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Navy Yard Shooter Had a History of Problem Behavior; FBI: Alexis Entered Navy Yard with Shotgun; Remembering the Victims

Aired September 17, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: What were the voices in Aaron Alexis' head telling him before he murdered 12 people in cold blood?

I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Hearing voices, sleepless nights, a history of gun arrests, pieces of the Navy Yard killer's back story are snapping into place, but does any of it account for his actions?

The dead. We now know the names of all 12 of them and as we search for answers, we will not forget them or the three who were wounded, including a D.C. police officer who will have to fight to walk again.

And Alexis had a valid I.D. to get in, but how did he have so much time to stalk his victims in the Navy Yard? A government audit claims that cost-cutting may have relaxed security, our guest, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who is demanding answers.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin, of course, with the national lead. We're coming to you live from right outside the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., where just blocks away, 12 people lost their lives in a horrific mass shooting just 32 hours ago. The man who carried out this rampage, 34-year-old military contractor Aaron Alexis, a danger from the inside that many working right next to him did not see coming.

New information that CNN has learned today is helping to fill in a picture of a man who may have been coming apart at the seams. We're now learning about an incident just last month in which Alexis told police that he was hearing voices through walls. Much more on that in a moment.

But, first, the FBI is clearing up a few of the many lingering questions about the assault.


VALERIE PARLAVE, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN CHARGE, D.C. FBI FIELD OFFICE: We believe at this time that the deceased shooter Aaron Alexis acted alone and we believe that Mr. Alexis entered Building 197 at the Navy Yard with a shotgun. We do not have any information at this time that he had an AR-15 in his possession. We also believe Mr. Alexis may have gained access to a handgun once inside the facility.


TAPPER: A Virginia gun shop says Alexis legally bought his shotgun there. And no red flags turned up in the background check. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today ordered a security review at U.S. bases and sites around the world in the aftermath of this massacre, even though investigators say Alexis had a valid pass to enter the Navy Yard and he was granted medium security clearance.

As the details continue to come in, the more we have learned about this killer, the more he seems like a man adrift in life.


TAPPER (voice-over): As the nation mourns the innocent victims of yesterday's Navy Yard shooting, family and friends of the shooter reevaluate the man they thought they knew.

MICHAEL RITROVATO, FRIEND OF SHOOTER: I would never have believed this until it happened.

KRISTI SUTHAMTEWAKUL, FRIEND OF SHOOTER: Aaron was a very polite, very friendly man.

TAPPER: But with the image of 34-year-old Aaron Alexis now staring back at us from screens and newspaper covers worldwide, glimpses of his contradictory character are coming into full view.

From the outside, he was a veteran of the Navy Reserve, honorably discharged in 2011 after serving more than three years. But records show Alexis' time in the service was troubled. According to Naval officials, he was cited at least eight times for misconduct during his military career, including insubordination and excessive absences. He had been arrested for gun violence once prior to enlistment and was arrested twice more while serving.

In 2008, he was charged with disorderly conduct, then arrested again in 2010 for firing a gun through his apartment ceiling. He left the Navy in 2011. The next year, he started working for The Experts, a subcontractor on a Hewlett-Packard contract to refresh equipment used on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network.

He entered the Navy Yard yesterday morning using his official security clearance.

KIRK LIPPOLD, FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: You have a documented case where this individual misbehaved, the Navy knew it, and yet still when he got out, he was allowed to get a clearance and people need to be asking the question why.

TAPPER: Alexis had family in New York, but had been estranged from them for many years.

ANTHONY LITTLE, BROTHER-IN-LAW OF SHOOTER: No one ever mentioned anything about him being aggressive or being this type of way or anything like that. So I can't comment to say that, you know, I knew anything about this. TAPPER: But in Texas, where he lived most recently, he was part of a community that revolved around a Buddhist temple, where he practiced meditation.

SUTHAMTEWAKUL: He just had an excitement for life, but then just learning Thai and just getting involved with the Thai community, with the Buddhist temple down the road.

TAPPER: Alexis spoke Thai and used the skill as a server at this Texas restaurant before departing on a recent trip to Thailand. But despite his smile in this photo, friends say the man they knew was becoming increasingly distressed, telling friends he was struggling with his finances.

SUTHAMTEWAKUL: He was sent on the contractor's job to Japan for a month and that was from November to December, and he got back and he felt very slighted about his benefits at the time.

RITROVATO: He called me several months ago saying that they didn't pay him, his car was broke down, he didn't know what he was going to do.

TAPPER: According to two law enforcement sources, Alexis recently made contact with two Veterans Administration hospitals, perhaps for psychological issues.

SUTHAMTEWAKUL: He was very frustrated with the government and how as a veteran he didn't feel like he was getting treated right or fairly.

