D.C. Massacre

09.18.13

Aaron Alexis Was Hearing Voices a Month Before His Rampage

Just a month before he killed 12 in the Washington Navy Yard, Aaron Alexis told Newport police that he was hearing voices. In the absence of gun control, says Michael Daly, we should at least heed the warning signs.

On Aug. 7, Sgt. Frank Rosa of the Newport, R.I., police alerted his counterparts at the nearby naval station that a civilian defense contractor named Aaron Alexis had reported hearing voices coming from the floor and then the ceiling of his hotel room, while “some sort of microwave machine” bombarded him with “vibrations.”

Alexis had told the Newport cops that he was a “naval contractor” who often traveled and had gotten into an argument with somebody as he got on a plane in Virginia. Alexis said he believed that the person had three men “follow him and keep him awake by sending vibrations though his body” after he landed in Rhode Island. He said he had not seen the trio but that they had begun speaking to him through a wall after he checked into a Residence Inn in Newport.

Alexis packed up and moved to a hotel at the Naval Station Newport, he told the cops, only for the voice to begin speaking through the floor and ceiling as well as the wall. He had called the police for help after he moved to the Marriott and initially told the responding officers that the voices were coming through the floor. He then said the voices were coming from the ceiling. He told the cops about the “microwave machine” whose “vibrations” kept him from being able to sleep.

The officers put all this in a report, along with Alexis’s insistence that he “never felt anything like this and is worried these individuals are going to harm him.” Alexis had assured the officers that he had no mental illness in the family and had never suffered “any sort of mental episode.”

The sergeant reviewed the report and reached for a phone.

“Based on the Naval Base implications that the involved subject [Aaron Alexis] was hearing voices, I made contact with on duty Naval Station Police,” the sergeant later wrote.

The sergeant faxed the Naval Police a copy of the officers’ report.

“[The Naval Police] advised me [they] would follow up and determine if he is in fact a naval base contractor,” the sergeant noted in an addendum.

A cursory check would have told the Naval Police that Alexis was indeed a computer technician with the defense subcontractor The Experts. He had been detailed to work briefly in Newport before going on to the big Navy Yard in Washington.

A bit more checking might have shown that Alexis had been in the active Navy Reserve from 2007 to 2010. He had apparently received an honorable discharge, though the Navy at one point had sought to make it a less desirable general discharge due to a “pattern of misbehavior” that included an arrest for recklessly discharging a firearm. He had an earlier, pre-enlistment arrest on a firearms charge as well as a decade-long history of psychiatric problems.

Neither firearms arrest resulted in a prosecution and may not have come up on a database search. And psychiatric troubles often leave no public record.

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Before authorities identified Alexis as the shooter, media outlets like NBC and CBS made crucial mistakes reporting on the breaking story.

It seems the Newport Police report alone should have been enough to raise red flags about a guy coming and going at secure military facilities.

Even so, it seems the Newport Police report alone should have been enough to raise red flags about a guy coming and going at secure military facilities, most particularly if there was even a hint that he had been known to express his anger with firearms.

As it was, Alexis was able to drive a rental car up to the gate at the Navy Yard in Washington on Monday morning, show his access card, and proceed on in. He had with him a Remington 870 shotgun he purchased in a Virginia gun store on Sunday, a month after the Newport incident.

Authorities would later say he may have “gained access” to a Glock pistol belonging to one of his victims. It is worth noting that he was known to own a Glock, which he had been allowed to retain after his firearm arrests did not result in convictions.

The 34-year-old man who proceeded to murder 12 people before being killed himself in a shootout with police had been known as a polite and quiet kid on the not-so-tough Queens streets where he grew up. The worst thing a downstairs neighbor could say about him was that he once began bouncing a basketball inside too early in the morning. She went up to ask him to stop and he did.

In an era when the police inaugurated a zero-tolerance policy for even minor infractions, Alexis’s only recorded encounter with law enforcement was as a victim, when another teen struck him in the head with a bottle in the summer of 1997. That was when he was 18 and had just graduated from Hillcrest High School.

In February 2001, he became a clerk in the Administrative Computer Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College across from the World Trade Center. He was still employed there on 9/11, a no doubt impressionable 22-year-old. The college says it has no knowledge of anything in particular he did that day or of any lasting psychological trauma he may have suffered beyond what was experienced by everybody.

Perhaps he and his family subsequently made a connection between the attack and his future troubles because after that his mental issues became more manifest.

He had moved to Seattle by 2004, when he first seems to have figured as a suspect in anything. The police report says he stared silently at a construction worker across from his grandmother’s house over the course of 30 days before suddenly drawing a gun from his waistband and shooting out the rear tires of the man’s car.

“He explained how [the construction worker] disrespected him and how that perception led to what Alexis described as a ‘blackout’ fueled by anger,” Detective R. Bourns wrote in his report. “He said he didn’t remember pulling the trigger of the firearm until about one hour later.”

The report further notes that both the suspect and his father said Alexis had been at Ground Zero on 9/11 and was suffering from physiological aftereffects. Any psychiatrist would likely tell you that such symptoms are closer to the realm of schizophrenia than of PTSD from being in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.

Since the case was never prosecuted, Alexis had no criminal conviction to keep him from enlisting in the Navy on May 5, 2007, 12 days before his 28th birthday. He also was able to retain his pistol, and it may even have been the same one that figured in his next serious encounter with the law, in 2010.

As has been widely reported, Alexis was arrested after he fired a shot through his apartment ceiling, nearly striking an upstairs neighbor. She called police, who knocked on his door on three occasions with no success until they summoned the fire department to make a forcible entry. Alexis finally answered, and the police asked why he had ignored them before.

“He said he thought I was just his upstairs neighbor and he didn’t want to talk to her because she is always making noise,” the report says.

Alexis told police he had been cleaning the gun and it had discharged when he accidentally pulled the trigger because his hands were slippery from cooking. The charges were dropped after the prosecutor determined that “the elements constituting recklessness under Texas law were not present.” He was again allowed to keep his pistol.

Soon after, the Navy sought to nudge him out but decided there was not enough clear evidence to warrant it. He either took the hint or just chose to leave. His firearm arrests and an iffy Navy record did not prevent him from signing on as a computer technician with The Experts.

He worked for a while in Japan, then left the firm and spent some time in Thailand, where he is said to have suffered a romantic disappointment. He returned to America and became an unpaid waiter in a Thai restaurant outside Fort Worth in exchange for shelter, carrying a pistol under his shirt as he went from table to table. He spent his off hours either practicing Buddhism or playing hyper violent computer games, like the ones Sandy Hook mass murderer Adam Lanza loved. Alexis continued to tell people that he suffered the effects of having “survived New York on 9/11.” He condemned the terrorists for having murdered so many innocents. He also condemned Nidal Hasan, who had murdered 13 fellow soldiers in a mass shooting in 2009 at Fort Hood.

Alexis then rejoined The Experts. He was on an assignment in Newport when he called the police to report the voices and the big microwave machine. He is said to have sought help afterward at a Veterans Administration Hospital in New England, likely in Rhode Island.

The Navy did not respond to an admittedly late hour request for comment Tuesday night on whether the Navy police in Newport alerted anybody about Alexis.

What is clear is that none of the warning signs reached a threshold where either the Navy or the The Experts recognized the danger.

In the absence of real gun control, we should at least try for gunman control.