Return to Transcripts main page


Mother of Navy Yard Shooter Speaks Out; Interview With New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte; Essential Personnel Return To Navy Yard After Shooting

Aired September 18, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: He's now in a place where he can no longer harm anyone, and for that, we're all relieved, and so is his mother.

I am Jake Tapper, and this is THE LEAD.

The national lead, Aaron Alexis, his own mother taking solace in his death because he can never hurt anyone else ever again. We will talk to a man who went through basic training with the killer long before he killed one people.

Remembering their names. We're keeping the victims of this atrocity front and center in our coverage. New details about the dozen people who will never return to their loved ones because of the action of one man.

And, yes, the shooter was a gamer. But most video game lovers, just like most gun owners, just like most people who are mentally disturbed, they would never do something like this. What does the science really say about bloody video games and violence?

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

We're at the Washington Navy Yard, site of the massacre that claimed 12 innocent lives just two days ago. We will have dramatic new details on the investigation in just a moment.

But, first, some breaking news in our money lead. The markets exploded to record levels today after the Federal Reserve announced that the economy is not yet strong enough, and there is too much political uncertainty to stop their stimulus program, which means another six more weeks of free money, at least six more weeks.


TAPPER: Now to our national lead.

As we mentioned, we're, of course, coming to you live from outside the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., still an active crime scene after the horror that unfolded inside here, 12 people slain, coldly gunned down by a man who told police just last month that he could hear voices coming through his walls.

The Navy Yard reopened earlier to essential personnel only. Building 197, where the mass shooting went down, that is still off limits. On Sunday, President Obama will attend a memorial in honor of the Navy Yard victims. Details about where and when will be announced soon.

Also for the first time today, we're hearing from the mother of the man who carried out this atrocity just two days ago. Cathleen Alexis read a short statement earlier today filled with remorse.


CATHLEEN ALEXIS, MOTHER OF AARON ALEXIS: Our son Aaron Alexis has murdered 12 people and wounded several others. His actions have had a profound and everlasting effect on the families of the victims.

I don't know why he did what he did, and I will never be able to ask him why. Aaron is now in a place where he can no longer do harm to anyone, and for that, I am glad.

To the families of the victims, I am so, so very sorry that this has happened. My heart is broken.


TAPPER: In just the last few moments, we have learned that the Department of Veterans Affairs has told Congress that the shooter never actually sought an appointment from a mental health specialist, although he did visit two Veterans Administration emergency rooms on August 23 and August 28, complaining of insomnia. He was given medication each time.

One of the biggest questions is how the killer could have gotten security clearance through this gate despite a number of alarming incidents in his past. A senior Navy officer told me that the Navy officials knew about his 2004 arrest for shooting out the tires of a car in Seattle, but they decided to grant him clearance anyway in 2007 when he became a Navy Reservist.

Then there was the incident just weeks ago when the killer called police in Rhode Island to share with them that story of paranoia and delusion that three individuals were following him and sending vibrations through the hotel ceiling. And the police told the local Naval base about the incident, but then, well, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today acknowledged the ball was dropped.


CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Obviously there were a lot of red flags, as you noted. Why they didn't get picked up, why they didn't get incorporated into the clearance process, what he was doing, those are all legitimate questions that we are going to dealing with.


TAPPER: My next guest knew Aaron Alexis before he became the Navy Yard killer. Jason Niehoff spent nine weeks in boot camp training alongside him in 2007. And Jason was on site at the Navy Yard during the shooting.

Jason, what are you doing there? What is your job? JASON NIEHOFF, U.S. NAVY: I am a percussionist with the U.S. Navy Band. And we actually rehearse right behind us in this building, and I have been here for about six years.

TAPPER: And you are active-duty Navy?


TAPPER: OK. You knew the shooter, you knew the killer in boot camp. Did you interact with him at all?

NIEHOFF: It was very peripheral, just like anybody else at boot camp. It's all training. You are cleaning a lot. You're folding a lot of clothes and you're in the classroom a lot.

But as far as actual interaction, peripheral. Just we pass each other and we train together, but that was about it.

TAPPER: But you never noticed anything -- from your limited dealings with him, you never noticed anything that would make you think something is wrong with this guy?

