Washington Navy Yard massacre: How the scars of 9/11 turned Aaron Alexis into a mass killer

David Usborne uncovers the troubled mental state of Aaron Alexis and asks: how was he allowed to work on a naval base?

Washington, DC

The part about Aaron Alexis joining worshippers and chanting prayers at a Buddhist temple near his former home in Fort Worth, Texas, is one thing, but other strands of his life were different: frequent flashes of anger, voices in his head, recent attempts to get help for mental illnesses and multiple run-ins with the law – often involving guns.

No one has a certain answer yet as to motive. But the portrait now emerging of the former US Navy reservist from Texas who opened fire on Monday inside building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12 civilian workers and wounding at least 14 more before he was fatally shot by police, was raising a host of troubling questions today. Perhaps most notably: how was it that a man with a record such as his had been given clearance to work here?

Born in New York, the 34-year-old Alexis was said by his family to have been emotionally scarred by his experience in the city at the time of the 9/11 attacks. The first indication of a man with a tendency for anger – and reacting sometimes with a squeeze of a trigger – came with his arrest in 2004 for shooting out the tyres of a construction worker’s Honda because of a parking dispute. In 2010 he was arrested again for firing a bullet from his flat through the ceiling to his neighbour above because he thought her too noisy. On neither occasion, though, was he prosecuted.

He had become a navy reservist, working as an electrician’s mate, in 2007. His service didn’t go smoothly either. He was only given an honourable discharge in 2011 because the process for giving him a less worthy general discharge became bogged down in bureaucracy. But US officials acknowledged today he had been cited 10 times for misconduct ranging from drunkenness, insubordination and tardiness, to simply not showing up for work.

Then there was word, first from family members, that Alexis had in fact been suffering from mental disorders, such as paranoia and sleeplessness. Unnamed US officials later told the Associated Press that, since last August, Alexis had in fact sought help with his mental condition from two Veterans Health Administration hospitals.

Glimpses of the two sides of Alexis come from colleagues at a Thai restaurant near Fort Worth where he briefly worked as a waiter and delivery boy. It was at that time that he found his interest in Buddhism and attempted to learn Thai. “There was nothing sinister about him,” Kristi Suthamtewakul told the Los Angeles Times. But he seemingly became angry when asked about the navy, saying he not received benefits he was owed. Ms Kristi’s husband, Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, said he drank too much, always carried a gun and “acted childish”.

That no one seemed to have joined the dots of Alexis’s profile was already fuelling controversy and some anger today, including from Thomas Hoshko, the chief executive of the Experts, a company that specialises in computer systems and which had recently employed him.  Subcontracting for Hewlett-Packard, the company had assigned Alexis to a job at the Navy Yard just last week. Mr Hoshko says the navy had shared nothing about Alexis’s record with him.

“If I can find this out just by doing a Google search, that is sad,” Mr Hoshko lamented. “Anything that suggested criminal problems or mental health issues, that would be a flag. We would not have hired him.” Even after his decision to seek help with his mental disorders last year, the navy never declared him unfit for security clearance.

“It really is hard to believe that someone with a record as checkered as this man could conceivably get clearance, to get... credentials to be able to get on the base,” the Mayor of Washington, Vincent Gray, said today.

Police and firefighters respond to the report of a shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington DC Police and firefighters respond to the report of a shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington DC

Pressure was rising on the navy to explain – particularly in light of leaked details of an official audit indicating shortcomings in security at the Navy Yard with regard to access for civilian contractors. Ray Mabus, the Navy Secretary, responded by ordering a review last night of security arrangements at all US navy bases. The audit reportedly suggests that automatic US spending cuts may have contributed to a slackening of security rigour.

“I don’t believe that,” retorted David Berlin, a programme manager for weapons systems development, who spoke to The Independent as he returned to the Navy Yard today to retrieve the car he had been forced to abandon amid the mayhem of Monday. “I have never felt unsafe on this base.”

But Mr Berlin, who was posted to Portsmouth at the time of 9/11, said the risk of a security breach “never leaves your mind” in his job.


After flying in from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, early on Monday morning, Mr Berlin drove by car to the base and then directly to the main doors of Building 197 where he has his office (a hulking structure of red brick, it is crammed on a usual day with about 3,000 workers). He got there at precisely 8.20am local time, five minutes after Alexis walked in. People were streaming out and his first thought was a fire drill. But he saw fear on everyone’s faces and soon learnt what had happened. “It makes your heart break,” he said. “We are all close family here; many of these people have worked here a very long time.  Everyone is touched by this.”

On Capitol Hill, barely a mile away, calls were being made once again for new gun controls just as they were after the Newtown school massacre of last December when 26 died and which, on the national level, produced no change.

“When will enough be enough?” Senator Dianne Feinstein asked. “We must do more to stop this endless loss of life.”

Outside the Brooklyn home of Cathleen Alexis, Aaron's mother (Reuters) Outside the Brooklyn home of Cathleen Alexis, Aaron's mother (Reuters)  

Alexis, who struck some of the victims by firing from a third-floor gallery overlooking an atrium and the main canteen, had three guns, including a shotgun and a handgun he tore from the hands of a security guard.

But not everyone will see restricting access to weapons as the best answer, including Mr Berlin, who was recently in Israel. “You know something, this guy wouldn’t have gotten very far” if it was like over there, he said. Could he see how perhaps fewer people might have been killed? “If my co-workers had guns? Yeah. Sure.”

Video: Barack Obama on US Navy Yard shooting

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine