The Washington Navy Yard Shooting

CCTV footage of Aaron Alexis in building 197 holding a Remington 870 shotgun.
CCTV footage of Aaron Alexis in building 197 holding a Remington 870 shotgun.

The Washington Navy Yard shooting occurred on September 16, 2013, when lone gunman Aaron Alexis, 34, fatally shot twelve people and injured three others in a mass shooting at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) inside the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, D.C. The attack, which took place in the Navy Yard’s Building 197, began around 8:20 a.m. EDT and ended when Alexis was killed by police around 9:20 a.m. EDT.

It was the second-deadliest mass murder on a U.S. military base, behind only the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009.

Details

– Shooting Begins

On Monday, September 16, Alexis left his hotel and arrived at the Navy Yard in a rented Toyota Prius at around 7:53 a.m., using a valid pass to enter the Yard. He entered Building 197 at 8:08 a.m. through the main entrance, carrying the disassembled shotgun (the barrel and stock of which had been sawed off) in a bag on his shoulder, and went to the fourth floor, where he conducted work during the prior week. He assembled the shotgun inside a bathroom, then emerged with the gun, crossed a hallway into the building’s 4 West area, which is a cubicle area near the atrium, and began shooting at 8:16 a.m. Four people were hit; three of them died, while the fourth, a young woman, survived wounds to the head and hand. At 8:17 a.m., approximately one minute and 30 seconds after the first shots were fired, the first calls to 9-1-1 were made.

By 8:20 a.m., Alexis had shot and killed eight people on the fourth floor, and he made his way to the third floor, where he fatally shot two more people within the next two minutes. He also fired at several people on at least five separate occasions, wounding one woman in the shoulder as she ran up a stairwell. A NAVSEA employee described encountering a gunman wearing all-blue clothing in a third-floor hallway, saying, “He just turned and started firing.” After firing several shots on the third floor, Alexis went to the first floor.

– Police response

At 8:23 a.m., officers from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and several other law enforcement agencies began arriving at Building 197. However, because there were many buildings on the base, officers were unable to discern Building 197’s location and asked bystanders for its location. They eventually found Building 197 after moving towards the direction people were fleeing from. There was also confusion regarding the shooting also taking place in a nearby building; in reality, a wounded victim evacuated from Building 197 had been moved to an area located near the second building for medical attention.

While on the first floor, Alexis moved around randomly before turning around and heading towards the front entrance. There, he fired at Richard Ridgell, the security officer stationed there, through a set of windows, killing him and taking his Beretta 92FS 9mm semiautomatic pistol afterwards. Ridgell, a former Maryland state trooper, had earlier been informed by two police officers to remain at his post and try to stop the gunman if he attempted to leave the building. Alexis then fired his shotgun at a second security guard and a Navy military police officer at the first-floor atrium, missing both; the security guard fired back and Alexis fled down a hallway. Shortly afterwards, Alexis fired at two police officers and a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent in another hallway before fleeing again.

At 8:34 a.m., Alexis went towards the west side of the building, where he encountered two men standing at a corner of the building in an alleyway. He tried to fire at them with his shotgun, but realized he was out of ammunition and switched to the stolen Beretta, shooting and killing one of the men with it; the other man managed to escape without injury. Reports indicated the victim in the alleyway was hit by a “stray bullet”. Alexis’s use of the pistol during the alleyway shooting led police officials to initially believe the possibility of a second gunman involved.

– Death of the shooter

After killing his final victim, Alexis moved to a cubicle area, where he discarded the shotgun. At the same time, a team of officers entered Building 197, but they became confused after gunshots echoed through the atrium, leading them to believe the gunman was on an upper floor. As a result, the officers headed up to the second floor, while Alexis remained on the first floor. At approximately 8:55 a.m., Alexis went to the third floor via stairwell and concealed himself inside a bank of cubicles. At 9:12 a.m., two officers and two NCIS agents entered the cubicle area, whereupon Alexis opened fire on them, hitting one of the officers, Scott Williams, in both legs. The other officer and the NCIS agents dragged Williams out of the area and alerted other officers to Alexis’ presence. Williams was later taken down to the first floor for medical attention, recovering from his wounds.

At 9:15 a.m., soon after Williams’ evacuation, D.C. Police Emergency Response Team officer Dorian DeSantis and U.S. Park Police officers Andrew Wong and Carl Hiott entered the cubicle area and searched the individual banks. Eventually, Alexis jumped out from one of the desks and fired at DeSantis from approximately five feet away, shooting him once in his tactical vest, and the three officers returned fire. DeSantis was uninjured by the gunshot. At 9:25 a.m., Alexis was fatally shot in the head by DeSantis during the gunfight, and his death was later confirmed at 11:50 a.m.

