US gunman ‘seemed harmless, if really awkward’
Aaron Alexis seems a study in contradictions: a former U.S. Navy reservist, a Defense Department contractor, a convert to Buddhism who was taking an online course in aeronautics. But he also had flashes of temper that led to incidents with police over shootings in Texas and Seattle.
A profile has begun to emerge of the man authorities identified as the gunman in a mass shooting at a Navy complex in Washington, D.C., that left 13 people dead, including him. While some neighbors and acquaintances described the 34-year-old Alexis as “nice,” his father once told detectives in Seattle that his son had anger management problems related to post-traumatic stress brought on by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Alexis also complained about the Navy and being a victim of discrimination.
U.S. law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that Alexis had been suffering from a number of serious mental issues, including paranoia and a sleep disorder. He also had been hearing voices in his head, the officials said. Alexis had been treated since August by the federal Veterans Administration for his mental problems, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the criminal investigation was continuing.
The Navy had not declared him mentally unfit, which would have rescinded a security clearance Alexis had from his earlier time in the Navy Reserves.
Family members told investigators Alexis was being treated for his mental issues.
At the time of the shootings, he worked for The Experts, a subcontractor on an HP Enterprise Services contract to refresh equipment used on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network.
Alexis lived in Seattle in 2004 and 2005, according to public documents. In 2004, Seattle police said Alexis was arrested for shooting out the tires of another man’s vehicle in what he later described to detectives as an anger-fueled “blackout.” According to an account on the department’s website, two construction workers had parked their car in the driveway of their worksite, next to a home where Alexis was staying. The workers reported seeing a man, later identified by police as Alexis, walk out of the home and fire three shots into the rear tires.
Workers at the construction site told police Alexis had stared at them daily for several weeks. The owner of the construction business told police he believed Alexis was angry over the parking situation.
Police eventually arrested Alexis, found a gun and ammunition in his room and booked him into jail for malicious mischief.
According to the police account, Alexis told detectives he perceived he had been “mocked” by construction workers the morning of the incident. Alexis also claimed he had an anger-fueled “blackout,” and could not remember firing his gun until an hour after the incident.
Alexis also told police he was present during “the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001” and described “how those events had disturbed him.”
In 2007, he enlisted in the Navy reserves, serving through 2011, according to Navy spokeswoman Lt. Megan Shutka.
While he was still in the reserves, a neighbor in Texas reported she had been nearly struck by a bullet shot from his downstairs apartment. Alexis admitted to firing his weapon but said he was cleaning his gun when it accidentally discharged.
After leaving the reserves, Alexis worked as a waiter and delivery driver at the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, according to Afton Bradley, a former co-worker. Alexis left in May, Bradley said.
Having traveled to Thailand, Alexis learned some Thai and could speak to Thai customers in their native language.
“He was a very nice person,” Bradley said in a phone interview. “It kind of blows my mind away. I wouldn’t think anything bad at all.”
A former acquaintance, Oui Suthametewakul, said Alexis lived with him and his wife from August 2012 to May 2013 in Fort Worth, but that they had to part ways because he wasn’t paying his bills. Alexis was a “nice guy,” Suthametewakul said, though he sometimes carried a gun and would frequently complain about being a victim of discrimination.
Suthametewakul said Alexis had converted to Buddhism and prayed at a local Buddhist temple.
“We are all shocked. We are nonviolent. Aaron was a very good practitioner of Buddhism. He could chant better than even some of the Thai congregants,” said Ty Thairintr, a congregant at Wat Budsaya, a Buddhist temple in Fort Worth.
Thairintr said Alexis told him he was upset with the Navy because “he thought he never got a promotion because of the color of his skin. He hated his commander.”
As Thairintr and others at the temple understood, Alexis took a job as a contractor and he indicated to them he was going to go to Virginia. He last saw him five weeks ago.
In the early 2000s, before he moved to Seattle, Alexis lived with his mother in an apartment in New York City, said Gene Demby, who said he dated one of Alexis’ younger sisters at the time.
“I wouldn’t call him nice, but he seemed harmless, if really awkward,” said Demby. “He was insecure. He was like a barbershop conspiracy theorist, the kind of guy who believes he’s smarter than everyone else. He also was kind of like perpetually aggrieved, but not megalomaniacal or delusional.”
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which offers online courses in aviation and aerospace, confirmed that Alexis was enrolled as an online student, started classes in July 2012 and was pursuing a bachelor’s of science in aeronautics.
“We are cooperating fully with investigating officials,” the university said.
Associated Press writers Mike Baker and Phuong Le in Seattle, Nomaan Merchant in Dallas, John L. Mone in White Settlement, Texas, and Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Lolita C. Baldor, Ben Nuckols and Brett Zongker in Washington contributed to this report.