WHITE SETTLEMENT, Texas — To Kristi Suthamtewakul, Aaron Alexis was a gentle young man who taught himself to speak Thai for his waiter’s job and chanted Thai prayers at a Buddhist temple. Alexis wore a golden amulet of Buddha around his neck, she recalled, yet also carried a concealed .45-caliber handgun.
To a Fort Worth neighbor and a Seattle construction worker, Alexis — accused of gunning down workers at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday — was a brooding, menacing figure quick to brandish and fire a gun.
Alexis, 34, a former Navy electrician’s mate working as a government subcontractor, was shot and killed by police after he gunned down 12 people, authorities said. He left behind questions not only about his motives but about who he was and what might have set off the rampage.
“There was nothing sinister about him,” said Suthamtewakul, 35, who helps run her family’s Thai restaurant outside Fort Worth where Alexis worked as a waiter and deliveryman.
Suthamtewakul recalled Alexis celebrating Christmas and New Year’s with her and her husband, Nutpisit, singing a karaoke version of "(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You.”
Alexis was generally easygoing, she said in an interview at the family restaurant, the Happy Bowl in White Settlement. But he bristled when describing his service in the Navy and the benefits he believed had been withheld.
“He just felt slighted by what he was getting each month,” she said.
Alexis was frustrated, she said, that he couldn’t contribute more to household bills while he was living with Suthamtewakul and her husband, whom Alexis met at a Buddhist temple.
“He was upset, but not to the degree he would do something like this,” she said, referring to the shooting. “I’m still really confused.”
But Nutpisit Suthamtewakul said Alexis drank alcohol, always carried a gun and “acted childish — not like a 34-year-old.”
Federal agents interviewed him about Alexis on Monday, he said. “I told them I didn’t see any sign.”
Alexis seemed to hold grudges. He was upset over a salary dispute with his employer, a government subcontractor called The Experts, according to an official close to the investigation.
Alexis was investigated by police in Fort Worth and Seattle for firing a handgun in incidents involving disputes with a neighbor and a construction worker. He also had a string of Navy disciplinary infractions leading up to his discharge in January 2011. But there was little indication from his available public record that he was capable of escalating from petty disputes to a mass shooting.
A woman who lived upstairs from Alexis in Fort Worth told police in September 2010 that he had harangued her about supposed noises from her apartment and confronted her in the parking lot. Police said Alexis fired a shot into the woman’s floor from his apartment below. He told police his handgun had gone off as he was cleaning it, but the woman said she thought the shooting was deliberate.
“She is terrified of Aaron and feels this was done intentionally,” a police report said.
In Seattle in 2004, a construction worker told police that Alexis had stared at him and fellow workers every day for a month — and occasionally brandished a handgun — at a construction site next to Alexis’ residence. The worker said he had never spoken to Alexis, but Alexis suddenly fired three shots from a Glock 30 handgun into the worker’s parked car one day in May 2004.
Alexis later told police that the worker had “mocked” and “disrespected” him. He said he had experienced an anger-fueled “blackout” and did not recall the shooting until an hour later, according to the police report. Seattle police said Alexis’ father told them his son had “anger management problems,” according to a police department blog.
Alexis said he had been present during the Sept. 11 attacks and that “those events had disturbed him,” the police report said.
He was arrested in both shooting cases, but was not prosecuted. No one was hurt in either incident.
Suthamtewakul said that Alexis had expressed anger about Sept. 11 to her, but that he was angry at terrorists.
“The way he talked about 9/11, he just didn’t seem like the kind of person to do this,” she said. “There was no way I could have foreseen this.”
Anthony Little, who said he is married to Alexis’ sister, Naomi Alexis, said no one in the family had ever indicated that Aaron had any problems.
“From what I know, he was a regular guy.... I never was close to him,” Little told reporters outside the Brooklyn home where Aaron Alexis’ mother, Cathleen Alexis, lives.
“My wife had not seen him or spoken to him in some time,” Little said. “But from what I do know, he wasn’t that type of person.”
He added: “I didn’t really hear anything that would make me feel like ... somebody should be watching him. No one every mentioned anything about him being aggressive or being this type of way or anything like that.”
At the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, two staff members who knew Alexis from the Happy Bowl said he gave no indication of being capable of violence.
“I thought Aaron seemed kind of geeky — didn’t seem like a Thai restaurant waiter,” columnist Bud Kennedy said in a video uploaded by the newspaper.
Copy editor Sandy Guerra-Cline said in the video that Alexis was “really a sweet and intelligent guy.”
“He was like an ex-airman [for the Navy], still had sort of the military bearing about him, but very sweet,” Guerra-Cline said. “He’s not a guy that talked about guns, or talked about anything violent.”
Mike Ritrovato, 50, of Saginaw, Texas, said he knew Alexis and was troubled by his attraction to first-person shooter video games.
“If he had anything bad about him, it was that he was a 35-year-old man playing video games,” Ritrovato said — even when Ritrovato and the rest of their friends were watching football together.
At a Buddhist temple outside Fort Worth, two monks chatted quietly with congregants who recalled Alexis from his worship at the temple and could not reconcile him with the man accused of a mass shooting.
Ty Thairintr, 52, a Fort Worth tooling design engineer, said he met Alexis about five years ago, when Alexis was still in the Navy. “He told me he believed he had superior abilities to his co-workers but he didn’t get promoted,” he said. “He complained about the rank and file not giving him respect.”
Alexis felt discriminated against because he was black, he said.
Eventually Alexis planned to become a Buddhist monk, Thairintr said, and was adept at chanting in Thai. “He chanted better than me.”
“He was a very devoted Buddhist,” said Thairintr’s wife, Sasipa, 51. “Buddhism teaches forgiveness, not grudges. That’s why we’re so shocked.”
Ty Thairintr pointed to a golden Buddha amulet hanging from his neck and wondered if investigators had found Alexis’ amulet with his body.
“He would not commit mass murder with that on him,” he said. “If they find that on him, something is wrong.”
But if the amulet is missing, his wife said, “It would show he planned it, that he knew it was a sinful thing to do.”
Ty Thairintr pointed to garlands on the tree limbs, and to a stray cat.
“We would not hurt any living thing,” he said. “I don’t know what was in his mind.”
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Texas and Zucchino from North Carolina. Times staff writers Tina Susman in New York and Richard Winton and Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.