Dempsey has doubts about probing mental health
WASHINGTON — Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says those who have served in the military should not be stigmatized by having to answer questions about their mental health status on security clearance forms.
Dempsey's comments were part of a news conference in which Pentagon leaders announced a review of the security clearance process in response to Monday's shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.
Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist, had been undergoing mental health treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs but was not stripped of his security clearance.
Dempsey expressed doubts that questions about mental health on an application form would have revealed the problems Alexis was experiencing.
He said he believes service members should have the opportunity to overcome their mental health challenges without being stigmatized. — AP
The life of Aaron Alexis, who police say killed 12 people Monday at the Washington Navy Yard, was an odd combination of Buddhist calm and paranoia, friendliness and sudden rage, according to friends and law enforcement and military officials.
"He always thought someone was trying to hurt him," said Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, a friend of Alexis' in Fort Worth. "He was afraid of people."
Suthamtewakul, who first met Alexis at a Buddhist temple, told USA TODAY that Alexis showed signs of paranoia and routinely carried a .45-caliber pistol in his belt while making deliveries for a Thai restaurant.
Alexis' paranoia was in full display again as recently as last month. The 34-year-old civilian Navy contractor complained to police in Newport, R.I., about hearing voices speaking to him through the ceiling of his hotel room, seeking to penetrate his body with vibrations from a "microwave machine" to prevent him from sleeping. He told officers that he had no history of mental illness in his family.
Alexis' name is blacked out in the Newport police report, dated Aug. 7, but he is identified as a contractor for the Navy. He complained to officers about getting into a dispute with three people while getting on a flight from Virginia to Rhode Island. He then said he heard their voices through the wall of his room at the Residence Inn in Middletown, R.I., according to the report. Alexis moved to a hotel on a Navy base to escape the voices, heard them again and moved to a Marriott Hotel in Newport.
Officers told Alexis to contact them if the people threatened him again. The officers also called authorities at a naval facility in Newport and informed them about Alexis' report. The officers said they were told the Navy would follow up on the report.
The Navy is seeking more information about the incident and its response, according to a senior Defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
As recently as a month ago, Alexis had sought assistance for mental illness from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a federal law enforcement official said Tuesday.
Alexis, a former Navy reservist who was killed by police responding to the massacre, reported symptoms of paranoia including hearing voices, said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly. There is no public evidence so far that Alexis was ever declared mentally ill by a court. Such a finding would have prohibited him from purchasing a weapon.
Alexis obtained an early release from his service as a Navy reservist and received an honorable discharge, according to a Navy official Tuesday, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Work as a contractor
Alexis was at the Navy Yard because of his work with The Experts, a Fort Lauderdale-based information technology company that was a subcontractor for Hewlett-Packard on a Navy program.
While working for The Experts, Alexis was on a team that deployed to various locations for government IT projects, according to one acquaintance who was familiar with his job.
The acquaintance, who declined to be identified but spoke directly with Alexis about his work, disputed media reports suggesting that Alexis was upset that he had not always been paid on time.
Alexis worked for The Experts for about six months during the past year, according to the company. The Experts hired a company that completed two background checks of Alexis, confirming through the Pentagon that he had a secret clearance. The last background check was in June 2013 and revealed only a traffic violation, the company said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Alexis always was paid regularly and had not had any run-ins with his employers, the acquaintance said, noting that he had been frustrated only once because it took longer than he expected to get reimbursed for expenses from a work assignment in Japan. The process had been slowed because he didn't have receipts for some of his bills, the person added, and it was resolved quickly and without incident.
"When we talked about it, he was nonchalant, not angry at all — he never cursed, he never raised his voice," the acquaintance said.
"The side of Aaron I saw was a really great guy," the person said. "Aaron never showed any inclination that he would do anything like this. As for the PTSD and that stuff, I never saw any of that. Aaron had no issues that we ever saw."
A devotee of Buddhism
Friends who knew Alexis in the west Fort Worth neighborhood where he once lived also described him as an easygoing guy who practiced Buddhism and spoke fluent Thai. But they said he complained about a lack of jobs and money and liked to carry a pistol in his belt.
Suthamtewakul met Alexis around three years ago at a Fort Worth Buddhist temple and quickly became friends with him. Alexis moved in with Suthamtewakul, who owns the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant, and the two would have late-night drinking sessions, mostly Heineken beer.
Suthamtewakul would move four times over the next three years. Alexis moved with him. Struggling to keep a job, Alexis didn't contribute to the rent but would come to Suthamtewakul's restaurant and help with deliveries for free, including to some of Fort Worth's roughest neighborhoods, he said. Often, Alexis would have his .45-caliber pistol tucked in his belt, Suthamtewakul said.
"He liked to hang out with Thai people," he said. He didn't have a temper but wasn't afraid to use his fists, he said. Once, a friend of Suthamtewakul's shoved Alexis over an argument about a girl. Alexis punched him in the nose, bloodying him and drawing the cops to the scene.
Suthamtewakul trusted and liked Alexis, even asking him to be his best man at his wedding in December. In July, with Suthamtewakul's new wife now living with the pair, Alexis moved out. "He was a good guy to me," Suthamtewakul said. "I still can't believe he would do that."