NIEHOFF: Not at all. Very mild-mannered. He kept to himself and that was that.

TAPPER: Did everybody keep to themselves?

NIEHOFF: For the most part, you just try to stay out of trouble in boot camp. You just want to kind of get through the nine weeks. It's pretty intense.

TAPPER: Where was this boot camp?

NIEHOFF: It's Great Lakes, Illinois.

TAPPER: Great Lakes, Illinois. What was your reaction on Monday when his name came out and his picture came out? You must have been stunned.

NIEHOFF: I was. I didn't want to quite believe it at first and I wanted to make sure that he was who I thought he was. I recognized his face and his name.

And I had thought that I did know him, but I waited a day or two to kind of let it sink in and make sure that we were in fact in the same division at boot camp.

TAPPER: What concerns do you have as an active-duty Navy sailor? You work here. This guy, you know, you read the same stories we do or report on, and there was, as the secretary of defense just said, red flag after red flag. He shoots out the tires. He is hearing -- he is convinced that somebody is sending vibrations through him.

You must think, boy, I thought the Navy was more efficient than that or maybe you don't. NIEHOFF: I will say that I have an advanced degree in hitting things with sticks, so the whole security issue is probably not something I am qualified to even talk about.

But I felt -- personally felt very taken care of Monday throughout the entire shooting. I thought the FBI and MPD did an excellent job responding. And I never felt honestly at harm knowing who was taking care of it and how it was being taken care of.

TAPPER: And your experience that day was, did you hear shots? Was there...

NIEHOFF: I didn't hear shots. Some co-workers saw some of the people running out of Building 197. That was the first kind of tip we had that something was happening on the Navy Yard. And someone told me, there is a shooting, get inside. I was actually walking into the building, said, there has been a shooting, get inside and lock the doors until you hear something.

TAPPER: All right, Jason, well, thank you so much.

NIEHOFF: Absolutely.

TAPPER: I appreciate it. We're glad you are OK. Thanks for your service.

NIEHOFF: Thank you so much.


TAPPER: Anchors away.

NIEHOFF: Yes. And I should just say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, and we're just trying to move on. Thank you so much.

TAPPER: All right, good luck. Thank you for coming on.

As investigators piece together the events that led up to the Navy Yard shooting, we want to make sure that we at CNN never lose sight of the 12 people who lost their lives. Arthur Daniels was at Building 197 to install furniture on Monday. His wife told "The Washington Post" that the morning of the shooting, she kissed her husband and joked with him that he should take the day off since it was raining. But he said, no, he had to go in because the family had bills to pay.

Tragically, Daniels had already lost a 14-year-old son. He was shot four years ago while walking home. We're also remembering today John Johnson, who was just a few weeks away from his 74th birthday. His family says he loved to work and he loved interacting with people.


JUDY JOHNSON, WIFE OF VICTIM: He's going to be greatly missed by a lot of people. He was a great father, a great grandfather, and just -- just an awesome human being. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Johnson leaves behind four daughters and four stepchildren along with 10 grandchildren.

Then we remember, of course, 50-year-old Frank Kohler. He was a die- hard Steelers fan, as well a husband and father of two. His friends say he loved to boat, to fish, and to hunt. Richard Ridgell worked as a security guard at the Navy Yard. The 52-year-old spent had 18 years as a Maryland State Trooper.


MEGAN RIDGELL, DAUGHTER OF VICTIM: I don't want people to remember him as a victim, because he never was in hi life and he never will be. He's strong. I want him to be known as a dad above a victim of a shooting, because he was a great dad.


TAPPER: Sylvia Frasier had worked at the Navy Yard for more than 10 years. Friends say she picked up a side job at Wal-Mart simply because she loved being around people.

And Gerald Read is being remembered today as an animal lover who enjoyed the simple things in life. He leaves behind a wife, daughter, and three grandchildren. These men and women along with the other six victims, Kenneth Proctor, Kathy Gaarde, Michael Arnold, Vishnu Pandit, Martin Bodrog, Mary Francis DeLorenzo Knight, they will all be remembered in a memorial service this Sunday, along with the three others who were wounded.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, he had a police record and mental issues. How did the Navy Yard killer even get a security clearance? Well, one senator wants to know just that. And she will join me next live.

And they're back to work. Some employees at the Navy Yard returned to their jobs earlier today. And they spoke to us about coming back.


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

Before he was the Navy Yard killer, he was just another IT contractor with a security card. But how did a man with a laundry list of red flags who heard voices and had a history of violent outbursts, how did he get that kind of clearance? Well, that's the question Senator Kelly Ayotte wants answered by committee hearing.

The New Hampshire Republican joins me now.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Thanks, Jake. TAPPER: We just learned that Committee Chairman Diane Feinstein will launch an investigation of security clearances. What exactly are you focused on the most in looking at this potential problem?

AYOTTE: Well, I'm very glad that Diane Feinstein is going to launch this hearing. I serve on the Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee. I believe that we should have a hearing that looks at the prior incidents -- this man had prior incidences of misconduct, prior interactions with the criminal justice system, obviously law enforcement not only in Seattle but in Texas.

And then, in August, he had this interaction with the Rhode Island police where the Rhode Island police contacted the Navy, saying he was hearing voices, demonstrating obviously bizarre mental health behavior, deep concerns. And then, again, when he was discharged from the Navy, what we have as information is that they wanted to seek a general discharge but ended up seeking an honorable discharge.

The issue is one of safety in terms of the security clearances for individuals who are contractors that come in sensitive areas like the Navy Yard and other facilities across our country, we need a thorough review to make sure that people aren't getting through that should not be receiving these kinds of security clearances.

TAPPER: Now, I remember earlier this year, you were pushing bipartisan legislation on strengthening mental health coverage in this country. What happened to that bill and theoretically what could that do to prevent future horrors like this one?

AYOTTE: Well, Jake, I think there is a lot of bipartisan support right now in the Senate. I have a bill with Mark Begich. Today, we called Harry Reid and asked to basically issue a release asking Harry to bring it up, got over 90 votes in the Senate.

Our bill would deal with making sure we detect signs of mental illness at an early stage and other bills that deal with how do we deal with intervention, training for law enforcement, and making sure that we see the signs early on and get treatments for the individuals who are mentally ill before they commit these kinds of acts. And I think there's a lot of support across party lines on this that we can get some legislation done to address these troubling issues.

TAPPER: But if it passed so overwhelmingly in the Senate, it just never was taken up by the House?

AYOTTE: Well, it didn't fully pass. It was part of the legislation obviously on the gun control issues, but it hasn't been introduced as its stand alone legislation. So, it died with that piece of legislation. But I actually think it can be taken up separately and easily passed, because of the mental health provisions got over 90 votes in the Senate and very little gets 90 votes around here, Jake.

TAPPER: I want to ask you just as -- you are a mother of young children. I'm a father of young children. When you hear something like this happens, even if he had not been able to get into the Navy Yard, this person, this killer might have taken his frustrations out in his way somewhere else, on some other innocent people. So, putting the security issue and the clearance issue aside for a second, when you hear that he was hearing voices, that he shot out tires of a car and said he had a blackout, how can we keep guns out of the hands of people like that?

AYOTTE: Well, Jake, I think we're all deeply saddened by what happened here. Absolutely. I think one of the things we have to do is this issue, he didn't have a criminal record that would have prevented him from having a firearm, but the issue is really early intervention for mental health issues and making sure that individuals who have these types of mental illnesses, that we detect them early and get them the treatment that they need rather than have them in these types of situations.

So, I think that's why this legislation that I talked about earlier where there is strong bipartisan support for it. You know, let's move on that now.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about one other issue. We're 12 days away from a potential government shutdown and about a month away from yet another fiscal cliff. Today, Speaker John Boehner said House Republicans would do everything they could to repeal Obamacare. Take a listen.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: This week, the House will pass the C.R. that locks the sequester savings in, and defunds Obamacare. The law is a train wreck.


TAPPER: The law is what the law is. But it is the law and it did pass the House and the Senate. President Obama and the Senate, you're a member of, are never going to defund Obamacare. Is the House on a fool's errand here? Is this going too start a government shutdown that your party is going to take the heat for, for no reason at all?

