Tragedy at the Yard

Navy Yard

Navy Police stood inside the main gate at the Washington Navy Yard on Tuesday, September 17. (Photo by Doug Mills, The New York Times)

by Stephen Bloshuk

On Monday, September 16, Aaron Alexis entered the Navy Yard at Washington DC, using his military-contractor ID to pass the first gate, and his previous security clearance card to bypass the main entrance’s turnstile.

Once inside the yard, Alexis parked by Building 197, located in the middle of the yard, took a bag out of his car, and proceeded in the building and up to a fourth-floor bathroom. He emerged from the bathroom at 8:20 am without the bag, but was wielding the weapon inside, a Remington 870 Express shotgun purchased at a local gun shop two days earlier. After loading the weapon, storing the rest of his ammunition in his pockets, and stepping onto an overlook, Alexis opened fire into the building’s fourth-floor cafeteria. The first call to authorities, which was at about 8:23am, asks for the “mass casualty bus,” as several people had already been injured or killed. By this time, Alexis had expended all of his ammunition for the Remington and had begun to use a Beretta 9mm semiautomatic pistol he had stolen from a murdered security guard.

This continued as Alexis wandered the halls, searching for his next victims. By the time police had cornered him at 8:50am, twelve military contractors had already been murdered. Fortunately, the police had cornered Alexis at this point, and a 30 minute shootout between the two sides began. At about 9:20am, the fatal shot was fired, hitting 34-year-old Alexis in the head and ending his killing spree. Building 197 has remained closed since the incident. The drama was not over, however, as both the authorities and the news discovered two shocking aspects of Alexis’ life. Not only did he have a criminal record, but he retained symptoms of—and sought treatment for—mental illness.

According to reports, Alexis was arrested on three separate occasions. The first, occurring in Texas in 2004, was for shooting another man’s tires in a rage fueled blackout. The second, in 2008, was for disorderly conduct in a Georgia bar. And most recently, a 2010 incident in Seattle, where Alexis shot through the roof of his apartment after confronting his upstairs neighbor about “excessive noise.” Because he was not prosecuted in the 2004 and 2010 incidents, and since he was neither charged with nor convicted of a crime, Alexis’ clearance was allowed to remain active. The Pentagon, in evaluating Alexis’ qualification for a security permit, did not see these incidents on his evaluation, which itself was dated by five years. Several background checks, performed by both the Navy and “The Experts,” either came up clean or showed only one traffic violation on Alexis’ record.

Another disturbing factor in this event is the shooter’s mental illness. Alexis, according to his father, was apparently “an active participant in rescue attempts” during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. This may have caused his mental illness, which he sought treatment for, saying that he “…heard people talking to [him] through the walls and ceiling of [his] hotel room, and they’re sending microwave vibrations into [his] body to make sure [he doesn’t] sleep.”

Because of both this incident and the leaking of confidential documents by Edward Snowden earlier this year, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has ordered a review and revision of the system overseeing contract workers’ security clearance, in order to prevent any further incidents or tragedies.