Up to Speed

Up to Speed: What We Know About Navy Yard Shooter Aaron Alexis

Who was Aaron Alexis? From his Buddhism to his U.S. Navy career, Nina Strochlic gets you up to speed.

AP; Getty

It’s now being called one of the top 12 deadliest shooting sprees in America. But before Aaron Alexis opened fire at Washington Navy Yard on Monday morning, killing 12 before being shot to death by law enforcement, he was a peaceful Buddhist, friends say. Clues to his motives are sparse, but Nina Strochlic runs down six things we know about him so far.

(1) He was a New York City native living in Washington, D.C.

The 34-year-old veteran was born in Queens, New York, and grew up in Brooklyn. Before moving to the nation’s capital four or five months ago, according to a former roommate, his last known residence was in Ft. Worth, Texas.

(2) He served in the Navy.

Alexis spent four years in the Navy, mostly based at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve in Ft. Worth, Texas, before being discharged in January 2011. During that time, he rose to a petty officer third class as an aviation electrician’s mate and received the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, which apparently are commonly awarded to military personnel. The reasons behind his discharge are unclear, but a former landlord says Alexis told him he quit because “somebody doesn’t like me.” A Navy official told ABC Alexis’s departure was due to a number of misconduct problems.

(3) He had an arrest record.

A year prior to leaving the Navy, Alexis was arrested for allegedly discharging a firearm within the city limits of Ft. Worth, which is considered a Class A misdemeanor. According to the police report, a neighbor called 911 after a shot was fired into her apartment. “June told me that she is terrified of Aaron and feels that this was done intentionally,” the responding officer wrote. Alexis said he was cleaning the gun when it accidentally discharged into the ceiling, and he was taken into custody for questioning. It appears charges were never filed, but his landlords began an eviction process against him shortly after.

In 2004 Alexis was arrested in Seattle for allegedly shooting out a man’s car tires in what police say he called “an anger-fueled ‘blackout’” and claimed not to remember. A detective wrote in the police report that in speaking with Alexis’s father, he learned that Alexis “was an active participant in rescue attempts of September 11th, 2001.” The father also said his son had anger-management problems that were thought to stem from PTSD.

(4) He had a history of mental health issues.

The Veterans Administration had been treating Alexis for mental problems since August. He reportedly suffered from paranoia along with a sleep disorder, and had been hearing voices in his head. The host of ailments didn't affect his security clearance, which would have been recalled if the Navy declared him mentally unfit.

(5) He was working for a Hewlett-Packard private contractor.

According to Alexis’s father, Algernon, his son was studying and working in a computer job for a private firm in Washington, D.C. On Monday evening Hewlett-Packard said he was employed by a subcontractor called the Experts, which “refreshes equipment used on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet networks.” Though it originally appeared that Alexis wouldn’t have had access to the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command, the secure building where the shooting occurred, the company confirmed that Alexis had security clearance, which had been updated in July. “Discharge from the military does not automatically disqualify a person from getting a job as a military contractor or a security clearance. It depends on what the circumstances are,” said CEO Thomas Hoshko.

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(6) He was a hard-drinking Buddhist.

According to Alexis’s landlord, friends, and a former roommate, Alexis was a practicing Buddhist who frequented a temple in Ft. Worth to meditate and help out. He had begun learning Thai and recently returned from a trip to Thailand. The owner of a restaurant where he once worked expressed disbelief, calling Alexis “a 13-year-old stuck in a 34-year-old body” and telling a reporter that Alexis was a heavy drinker who played videogames and always carried a gun. (He also had a concealed-weapons permit.) His friends also appeared incredulous that Alexis could be involved in the violence. One told reporters Alexis “could not be the shooter.” An aunt who says the family hasn’t seen him for a few years said she’d “be shocked if it was him.”

(7) He was a student.

Alexis was earning his bachelor’s degree in aeronautics online at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The school has a branch that caters to military personnel and others seeking “flexible learning” opportunities. He is believed to have taken classes solely online, but the details of his enrollment haven’t been released.