present during the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, and how those events had disturbed him,” the arresting officer wrote in the report. Alexis’s father told authorities at the time that his son “had experienced anger-management problems” that the family thought were brought on by stress following his involvement in post-9/11 rescue efforts.
Public records indicate that Alexis was living in Queens at the time of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon 12 years ago.
The Seattle incident wouldn’t be the last time Alexis would get in trouble with his gun. He was also arrested in White Settlement, Texas, on Sept. 4, 2010, for discharging a firearm, after an upstairs neighbor in his apartment complex called police to say somebody had shot through her floor and ceiling, missing her by only a few feet.
Alexis told an officer on the scene the shooting was accidental -- he said he was cleaning his gun while cooking and that his hands slipped and unintentionally pulled the trigger.
Still, the woman whose apartment was fired on told police she was “terrified” of Alexis, who had previously called law enforcement on her several times and confronted her in the parking lot of their suburban Fort Worth apartment complex to complain she was being too loud, according to the report.
In a statement, the Tarrant County district attorney’s office said authorities believed Alexis’s explanation and found no grounds to follow through on charging him with “recklessly” discharging a firearm. Yet the incident may have cost Alexis his apartment; later that month, legal filings show the complex began the process of evicting him.
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. His final assignment was to a logistics support squadron in Fort Worth, according to the Navy, and he last held the rank of specialty aviation electrician’s mate third class. He was discharged in 2011.
Alexis was discharged from the Navy Reserves because of a “pattern of misconduct” during his service years that included the 2010 Texas arrest, even though the charges were later dropped, according to a Navy official who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters.
“I can’t fathom him pointing a gun at someone and shooting them,” Michael Ritrovato, 50, a friend of Alexis, said in an interview. Still, he said Alexis “did play video games a lot, the shooting kind, and from what I could tell he was pretty good at it.”
Ritrovato first met Alexis when he was working at The Happy Bowl, Suthamtewakul’s Thai restaurant in White Settlement, which he left about a year ago to join a company involved in computer work and government contracting.
Alexis was an employee of The Experts Inc., an information technology services company that worked as a subcontractor to Hewlett-Packard Co. on a contract to upgrade an intranet network for the Navy and Marine Corps, according to a statement from Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard. Michael Thacker, a spokesman for Hewlett-Packard, said in a phone interview that he didn’t know how long Alexis had worked for the subcontractor or whether he had a security clearance.
“HP is cooperating fully with law enforcement as requested,” the company said in its e-mailed statement.
Alexis was enrolled as an online student pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he started classes in July 2012, according to a statement released by the school.
While his friends were aware that he owned guns, they said they never saw Alexis as being obsessed with firearms. He was enthralled with the video games, said Ritrovato, who recalled that when he went to Alexis’s house to watch a football game, Alexis spent the entire three hours playing in the other room.
Jua Abbott, 65, of White Settlement, called Alexis “a happy man” who prayed with her at the temple, came for celebrations, and “was like my son.” He had attended temple every Sunday yet hadn’t appeared recently, said Abbott, who said she had known Alexis for three years and last spoke to him about six months ago.
Alexis had legal access to the Navy Yard as result of his work 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.
The shooting, reported at around 8:15 a.m., was the deadliest mass killing in the U.S. since the massacre of 20 students and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.
“There’s no question” the suspected Navy Yard gunman “would have kept shooting” if he hadn’t been killed, Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters.
“We now feel comfortable we have the single and sole person responsible for the loss of the life inside the base today,” Lanier told reporters later.