September 19, 2013

D.C. shooting: Why were so many red flags ignored?

The gunman sought treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals but told doctors he was not a risk.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis had sought treatment for insomnia in the emergency rooms of two Veterans Affairs hospitals in the past month, but he told doctors he was not depressed and was not thinking of harming others, federal officials said Wednesday.

Chuck Hagel, Martin Dempsey
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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey take questions at The Pentagon Wednesday after Hagel said he is ordering a review of the physical security of all U.S. defense facilities worldwide.

The Associated Press

Aaron Alexis
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Aaron Alexis

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Those walk-in visits came just two weeks after Alexis had called police in Rhode Island to report hearing voices and feeling vibrations sent through his hotel-room walls. On Aug. 23, he went to a VA hospital in Providence, R.I. Five days later, he went to another one in Washington, seeking a refill of the medication he had been prescribed in Rhode Island, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

In both cases, doctors sent Alexis home with the medication, identified by law enforcement officials as Trazodone, a generic antidepressant that is widely prescribed for insomnia. The VA doctors told him to follow up with a primary-care doctor. It is unclear whether he did.

KILLER'S PROBLEMS WERE KNOWN

"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, which he denied," the Department of Veterans Affairs said in a memo sent to Congress on Wednesday.

That report adds to a grim and frustrating portrait of Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday morning, wielding a shotgun with bizarre messages carved into the stock. One said "Better off this way" and another said "My ELF weapon," law enforcement officials said.

This was a man who often did not hide his problems. Alexis had left records of his troubles in local police reports, in Navy files and in VA medical records. But it was never quite enough to trigger broader alarms or to revoke any of the privileges that the government had extended Alexis as an IT contractor.

In fact, this year -- as Alexis' mental state seemed to decline -- government agencies affirmatively signed off on all the tools of his massacre.

A security clearance. An ID badge. Then, a gun.

"Obviously there were a lot of red flags," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday, saying there were valid questions about "why they didn't get picked up."

"Where there are gaps, we will close them," Hagel said. "Where there are failures, we will correct them."

In Washington on Wednesday, hospital officials said three of the injured victims had improved. District of Columbia police officer Scott Williams, who was shot in the leg, and an unidentified woman shot in the shoulder were upgraded from "fair" to "good" condition. They said a woman with gunshot wounds to her head and hand was discharged Tuesday.

At the Navy Yard on Wednesday, a stream of workers came back to retrieve cars or go to their jobs as personnel in camouflage patrolled the sidewalk with assault rifles. On Thursday, officials said, the Navy Yard would return to "near normal operations," with most workers expected back in their offices.

But Building 197, the scene of the rampage, will remain closed. It remains an active crime scene - and a reminder that "near normal" at the Navy Yard is an elusive goal.

In the broader investigation, authorities were trying make sense of the phrases Aaron Alexis had carved into the stock of the Remington 870 pump-action shotgun he used in the rampage.

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