TAPPER: Authorities are actively investigating the circumstances surrounding both VA visits.


TAPPER: We're still far from nailing down any possible motive for this senseless attack, but we do know that Aaron Alexis was a very troubled man with mental health issues that reportedly began more than a decade ago.

We're also learning that he had been -- previously received treatment at a Veterans Administration hospital.

Our Deborah Feyerick joins us with some breaking news now.

Deb, you have learned some new information in just the last few minutes. Catch us up. What do you know?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, apparently, Rhode Island police contacted the Newport Naval Station in August to warn them about an encounter police had had with one of their contractors, Aaron Alexis.

Now, Newport Lieutenant William Fitzgerald tells us that about six weeks ago, on August 7, Alexis called police to his hotel. He had actually transferred to three hotels while traveling from Virginia to Rhode Island. He said he had gotten into a verbal altercation with a man during his flight. He believed the man had sent three people to talk to him to keep him awake and sent vibrations through his body.

Now, according to the police report, Alexis said that the two men and a woman were -- quote -- "using a microwave machine" to send vibrations through the ceiling, penetrating his body so he could not speak. He also told police that he never felt anything like this and felt these individuals would harm him.

He did not tell police exactly what his alleged harassers were saying, but he did say that he had no history of mental illness in his family, that he had never had a mental episode. Newport Police were so concerned that they notified the Naval station just about an hour-and- a-half after this encounter to tell them what had happened and to alert them about the possible implications given Alexis' access to the base.

We reached out to the Newport Naval Station. They referred us to the FBI, who has no comment. We also spoke to a source with direct knowledge of this case, Jake. He says that apparently Alexis did try to get help at the VA facility in Rhode Island back in August as well, the same time as this encounter -- Jake.

TAPPER: Another red flag completely missed by the military. Deb Feyerick, thank you so much.

As the nation struggles with the aftermath of the massacre carried out by Aaron Alexis, people closest to him are trying to square his actions with the man they thought they knew. Alexis moved from place to place in recent years, but we know that he spent a good deal of time in Ft. Worth, Texas.

And that's where he became friends with Michael Ritrovato, who joins us now live.

Michael, thanks for being with us.

What's the first thing that went through your mind when you saw Alexis' face on TV yesterday afternoon?

RITROVATO: Yes, sir. I appreciate you asking me that.

First of all, just to let you know, my heart goes out to all the innocent victims and I just never would have seen anything like this coming with Aaron. He didn't seem like that kind of a person. And so, you know, we're hearing more and more things as the days go by, but certainly we would have never guessed that Aaron would be capable of pointing a gun and actually shooting a person, let alone many people.

And so it's just -- it's a really hard thing to handle because he was like a friend, a family friend, a brother to me, and so it's just -- I don't understand what set him off.

TAPPER: Police say that Alexis had been hearing voices. You may have just heard Deb Feyerick's report that in Rhode Island, he was saying that individuals were sending vibrations through his body.

Did he ever indicate any sort of mental unbalance, that he was hearing voices, feeling vibrations, paranoia, anything at all?

RITROVATO: Well, sir, that would have had to be something more recent, and I hadn't seen him recently. I had had a phone call conversation with him several months ago about how he was mad at the company he worked for because they were slow to pay is the way he put it, and Aaron seemed to confide in me is the reason why he would call me.

But some of that recent stuff, I wouldn't know about. Certainly, I would have thought that would be an alarm for him to find out something like that, so I didn't know anything about voices or anything about that, what was going on in his job, because I hadn't heard from him in awhile. So all that must have happened while he was on the job with these contractors, so I hadn't heard from him recently.

But I certainly would have -- it would have been a red flag to me as well to hear things like that about Aaron, because he never would let on to us here at the Happy Bowl. These people really took him under their wing. They were really like more like a family to him, and so all of this is news to us. And we're just all distraught. We don't understand why it turned into something as violent, other than -- the only thing that comes to mind for me is that he had -- you know, he liked to go online and had video games like -- violent video games that he played.

That's the only thing that comes to mind for me. Other than that, he was never violent or angry over here with the family. Like I said, he was more like a son to them than anything.

TAPPER: Millions of Americans obviously play violent video games without any effect. Was there any strain of violence that you ever saw with him relating to the video games or just in day-to-day life?

RITROVATO: No, just that it surprised me that a long time ago, probably a year or so ago, when I was invited to his house to watch a football game, he spent more time in there watching -- playing the game online with some other individual, which was a pretty bloody game of shooting.