– Victims

There were 13 fatalities, including the perpetrator. Alexis and 11 of the victims were killed at the scene, while a twelfth victim, 61-year-old Vishnu Pandit, died at George Washington University Hospital. All the victims killed were civilian employees or contractors. Eight others were injured, three of them from gunfire. The survivors wounded by gunshots (police officer Scott Williams and two female civilians) were in critical condition at Washington Hospital Center.

– – Fatalities

  • Michael Arnold, age 59
  • Martin Bodrog, age 53
  • Arthur Daniels, age 51
  • Sylvia Frasier, age 53
  • Kathy Gaarde, age 62
  • John Roger Johnson, age 73
  • Mary Francis Knight, age 51
  • Frank Kohler, age 50
  • Vishnu Pandit, age 61
  • Kenneth Bernard Proctor, age 46
  • Gerald Read, age 58
  • Richard Michael Ridgell, age 52

Perpetrator

Aaron Alexis (May 9, 1979 – September 16, 2013), a 34-year-old civilian contractor, was identified by police as the sole gunman. Alexis was killed in a gunfight with police.

– Early life and service

Born in the New York City borough of Queens, Alexis grew up in Brooklyn and was a resident of Fort Worth, Texas. He joined the United States Navy in May 2007, and served in Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46 at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. His rating was aviation electrician’s mate and he had attained the rank of petty officer third class when he was honorably discharged from the Navy on January 31, 2011, although the Navy originally intended for him to receive a general discharge.

Aaron Alexis
Aaron Alexis

According to a Navy official, Alexis was cited on at least eight occasions for misconduct. In 2010, he was arrested in Fort Worth for discharging a weapon within city limits. Alexis was also arrested in 2004 in Seattle, Washington, for malicious mischief, after shooting out the tires of another man’s vehicle in what he later described as the result of an anger-fueled “blackout”; and in 2008 in DeKalb County, Georgia, for disorderly conduct. None of Alexis’ arrests led to prosecution.

– Professional work

In March 2008, Alexis received a secret-level security clearance valid for ten years. Following the Navy Yard shooting, it was found that the federal personnel report that led to the clearance’s approval did not mention that his 2004 arrest had involved a firearm. On his clearance application, Alexis said he had never been charged with a felony, and that he had not been arrested in the last seven years; the personnel report said Alexis had given these answers because the 2004 charge had been dismissed. This security clearance investigation was conducted by USIS, the same contractor that had also vetted Edward Snowden. The Department of Justice has filed fraud charges against USIS in a whistleblower case that is filed as United States of America ex rel. Blake Percival vs USIS.

From September 2012 to January 2013, Alexis worked in Japan, “refreshing computer systems” on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network for an HP Enterprise Services subcontracting company called The Experts. After returning from Japan, he expressed frustration to a former roommate that he felt he hadn’t been paid properly for the work he performed. Another roommate of Alexis said that he would frequently complain about being the victim of discrimination. In July 2013, he resumed working for The Experts in the United States.

At the time of his death, Alexis was working on a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University, Worldwide. He was Buddhist.

– Mental health issues

After the Navy Yard shooting, the media speculated that Alexis had appeared to be suffering from mental illness. The media reported that Alexis had filed a police report in Rhode Island on August 2, 2013, in which he claimed to be the victim of harassment and that he was hearing voices in his head. According to an FBI official after the shooting, Alexis was under the “belief that he was being controlled or influenced by extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves”. A message later obtained by federal authorities from Alexis’ personal computing devices said, “Ultra low frequency attack is what I’ve been subject to for the last 3 months. And to be perfectly honest, that is what has driven me to this.”

On August 4, 2013, naval police were called to Alexis’ hotel at Naval Station Newport and found that he had “taken apart his bed, believing someone was hiding under it, and observed that Alexis had taped a microphone to the ceiling to record the voices of people that were following him”. At the time of the incident, he was working for the contractor at the base.

On August 23, 2013, Alexis showed up at a Providence, Rhode Island, VA emergency room complaining of insomnia, and he was prescribed 50 milligrams of Trazodone, a serotonin antagonist and reuptake inhibitor antidepressant. On August 28, he sought treatment for insomnia in the emergency room of a VA medical center in Washington, D.C., where he told doctors he was not depressed and was not thinking of harming others. He was given 10 more tablets of Trazodone.

