After Aaron Alexis Killed 12 in Navy Yard, Officials Try to Figure Out Why

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Aaron Alexis
Aaron Alexis

Today the nation goes through what has become a familiar American ritual—trying to assess motive and intent after yet another unstable gunman stepped into a public space and indiscriminately started killing people. This time it was at the Washington Navy Yard, where military contractor Aaron Alexis slaughtered 12 people and wounded eight, ultimately falling himself to law enforcement bullets.

As authorities sift through the scene today at the Navy Yard, which is absent the 3,000 people who typically buzz about the installation every day, investigators are combing through the life of this 34-year-old man to figure out what made him snap.

President Obama, who ordered flags to be lowered to half mast at the White House and on Capitol Hill, said he mourned “yet another mass shooting” and condemned the “cowardly act.”

On Monday night, police released a list of seven of the people killed: Michael Arnold, 59; Sylvia Frasier, 53; Kathy Gaarde, 62; John Roger Johnson, 73; Frank Kohler, 50; Kenneth Bernard Proctor, 46; and Vishnu Pandit, 61. Officials were withholding other victims’ names until families are notified.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other Department of Defense leaders were scheduled to lay a wreath this morning at the Navy Memorial Plaza to honor the victims.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told CNN that Alexis was in the Navy’s Ready Reserve, which is a designation for former military members who don’t actively serve in a Reserve unit, but who can be called up if the military needs them.

During his time in the Navy, Alexis was awarded the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, standard military honors, but there were signs of the mental issues that he has exhibited for much of his adult life. Navy officials said Alexis showed “a pattern of misbehavior,” but they wouldn’t elaborate.

After he left the service, Alexis became a Navy contractor and was currently working for a company affiliated with Hewlett-Packard that maintained the Navy’s Internet system, Hewlett-Packard said in a statement. Thomas Hoshko, the CEO of that company, The Experts, said there were no reports of problems with Alexis at the Navy offices.

Alexis had been living for weeks in a long-term-stay hotel with other employees in order to work on the Navy Yard project, a government official said.

According to two law enforcement sources, Alexis recently had contact with two Veterans Affairs hospitals for psychological concerns.

Alexis seemed to have been upset recently about pay and financial issues.

Friend and former housemate Kristi Suthamtewakul told CNN’s “New Day” that Alexis had been frustrated about pay and benefits after a one-month contracting stint in Japan last year.

“He got back and he felt very slighted about his benefits at the time,” she said. “Financial issues. He wasn’t getting paid on time, he wasn’t getting paid what he was supposed to be getting paid.”

“That’s when I first started hearing statements about how he wanted to move out of America,” Suthamtewakul said. “He was very frustrated with the government and how as a veteran, he didn’t feel like he was getting treated right or fairly.”

But despite all that, she described him as “a very polite, very friendly man.”

A friend in Texas, Michael Ritrovato, also told CNN that Alexis had recently been frustrated with his employer over his pay, but said his friend never showed signs of aggressiveness or violence—though he played a lot of shooting video games online.

“It’s incredible that this is all happening because he was a very good-natured guy,” Ritrovato said. “It seemed like he wanted to get more out of life.”

Alexis did have previous run-ins with the law. In Seattle, he was arrested in 2004 for shooting out the tires of another man’s vehicle in what Alexis later said was an anger-fueled “blackout.” In 2008, he was arrested in DeKalb County, Georgia, on a disorderly conduct charge.

In 2010 he was arrested on gun charges in Fort Worth, Texas, after he allegedly shot a firearm through the floor of a neighbor in his building.

The police report, obtained by the Smoking Gun website, said the neighbor told police she was “terrified” of Alexis, who had previously had a verbal run-in with her. When questioned, the female neighbor was “visibly shaken up” and believed that Alexis’ shooting had been “intentional.”  But Alexis told police he was simply cleaning his gun when it went off. He said he “began to take the gun apart when his hands slipped and pulled the trigger discharging a round into the ceiling,” the report states. He didn’t check on his neighbor after the gun discharged, he said, because he “didn’t think it went all the way through since he couldn’t see any light through the hole.”

Born in Queens, New York, in 1979, Alexis had become obsessed with Thai culture while living in Fort Worth, working as a waiter at a Thai restaurant, studying the language and regularly chanting and meditating at Buddhist temples, according to the New York Times.

He dated a Thai woman and began attending Wat Busayadhammavanara, a Buddhist Temple in White Settlement, Texas, a Fort Worth suburb.

Pat Pundisto, a member of the temple answering the phone there on Monday, told the New York Times Alexis was a regular at Sunday services and on celebrations like the Thai New Year in April, he assisted the temple, serving guests dressed in ceremonial Thai garb. Friends said he eventually wanted to become an ordained Buddhist monk.

Alexis’ brother-in-law, Anthony Little, said Alexis had “shown no sign” that he could carry out a shooting, but he said his wife, Alexis’ sister, hadn’t had contact with him in years.

Alexis was studying for an aeronautics degree via online classes at Embry-Riddle aeronautical university, according to the Associated Press.

Police initially thought there were as many as two other people involved in the shooting and even issued descriptions of two suspects—a white man wearing a Navy-style kahki uniform and carrying a pistol and a black man wearing a drab olive military uniform and carrying a rifle. But one of the suspects was quickly identified and ruled out of the investigation, and the second was eliminated later in the evening.

Police officials said Alexis drove onto the installation and parked before walking a short distance to Building 197, where the shootings started at 8:20 a.m.

Because he had an active ID, Alexis could enter the base legally, a federal law enforcement official told CNN.

Once inside, Alexis made his way to an area that overlooked an atrium and began shooting at employees eating breakfast below.

“He was shooting down from above the people,” one law enforcement official said. “That is where he does most of his damage.”

Witnesses told CNN affiliate WJLA-TV when they heard a fire alarm go off, they saw a man with a rifle down the hallway as they left the building.

“He aimed the gun and fired our way,” Todd Brundidge told WJLA.

People frantically ran down stairs to get out of the building, Brundidge said.

“They were pushing. They were shoving. People were falling down,” he told WJLA. “As we came outside, people were climbing the wall trying to get over the wall to get out. …. It was just crazy.”

According to published reports, Cmdr. Tim Jirus was on the fourth floor when he heard gunshots and saw people start running through the office. Jirus was at the back of the building when a man approached him and asked about the shooting. Moments later, he said, that man was shot in the head.

“We had a conversation for about a minute,” Jirus said.

Asked how he escaped when the man next to him was shot, the commander said: “Luck. Grace of God. Whatever you want to call it.”

Alexis was reportedly armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a handgun that he took from a police officer at the scene, though officials later said the AR-15 reports weren’t accurate.

Chief Lanier told reporters that Alexis had been “engaged in shooting with police officers” when he died.

“There is no question he would have kept shooting,” she added.

The Navy Yard is headquarters for Naval Sea Systems Command, which according to the Navy, “builds, buys and maintains the Navy’s ships and submarines and their combat systems.”

It was originally envisioned as a facility to build and outfit ships on the Anacostia River, and the Yard serviced some of the Navy’s most famous early vessels, including the USS Constitution.

After it was burned during the War of 1812, the Navy Yard was transformed into a center for weapons and technological development.

Because of the killings, the Washington Nationals postponed a game against the division-leading Atlanta Braves, which had been scheduled for 7 p.m. at Nationals Park, next to the Navy Yard. 

There was chaos further in the city when someone tossed firecrackers over the fence at the White House, eliciting loud bangs that sounded like gunshots and prompting a swift response from Secret Service agents, who tackled a man in white shorts and a T-shirt on Pennsylvania Avenue.

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