He spent more time doing that than entertaining his guests. And I commented to Aaron on that that, wow, man, you're in your 30s, dude. You need to let that stuff go. Like I said, he was -- I would comment, I would say things like, you know, you're a brother of another mother and he would say things like, yes, you're my Italian buddy, mafia guy from New York.

So we had things we joked about. Aaron wasn't conservative like I am. He was more of a liberal type. He wasn't happy with the former administration. He was more happy with this administration, as far as presidential administrations.

So we joked and we had comments with each other about that, but we always seemed to meet in the middle over those issues. But he had respect for me and he had respect for the people at the restaurant. He better have had respect more or less, because he worked there and he showed that kind of respect, but he never showed any -- not anger, you know, or dismay or unhappiness.

He was happy over having a job. It was just slow pay for those people that hired him is what he told me several months ago on the phone when he called me. He needed money financially. His car was broke down, and that was the only thing I can think of that, you know, that he was having problems with in his life. I tried to get him on where I work. I worked at the Treasury, and he messed up his application, and so he didn't get hired because he did the paperwork wrong.

But I told him that if he kept on trying, he would eventually get in there, because he had government experience and the Treasury people would like to hire people that have government experience. So he had opportunities coming up, and I thought he had opportunities with his company. So I just don't understand. We don't understand. We're all sorry for the victims. God bless them people.

And I apologize for him, if I can. We wish we could have done something to influence him in a different way.

TAPPER: All right, Michael Ritrovato, thank you so much for your time.

Coming up on THE LEAD, new details about the gun used in this mass shooting. We're at the gun shop where Aaron Alexis bought his weapon and we're learning more about the background check he went through.

Plus, they carried him to safety after he was shot in the legs. We will check in on the police officer who was injured at the Navy Yard as he thanks his fellow officers.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, live from right outside the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

We're learning more about the weaponry Aaron Alexis used when he massacred 12 people just blocks from here yesterday and the background check that he went through.

I want to get to our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, who is live in Lorton, Virginia, outside a gun store Alexis recently visited.

Chris, explain where you are and what you've learned.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake. Basically, we're learning some very new information about what Aaron Alexis was doing in the hours before he allegedly came on to the Navy Yard and started shooting. Exactly one day before that, he came right here to the sharpshooters gun shop in Lorton, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

He was here a few hours and basically what he did was, he paid the store to use one of their rifles. He also bought some ammunition for that rifle and he stayed here at the gun shop, at the target range. He did some target practice with that rifle and then he bought a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun. And we're also told he bought about two cases of ammunition, about 24 shells, with that.

Now, while he was here, they ran his name through the federal background check database. It took a couple hours. He was here a couple hours. But basically, there was no problem in that background check.

He had a valid out of state license from the state of Texas and in Virginia, you are allowed to buy a rifle, a long gun, shotgun or rifle, with an out of state license, if the state where you live, if that's a valid purchase. So in other words, you can buy a rifle or shotgun here in Virginia but say your license is from Washington, D.C. and D.C. has certain laws against that, you can't do it. You have to respect the law from which you came. The only restriction is on a hand gun. You can't buy a hand gun with an out of state license.

But again, we now know that he came here the day before the Navy Yard shooting, he bought the Remington 12-gauge shotgun and about 24 shells -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Chris Lawrence, thank you so much.

I want to bring in Shawn Henry now. He's the former executive assistant director for the FBI. He has given us invaluable insight into where this investigation is going.

Shawn, first of all, you and I have been talking about this off camera -- red flag after red flag after red flag. How did this guy get a security clearance to be a contractor and have access to the Navy base?

SHAWN HENRY, FORMER EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, FBI: You know, there's long-term investigations that are done to get somebody a security clearance. You want to make sure they've got the right mental health. They're not being co-opted by some of our foreign adversaries. Sometimes these things slip through the cracks.

There are lots of red flags, when you hear about some of the things we heard in the media about voices and those sorts of things, that people should have come forward. If you're out talking in the neighborhood to do an investigation, if you're talking to former co-workers and the like, this seemed like the type of things you would hear about as an investigator. So, those are the things that the FBI and other investigators over the next few weeks are going to be looking at to find out how this was allowed to happen.

TAPPER: Especially you hear about the 2004 incident where Alexis shot the tires of a car and then claimed he had had a blackout and didn't remember doing it. I would think that an incident like that might even be prohibitive in terms of his joining the Navy Reserves.

HENRY: Yes, you would think that would be one of the issues that somebody would look at. It would have come up in some of the investigation that would have gone on. The Navy will be asking a lot of questions here, NCIS and others going forward. These are some of the issues that will be a challenge. TAPPER: So, let -- there are a lot of questions right now about the Navy Yard and how he got access to the Navy Yard. He had a shotgun with him at the very least. Not a problem to bring a shotgun on to the Navy base?

HENRY: Well, he had a valid pass, according to law enforcement officials. They're not searching every single car, going through the trunk, going underneath the car. They're probably not looking inside each of the trucks.

I imagine that they would be doing that periodically, spot-checking, but if they were to do that and shut down this naval base, they have 3,000 people that work here, that would be somewhat onerous to do that.

If he had a valid pass, they probably would have allowed him in.

TAPPER: A source told me that the FBI has gone as far back as 10 years ago to a place Alexis was working in New York City. Why would they be doing that? Certainly nobody there would be involved in something that happened today.

HENRY: The FBI is looking for motive right now. That's one of their primary priorities. They want to know everything about this man that they can find out.

They'll go back to grade school if they have to, talk to people he grew up with, talk to teachers in high school, those sorts of things. It's like throwing a pebble into a pond. It's concentric circles that will continue to move out. They'll search every lead. They'll run these things to ground to make sure that at the end of the day they know exactly who he was, what he did and what his motive was.

TAPPER: And even if they are confident he acted alone, they want to make sure 100 percent, and they're not there yet. They can't be.

HENRY: I think that that's right. I think everything we heard thus far indicates he was the lone shooter here. The ballistics and trajectory that they've done and the evidence response team, that will bear that out.

But again, they want to make sure that there's nobody else. Maybe there was somebody who funded him. Maybe there was somebody who provided him weapons, that sort of thing.

They'll make sure they run all those things out so that at the end of the day, when there's a final report done, it's very clear to everybody what happened.

TAPPER: All right. Shawn Henry, formerly with the FBI, stick with us. We're going to get your closing thoughts at the end of the show.

Coming up on THE LEAD: a fantastic mother, a kind and gentle man, families share memories of their loved ones who were lost in yesterday's shooting. Plus, the mind of the shooter. A source tells us Aaron Alexis was hearing voices. I'll ask Dr. Gail Saltz what this says about his mental state.



SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I wish we could do more, but I do ask that we now ask unanimous consent that the Senate now observe a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the tragic Navy Yard, those killed and those suffering from the wounds inflicted in that terrible day that occurred not far from the Capitol.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without objection.


TAPPER: A moment of silence.

Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. And I'm live right outside the Washington Navy Yard.

They were mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, sisters, brothers, civilians, contractors. One a die-hard Redskins fan. Another, an avid golfer. The 12 men and women whose lives were cut short here yesterday by a gunman hell-bent on taking as many lives as he could.

They are being remembered today, not just by the loved ones whom they left behind, but by all of us so deeply touched by the senselessness of this tragedy.

I'm joined by THE LEAD's Erin McPike, who is here with more on the victims -- Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, many of these victims were in their 50s, in the prime of their lives. We have been talking to their family members and neighbors and co-workers to get a sense of them. Understandably, everyone is still in shock, but some of them have been willing to share their stories with us.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not possible, not possible that they shot him just for no reason.

MCPIKE (voice-over): A dozen families are mourning today after losing their loved ones in Monday's shooting rampage at Washington's Navy Yard.

Michael Arnold was a pilot from Lorton, Virginia.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He loved his country. He loved the navy. He loved flying. He was just a happy person.

MCPIKE: All 12 were civilians working at what should be one of the safest places in Washington. The youngest was 46, and the oldest, 73.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all are civil servants, working for the Department of the Navy.

MCPIKE: Most of the victims' family members are still too distraught today to speak out about their loved ones yet, but some of them did pass along old photographs and shared memories.

Kathy Gaarde's husband said she was a caring daughter, fantastic mother, wife and best friend for 43 years. The Gaarde family is asking for donations sent in her honor to the Virginia branch of the Humane Society because she was an animal lover.

Martin Bodrog of Annandale, Virginia, graduated from the Naval Academy and spent 22 years as an officer in the Navy. His family said he was often wearing a Boston Bruins jersey and shorts even in the snow, walking his dog and helping shovel all the driveways of his elderly neighbors.

Mary DeLorenzo Knight, pictured here, taught classes at a Virginia community college in addition to her job at the Navy Yard.

And Vishnu Pandit's children sent along this photo, calling their father a kind and gentle man.

Kenneth Proctor's youngest son, Kendall, posted this photo of his father, who also died Monday.

Six others lost their lives on Monday, including John Roger Johnson, Gerald Read, Sylvia Frasier, Frank Kohler, Arthur Daniels and Richard Michael Ridgell.


MCPIKE: Now, one of the victims we featured there, Mary Knight, was in her daughter's wedding just very recently.

It's important to remember, Jake, that these were all adults leading very full lives and it's teenagers and young adult children are being survived by.

TAPPER: So tragic.

Erin McPike, thank you so much.