What We Know About the Navy Yard Shooter

On Monday, Aaron Alexis entered the Navy Yard facility in Washington, D.C. and went on a shooting spree, killing 12 and wounding several others. But who exactly was Alexis, and what drove him to commit such a horrendous act? Reports on Alexis’s past have been filtering out over the past 24 hours, and they paint ...

FBI via Getty Images
FBI via Getty Images

On Monday, Aaron Alexis entered the Navy Yard facility in Washington, D.C. and went on a shooting spree, killing 12 and wounding several others.

But who exactly was Alexis, and what drove him to commit such a horrendous act? Reports on Alexis’s past have been filtering out over the past 24 hours, and they paint a picture of an unstable man with a history of mental illness and trouble with the law. Here are four key elements of his biography that provide some clues as to why he would carry out the worst attack on an American military base since the 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood, Texas.

A history of arrests: Prior to Monday’s rampage, Alexis had been arrested three times on a range of charges, including gun crimes. Alexis’s first run-in with police occurred on the morning of May 6, 2004, when he walked out of his home and fired two bullets into the rear wheels of a car belonging to a construction worker who Alexis claimed had disrespected him, firing a third round into the air. Alexis admitted to discharging the weapon, but told police he had acted while in an anger-induced "blackout." He was arrested, but ultimately did not face charges. Then, during the early-morning hours of Aug. 10, 2008, Alexis once more found himself on the wrong side of the law when he was thrown out of a club for damaging the furnishings. Once outside, he proceeded to cuss up a storm and refused to stop. "Fuck y’all, this is bullshit," he said, according to the police report from the incident. Police held him in jail for two nights. By 2010, Alexis was living in a gated apartment complex in Fort Worth, Texas, where he managed to put a bullet through his roof and his upstairs neighbor’s apartment. Alexis claimed that it was an accident and that his greasy hands had slipped while he was cleaning his pistol. His neighbor refused to believe that explanation and maintained that Alexis had intentionally retaliated against her after lodging several complaints about her making too much noise. Police once more arrested Alexis for discharging a firearm, but the district attorney declined to press charges. Despite these arrests, Alexis passed a background check commissioned by his employer, The Experts, three months ago. That check revealed only a traffic violation and turned up no evidence that he had twice been arrested on weapons charges.

A history of mental illness: While Alexis served as a reservist in the Navy from 2007 to 2011 and never saw combat, he may nonetheless have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the condition that has afflicted thousands of American veterans. Following his 2004 arrest in Seattle, Alexis told police that he had been in New York City for the 9/11 attacks and, according to the police report, described "how those events had disturbed him." Alexis’s father further told police that his son had assisted in rescue efforts and "had experienced anger management problems that the family believed was associated with PTSD." While living in Fort Worth, acquaintances say, Alexis drank heavily. "He can start drinking at 9:30 in the morning. He drinks often and for fun, but it was never a problem," Oui Suthamtewakul, who spent most of the past three years living with Alexis, told the Washington Post. More recently, Alexis’s mental health problems appeared to have worsened. As of August, he was receiving treatment at a Veterans Administration hospital for a slew of issues, including paranoia and a sleep disorder. Law enforcement officials also told the Associated Press that Alexis had been hearing voices in his head. A month ago, he experienced such severe hallucinations that he called the Newport, Rhode Island police department. Alexis told police that a person he had gotten into an argument with "had sent three people to follow him and to keep him awake by talking to him and sending vibrations to his body."

A checkered Navy career: Over the course of his four-year career in the Navy, Alexis was cited at least eight times for misconduct. Those citations stemmed from a combination of infractions, including his repeated arrests and allegations of insubordination against his superior officers. Alexis was never court marshaled for his behavior but did receive administrative punishments on three occasions. According to a Navy official who spoke with the Post, Alexis was cited for disorderly conduct, insubordination, and unexplained absences from work. In response to his pattern of behavior, the Navy had tried to kick him out of the force on a general discharge, which would have been a blotch on his record and a red flag to future employers. But while those proceedings were moving forward slowly, Alexis informed the Navy that he wished to leave. Seeing an opportunity to get rid of a troubled recruit, the Navy shunted him out the door with an honorable discharge in 2011. According to Thomas Hoshko, the CEO of The Experts, the IT firm that had employed Alexis as part of its sub-contract to carry out IT work for the Navy, Alexis had held a secret security clearance since 2007 — one that was recently reviewed and reapproved. Hoshko told the Post that he would not have hired Alexis had he known about his troubled background.

A legally purchased firearm: Despite Alexis’s history of mental health issues, he appears to have legally obtained at least one of the weapons used in Monday’s massacre. Though it was initially reported that Alexis used an AR-15 — the same type of rifle used in the December shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school — police now say he used a shotgun and two pistols in his attack on the Navy Yard. Law enforcement officials say that Alexis brought the shotgun with him and picked the two handguns off of his victims. According to a Lorton, Virginia gun-dealer, Alexis purchased the shotgun, a Remington 870, on Sunday, and store employees entered his name into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, receiving approval for the sale.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola