WASHINGTON — Police in Rhode Island warned the U.S. Navy last month that Aaron Alexis was hallucinating and hearing voices, and security officials at the local Navy base where he worked promised to look into the matter.
Newport Police Lt. William Fitzgerald said Wednesday that officers had faxed a copy of their report to the Newport Naval Station after Alexis told them on Aug. 7 that he was being threatened by unseen people and feared that "some sort of microwave machine" was penetrating his body.
"We faxed it to them that same day, an hour after we spoke to Mr. Alexis," Fitzgerald said. "They said they would look into it, that they would follow up on it. It was a routine thing for us to give them a heads-up."
A Navy official in Washington said Navy security agents in Newport had reviewed the allegations and decided Alexis was not a threat to the installation or to himself. He called the notification "routine" and said security personnel apparently did not interview Alexis or revoke his security clearance.
While in Newport, Alexis contacted human resources for his employer, the Experts, multiple times to complain about hearing voices in his hotel room, company spokesman Lou Colasuonno said. Company employees thought he was referring to actual voices, Colasuonno said, and moved him to new hotels twice.
The firm also contacted police to ask about Alexis but were told the department had no information about him, Colasuonno said, even though a police report had been filed. No one from the Navy or the Pentagon contacted the Experts about Alexis, he added.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said Alexis had been treated on Aug. 23 in the emergency room at the VA Medical Center in Providence, R.I., "complaining of insomnia." He was given "a small amount" of medicine to help him sleep and instructed to see his primary care provider. Five days later, he received a small refill from the emergency room at the VA Medical Center in Washington.
"On both occasions, Mr. Alexis was alert and oriented, and was asked by VA doctors if he was struggling with anxiety or depression, or had thoughts about harming himself or others, all of which he denied," VA officials said in a statement.
They added that he enrolled in VA healthcare in February 2011 — after his discharge from the Navy — but "never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that officials had missed many warning signs.
"When you go back in hindsight and look at all this, there were some red flags — of course there were," Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference. "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're going to be dealing with."
Adding that "obviously something went wrong," he announced a series of reviews into base security.
On Monday morning, six weeks after the Newport incident, Alexis appeared at the Washington Navy Yard, where he was working as a computer technician for the Experts, a contracting firm. Hidden in a bag in the trunk of his blue vehicle was a Remington 870 Express shotgun he had purchased two days earlier, federal officials said.
According to one federal law enforcement source, Alexis carved two cryptic messages into the weapon's wooden stock: "Better Off This Way" and "My ELF" — messages that appear to be a clue into his possible motive for killing 12 people and wounding several others.
The messages were carved with a knife or some other sharp instrument, the source said. The My ELF message could have been a reference to "extremely low frequency" and could refer to his hallucinations in Newport, the source said. Or, the source said, it could mean "executable and linkable format," a common computer coding term that Alexis would have known.
When Alexis opened fire with the shotgun, the source said, he was confronted by a Navy security officer armed with a .40-caliber Beretta semiautomatic. Alexis shot the guard, took the handgun and continued to fire at employees, the source said. The gunfire lasted more than half an hour, until police killed Alexis.
"He was a loner," added the official, who spoke anonymously because the investigation was still underway. "Who knows what was in his mind? He told people he was crazy."
Alexis bought the shotgun Saturday at the Sharpshooters Small Arms Range in Lorton, Va. A lawyer for the range, J. Michael Slocum, said Alexis had also tried to purchase a pistol, but store clerks refused to sell it to him because he was not a Virginia resident. Residency was not required to buy the shotgun.
In New York on Wednesday, Alexis' mother apologized to the victims' families as she spoke publicly for the first time since his rampage in the nation's capital.
"I don't know why he did what he did, and I will never be able to ask him why," Cathleen Alexis said, reading from a statement outside her Brooklyn home. "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."
Dressed in black and flanked by two local pastors, she did not address the question of her 34-year-old son's mental stability. But his father, Algernon Alexis, told Seattle police in 2004 that his son suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after helping rescue people from the rubble of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
There has been no verification that Alexis was among the first responders. Barry Rosen, a spokesman for the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where Alexis worked from February 2001 to February 2003, said his work record "does not indicate anything at all, good or bad or otherwise," to hint at problems.
Rosen added: "There is no indication that he was present at 9/11 and no record of him being a first responder. The college was close enough to ground zero that it provided a rest haven for first responders. But we have nothing to indicate that Alexis was involved in 9/11."