– Prior to the shooting

At the time of the shooting, Alexis had been working for a subcontractor on a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Services contract supporting a Navy Marine Corps (NMCI) computer network. Alexis arrived in the Washington, D.C., area on or around August 25, 2013, and stayed at various hotels. At the time of the massacre, he had been staying with five other civilian contractors at a Residence Inn hotel in southwest Washington D.C. since September 7.

On Saturday, September 14, two days before the massacre, Alexis visited the Sharpshooters Small Arms Range in Lorton, Virginia, 15 miles (24 km) south of Washington. He tested an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle but did not seek to buy it, a lawyer for the store said. After testing the rifle, Alexis inquired about buying a handgun at the store, but was told federal law does not allow dealers to sell such guns directly to out-of-state customers. Alexis instead purchased a Remington 870 Express Tactical 12-gauge shotgun and two boxes of shells, after passing a state and federal background check.

Aftermath

– Reports of other shooters

On the day of the shooting, Washington Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier initially said that police were searching for a white male wearing khaki military fatigues and a beret, who had allegedly been seen with a handgun, and a black male wearing olive military fatigues and carrying a long gun. The white male was later identified and deemed not to be a suspect. The black male was not identified. At 7:00 p.m., officials ruled out the possibility of other shooters besides Alexis, but were still seeking one other person for possible involvement.

– Security precautions

On September 16, many roadways and bridges were temporarily closed, and flights out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were temporarily suspended. Eight schools were locked down. Shortly after 3:00 p.m., United States Senate buildings went on lock-down for about an hour “out of an abundance of caution”, according to the Senate Sergeant at Arms. The Washington Nationals baseball team postponed their scheduled evening game, owing to the proximity of Nationals Park to the Navy Yard area (the facilities are close enough to share a Metro station).

The Navy Yard reopened and resumed usual operations on September 19, 2013. Building 197 reopened on February 2, 2015. In October 2013, the Navy announced a repair-and-restoration contract for the building; the contract indicated that “the repairs shall be done in a manner that changes the feel, finish, appearance and layout of the space, creating a different sense of place and mitigating the psychological and emotional impacts that the facility itself could have on returning occupants.” The building, to be renamed after Joshua Humphreys, is expected to reopen in 2015. The renovations, costing approximately $44 million, will include a reflection area and new visitors’ entrance, new flooring and furnishings and an updated cafeteria.

– Reactions

Shortly after news of the shooting broke, United States President Barack Obama pledged to ensure the perpetrators would be held responsible. Obama ordered flags at the White House, all public buildings and all military and naval posts, stations and vessels to be flown at half-staff until sunset on September 20. On September 17, Department of Defense officials laid a wreath at the Navy Memorial plaza in honor of the victims. In the wake of the shooting, President Obama called on Congress to revisit gun control legislation. On September 22, he attended a memorial service for the victims.

The shooting sparked a discussion on the adequacy of security at U.S. military facilities. On September 18, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of security procedures at military facilities around the world. Foreign Policy magazine reported that virtually anyone with a Common Access Card (C.A.C.), provided to government contractors, civilian Defense Department employees, and soldiers, can enter many military facilities “without being patted down or made to go through a metal detector”. Aaron Alexis had a Secret-level security clearance and a C.A.C. allowing him to enter the Navy Yard. Conservative commentators including Alex Jones, Ted Nugent, and others suggested that “gun-free zones” on military bases were to blame for the massacre. On NBC’s Meet the Press, National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre said, “when the good guys with guns got there, it stopped.” In the libertarian Reason magazine, J.D. Tuccille said that on domestic U.S. military bases, most soldiers are prohibited from carrying guns, and that this made the base more vulnerable to an attack.

On September 17, gun control activists and relatives of victims of shootings that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Aurora, Colorado, and the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh temple, came to Washington to protest for stricter gun control. The activists said they hoped that the Navy Yard attack’s proximity to Capitol Hill would motivate lawmakers to act to impose stricter background checks and close the gun show loophole.

On September 25, 2013, Hewlett Packard fired the computer firm The Experts, which employed Aaron Alexis, over “its failure to respond appropriately” to the Washington Navy Yard shooter’s mental health issues.

On October 31 and December 17, 2013, the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held hearings examining government clearances, background checks, and physical security for federal facilities in the wake of the shootings.

On February 20, 2014, a ceremony was held to honor the over 170 law enforcement officers, including 57 D.C. Metropolitan Police officers, who responded and entered the building to search for Alexis. Specifically, MPD Officers Scott Williams and Dorian DeSantis were given the Medal of Valor, U.S. Park Police Medal of Honor, and the Blue Badge Medal for their roles during the gun battle.

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