Suthamtewakul said Alexis briefly had a Chinese girlfriend in the Navy he knew only as "Jane." She came to stay with them for a week about two years ago when they lived together. Alexis was happy.
But Suthamtewakul also noted a subtle paranoia simmering in his friend. From the first days they met, Alexis would talk about people coming to get him and carried his gun — a .45-caliber pistol — with him almost everywhere he went, Suthamtewakul said. When Alexis helped with deliveries at his Thai restaurant, Suthamtewakul had to advise Alexis to hide the weapon sticking out of his belt so customers wouldn't see it. Alexis would talk often about the need to protect himself and how to use guns. He occasionally practiced firing the weapon at a local firing range, Suthamtewakul said.
Michael Ritrovato, 50, said he befriended Alexis about four years ago at a Buddhism festival in nearby Keller, Texas. He would see him often at the Happy Bowl. Both fellow New Yorkers, Ritrovato and Alexis talked about jobs and girls and got together at Ritrovato's house to watch the New York Giants play in the Super Bowl.
"He loved to have fun," Ritrovato said. "We would have a few beers together."
But last year, Alexis' fun-loving attitude soured, he said. After landing a job with The Experts, which took him to Japan, Alexis called Ritrovato to complain that the company hadn't paid him in weeks, a situation that Alexis' acquaintance disputed. Earlier this year, Alexis called again to say his car had broken down and he didn't have enough money to fix it, Ritrovato said.
Ritrovato said he tried to get him a government job several times, but Alexis would foul up the application process. Four months ago, Alexis called again with more car and money problems. "We talked about car problems. We talked about him needing money," Ritrovato said. "He was upset."
Kristi Suthamtewakul, who dated and later married the owner of the Happy Bowl, described Alexis as charming. "It's hard to believe he would go and shoot those people," she said. "It makes me sad for the families of the victims, and it makes me sad for Aaron."
Checkered legal and military record
Despite run-ins with the law, including firearms incidents, Alexis did not need a waiver to enlist in the Navy Reserves in 2007, officials said. His commanders noted that he had a "pattern of misconduct" while serving, including a 2008 incident at a night club in Georgia. None of the issues rose to the level of a court-martial, and Alexis left the Navy with an honorable discharge.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Alexis spent two nights in the DeKalb County, Ga., jail in 2008 for disorderly conduct.
From 2008 to 2011, Alexis served with Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46 at the Naval Air Station in Fort Worth. He lived in that area and was arrested at least once in 2010 for firing a gun through the ceiling of his apartment. He told police it had been an accident.
Seattle police released details late Monday of another shooting incident in 2004 in which Alexis shot the rear tires of a vehicle owned by a construction worker doing work in his neighborhood. Alexis told police he had an anger-fueled "blackout" but added that he felt he had been "mocked" and "disrespected" by the workers.
Alexis also told police he was present during "the tragic events of September 11, 2001" and described "how those events had disturbed him." Detectives later spoke with Alexis' father in New York, who told police Alexis had anger-management problems associated with PTSD, and that he had been an active participant in rescue attempts on 9/11.
Life in New York City
Alexis grew up in Flushing, Queens, a busy area that's home to one of New York City's thriving pan-Asian communities, as well as the New York Mets. He attended Hillcrest High School, a 3,000 student public high school in the Jamaica section of Queens.
Alexis had relatives in Georgia and Seattle, according to public reports. He was 6-foot-1 and weighed 190 pounds. He last voted in Queens in 2000.
Two law enforcement agents checked on a third-floor walkup apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn on Monday night where some of Alexis' relatives had lived. They would not answer questions.
A third-floor resident who gave his name only as "Barry" said the agents asked him about a 60-year-old woman related to the suspected gunman. An online address database showed that Cathleen Alexis, 60, and Naomi Alexis, 31, may once have resided in the adjacent apartment.
A friend stayed in touch until the end
Melinda Downs, who owns a barbershop next door to the restaurant where Alexis worked, said Alexis would sleep in her family's home periodically. He was always respectful, "Always, yes ma'am, no ma'am," and fun-loving, she said.
But Alexis's mood also darkened and he would become withdrawn and quiet, Downs recalled. He also suffered from insomnia, at times not sleeping for two or three days in a row, she said. When things got bad, Alexis told her he was going to talk to a counselor at the local VA, she said.
"When we would see him withdrawn, we'd say, 'What you doing? What you thinking about?'" Downs said. "But for the most part, he would crack jokes all day."
As he began traveling with his new job, Alexis stayed in touch, calling Downs and her husband from his latest stop -- a hotel in Philadelphia, a bed and breakfast in Virginia. Last week, on Sept. 9, he called to say his assignment in Rhode Island -- where he heard voices in the ceiling -- had ended and he was headed to Washington.
She was stunned to see his face plastered on the evening news, she said.
"It breaks my heart," Downs said. "I know there are families out there who are truly devastated … The guy who did that to your loved ones isn't the guy I know."
Contributing: Kevin McCoy in New York City; and Peter Eisler in McLean, Va.