U.S. News

09.18.13

Friends Say Aaron Alexis Was Into Buddhism for the Thai Women

The D.C. Navy Yard shooter was a fixture at the lone Buddhist temple in a small Fort Worth suburb. His friends say he was there just for the Thai women. Pete Freedman reports.

Aside from the four Federal Bureau of Investigation agents lingering out front, patiently gathering background information when and where they could; aside from the half-dozen reporters inside, seeking color to add to their soon-to-be-filed articles; aside from the final five minutes of this daily service—during which Washington D.C. Navy Yard shooter and former Wat Busaya Dhammavanaram congregant Aaron Alexis was mentioned lovingly, but never by name, not even once—the prayer session at the lone Buddhist temple in this small Fort Worth suburb went mostly as usual Tuesday night services here go.

There was prayer. There was meditation. There was chanting. There was singing. And perhaps most pertinent, given all the added attention given to the temple of late, there were repeated reminders of how precious a commodity a lifetime truly is.

But there were also more attendees than a normal midweek service might usually draw—23 in total, most of them women. That, at least, was to be expected. Earlier in the day, leaders from this small, tight-knit, mostly Thai community phoned around to inform congregants that the prayers from this five-room temple’s three in-house monks would for the first time be touching upon the now-deceased Alexis’s former involvement in this community, an association that began three years ago, best as anyone around here can recall.

Memories of Alexis among these congregants varied on this night. Some recounted his devotion to the religion. Others balked when asked if Alexis was a fully ingrained member in the congregation. Most remembered him simply as a guy who hung around the space a lot, helping out at the temple’s many events aimed at sharing its culture with the surrounding community. Few recalled specific details about his personality. All were shocked about what had become of his life since he’d last been seen here.

Video screenshot

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

‘He’d say he wanted to be a monk, but he wasn’t the type to be too into celibacy. We went to strip clubs together.’

Over the past few days, this much had become certain: Despite what’s been widely reported about Alexis’s life in White Settlement, few in the Buddhist community here truly knew him very well at all.

“He was quiet and nice,” recalled Pat Pundisto, 68, whose brother Kasem, 50, was among the three monks leading Tuesday’s prayers. “He drove by, he knew it was a temple, and we welcomed him. We welcome everybody. But he wasn’t very open. We never knew what was going on in his mind.”

“He had a peace to his face,” remembered Kathy Saburn, a Greek-born yoga instructor and one of the few regular attendees of Wat Busaya Dhammavanaram’s services who didn’t emigrate here from Thailand. “He looked like one of the monks. I thought he didn’t speak English. I really thought he was Thai, except that he was African-American.”

“He had money trouble,” said Sam Gambir, 47, who would pay Alexis to run errands for him from time to time. “He felt very down because he didn’t get much pay [at his job]. I tried to help him.”

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Pete Freedman/NWDB

But, earlier in the day, just a little ways down the road from the temple at the Happy Bowl Thai Restaurant, where Alexis worked for tips and for a room in owner Oui Suthamtewakul’s home, a friend of Alexis’s painted a different, less pious picture of the shooter’s interest in Buddhist culture.

“He liked Thai women,” said Michael Ritrovato, 50, who remembered Alexis as his “brother from another mother.” “He was very much into Asian women. But especially Thai women.”

It was an interest the two shared, Ritrovato said. The two first met during a Thai festival held at a Buddhist temple in nearby Keller, bonding over the fact that they had each attended the affair in an attempt to pick up women.

“He wasn’t exactly Buddhist,” Ritrovato said. “I’d joke with him about it. In spite of what he would say, I don’t think he was too devout. He’d say he wanted to be a monk, but he wasn’t the type to be too into celibacy. We went to strip clubs together.”

Suthamtewakul, Alexis’s boss at the Happy Bowl, described Alexis as his “best friend”—he’d even asked Alexis to serve as the best man in his wedding late last year—and painted a similar picture of his former roommate.

“He wanted to be Buddhist,” said Suthamtewakul, who’d been born into a Buddhist family but has since converted to Christianity. “He wanted to be—badly. But the first rule of being a good Buddhist is not to kill. The second is not to steal. The third is not to have too much sex. The fourth is not to lie. And the fifth is not to drink. He drank—a lot—but lots of Buddhists break the fifth rule. And he obviously killed. And he tried to pick up Thai girls all the time.”

In fact, Alexis, who learned to speak Thai by watching Thai-language soap operas on television, even went so far as to visit Thailand as part of his efforts in wooing a Thai bride: The U.K.’s Channel 4 News reports that Alexis spent 45 days visiting the Southeast Asian country in March and April of this year, spending the majority of his time there in massage parlors before meeting a native Thai woman that he would ask to both marry him and move with him back to the States. She declined.

But Alexis wasn’t without luck with Asian women altogether. Suthamtewakul recalled a woman named Jane of Chinese descent, whom Alexis had said worked in the Navy, visiting Alexis in White Settlement for a short time a couple years back.

“He just liked Asians,” said Suthamtewakul, who met Alexis during a community event at Wat Busaya Dhammavanaram before offering him a job in his restaurant and a room in his home.

Back at the temple, congregation member Sulee Adams also acknowledged Alexis’s interest in Asian women—and how freely he expressed his desire.

“He wanted to marry a Thai person,” she said. “But the people here at the temple, everyone is 60 [years old] and up.”

Still, Alexis was a fixture at Wat Busaya Dhammavanaram. Before praying for his soul during Tuesday night’s all-Thai services, monks described him as “the man who loved to come and help the temple.” They did not acknowledge his crimes.

“We didn’t know the murderer,” Saburn, the Greek yoga instructor, said after the hour-long service concluded. “We knew the man who came here. How can we be angry at a man who came here and helped us?”

“If it’s a person we knew and we loved, we pray,” added another congregant, who said she spoke on behalf of the entire congregation, but asked that her name not be used. “I have a sadness for what happened. But he wasn’t open enough. If he had talked more about [his problems], we could’ve helped him. The monks could have helped him.”

Instead, on Tuesday night, they simply prayed for the future of his soul and whatever Buddha had planned for its reincarnated form.

Before receding into the temple’s kitchen for a night-ending meal of traditional Thai food, prepared by the female members of the area’s Thai community, the self-appointed congregation spokeswoman took a moment to reflect on that final moment in the service, which she described as a “lesson” from the monks about the sanctity of life.

She thought about Alexis, and she smiled.

“If his soul was here [tonight] and he saw us praying for him,” she said, “don’t you think he’d be happy?”