AYOTTE: Well, Jake, let me just say that, you know, I've heard so much concern about Obamacare and I have supported repealing it. It's one of the reasons I ran for the United States Senate, as you know, in 2010. But I don't I don't think that shutting down the government is going to be productive. We have to remember that in the -- right now, we only have a third in the government as Republicans, and so, I think we should make every effort we can to make sure that we stop this law but I don't believe we should shut down the government to do so. And I don't think that's a strategy that is good for America.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, live free or die, thank you so much.

AYOTTE: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: When we -- when we come back, Building 197, just behind me, it's the scene of Monday's horrific shooting, will it ever reopen or will the building be torn down like the scenes of other mass shootings?

And coming up later, Russia still refuses to believe the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people. Will that put an end to that U.S.-Russia deal?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We're live outside the Washington Navy Yard and, of course, we're focused on our national lead.

On Monday, they arrived at work, likely expecting another routine day at the office, just like the rest of us. But a sick man on a mission to shatter as many innocent lives as he could, he turned their world upside down.

For the survivors who escaped the Navy Yard shooting spree without physical wounds, the mental and emotional scars will no doubt linger. But that didn't stop many of them from finding the strength to return to the very scene of a real life nightmare.

THE LEAD's Erin McPike is here with more on the first day back to work for many of the Navy workers -- Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, so many people came today to collect their cars, but some people still have their wallets and keys locked inside. But for all of the people who showed up today, what was most remarkable about them was that they were so eager to get back to work.


MCPIKE (voice-over): There is a lingering shadow over Washington's Navy Yard following Monday's shooting rampage which left 12 people dead. But even as the investigation continues, today, employees are already coming back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's good to be back to work.

MCPIKE: Forty-eight hours after the tragedy, workers considered essential to the military installations operations headed back to work this morning. Non-essential employees returned to collect their cars.

(on camera): Are you nervous about going back to work at all or going back into the building?

BRUCE SHARP, PAYROLL TECHNICIAN: No, ma'am, because I was here for the (INAUDIBLE). So, I'm prepared for all of that.

MCPIKE (voice-over): Gaining entry into Washington's array of government buildings is complex. There are safety precautions and ID checks in place. That's made some federal workers like Antoinette Proctor more comfortable about returning to their job. ANTOINETTE PROCTOR, CIVILIAN EMPLOYEE AT NAVY YARD: I'm not afraid to go on the base. I mean, it's safe. I'm not afraid. It's just the thought of what has happened here. I feel 100 percent safe going on base.

MCPIKE (on camera): Have you talked to other co-workers who are not ready to come back yet?

PROCTOR: Everybody is ready to come back.

MCPIKE (voice-over): The non-essential workers have not been told when their normal work schedule will resume. But they assume it will be later this week or early next.

(on camera): Is there anything more that you think your superiors need to do to make you or your colleagues feel more comfortable?

PROCTOR: I think they need to do a readiness class. That's for everybody because I know people panicked.

MCPIKE: Usually, it takes time to recover. When a gunman killed 12 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, last year, it took the theater six months to reopen, and when another gunman killed 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut, in December, it was such a painful memory for the community they demolished the school.

But this is the United States Navy. And here, the morning commute resumed just two days later.

MCPIKE: You're going back to get your car and in the next couple of days, you're going to be going back to work. Is that the way it should be?

ABBY MACHALEC, WORKS AT NAVY YARD: I don't know. Like I said, I feel safe. I mean, I know that they're doing their jobs and they kept us safe that day. I mean, I guess you can't predict who is out there or what they're going to do.

MCPIKE (voice-over): The fear is gone for the employees here, but the sadness remains.

PROCTOR: There are no words for what took place on Monday.


MCPIKE: Now, although they to want get back to work, what some of them told me is they don't want to go back into Building 197. That's too painful for them and there was a cafeteria in that building where they saw some of the people who died. And they just think it's just too painful for them.

TAPPER: Very difficult to go back after something like this. Erin, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: the Russians are slamming the U.N. report on chemical weapons use in Syria as biased and incomplete. Could that sink the deal to destroy the weapons?

And some reports now say the Navy Yard killer spent hours playing violent video games, but so do a lot of people. We'll ask a psychologist if there's any link between gaming and gun violence.