Navy Yard Shooter Sought Help as Pentagon Missed WarningsJulie Hirschfeld Davis, Gopal Ratnam and Tony Capaccio
Aaron Alexis sought medical help in the days before his shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, leaving a trail of missed distress signals now under scrutiny in the massacre’s wake.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged yesterday that the military failed to pick up “red flags” in Alexis’s background, pledging to investigate and plug holes in security at facilities worldwide, and weaknesses in the clearance procedures that allow access to them.
The 34-year-old Navy contractor twice requested emergency treatment for insomnia in the month before the shooting, the Department of Veterans Affairs said yesterday. 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.
Alexis entered the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters on Sept. 16 with a valid pass and had a secret clearance, despite having an arrest record, troubled military career and history of mental illness. He killed 12 people before police shot him dead at the scene.
“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,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. He announced separate reviews, by the Defense Department and an independent panel, of military facility security and the clearance process.
“Obviously, when you go back in hindsight and look at all of this, there were some red flags -- of course there were,” Hagel said. “Should we have picked them up? Why didn’t we? How could we? All those questions need to be answered.”
Separately, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that one of the department’s tactical units was waved off from responding to the Navy Yard shooting, spokeswoman Kimberly Schneider said. Top Capitol law enforcement officers will conduct an independent review and report back to Dine by Oct. 21, the U.S. Capitol Police Board said in a statement.
Word of the inquiries emerged as the White House said President Barack Obama would attend a memorial service on Sept. 22 to honor those killed at the Navy Yard.
In New York, Alexis’s mother released a brief statement apologizing to the families of her son’s victims, saying she was heartbroken.
“I don’t know why he did what he did, and I’ll never be able to ask him why,” Cathleen Alexis said in the statement, according to audio posted by NBC News on its website. “Aaron is now in a place where he can no longer do harm to anyone, and for that I am glad.”
While Alexis was involved in a series of run-ins with law enforcement before this week’s carnage, none is known to have led to a criminal conviction or serious legal consequences.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement that its records indicate that Alexis “never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist.” He visited the emergency room at VA medical centers in Providence, Rhode Island, on Aug. 23 and in Washington on Aug. 28 complaining of insomnia.
“On both occasions, Mr. Alexis was alert and oriented, and was asked by VA doctors if he was struggling with anxiety or depression, or had thoughts about harming himself or others, which he denied,” the VA said in the statement. Medical personnel gave him sleep medication on both visits and told him to follow up with a primary-care doctor, the agency said.
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.
At the Pentagon, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said military personnel who suffer from mental health issues should be encouraged to seek help without being “stigmatized,” adding that even the tightest security checks may not have been able to predict this week’s horror.
“He committed murder,” Dempsey said of Alexis. “I’m not sure that any particular question or lack of question on a security clearance would probably have revealed that.”
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 Federal Bureau of Investigation. 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 information about the police report was pursued at the time. The Navy official said the service has no reason to believe it was forwarded outside the Newport base’s security office.
The Rhode Island episode was one in a series of encounters Alexis had with police -- 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 reported that a bullet came through her floor from his apartment below. Alexis told officers he was cleaning a gun when it went off, according to police records, and Tarrant County authorities declined to charge him with recklessly discharging a firearm.
In 2004, he was arrested in Seattle for shooting the tires on a car belonging to a construction worker parked near where he lived, according to a police incident report. Alexis told police that he fired his gun during a “blackout” fueled by anger, after he believed the worker had mocked and disrespected him.
Alexis 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.
Alexis was never charged in the Seattle incident.
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.
The Pentagon is developing a system that could automatically obtain information from arrest and conviction records of individuals who hold security clearances, a defense official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a process under review following the Navy Yard shooting.
That would replace a system that relies on visits by investigators to local courts and police departments before clearances are granted and, after that, depends on clearance holders to report their own infractions, the official said.
Authorities believe Alexis entered the Navy Yard 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.
Alexis had carved phrases into his shotgun including “Better off this way,” and “My ELF weapon,” a possible abbreviation for “extremely low frequency,” the Washington Post reported, citing law enforcement officials.
Alexis, who was born in New York City, enlisted 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., on a contract to upgrade equipment on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network, according to a statement by Michael Thacker, a company spokesman.