WASHINGTON — The gunman who killed 12 people in last year’s rampage at Washington’s Navy Yard lied so convincingly to Veterans Affairs doctors before the shootings that they concluded he had no mental health issues despite serious problems and encounters with police during the same period, according to a review by The Associated Press of his confidential medical files.
Just weeks before the shootings, a doctor treating him for insomnia noted that the patient worked for the Defense Department but wrote hauntingly “no problem there.”
The AP obtained more than 100 pages of treatment and disability claims evaluation records for Aaron Alexis, spanning more than two years. They show Alexis complaining of minor physical ailments, including foot and knee injuries, slight hearing loss and later insomnia, but resolutely denying any mental health issues. He directly denied having suicidal or homicidal thoughts when government doctors asked him about it just three weeks before the shootings.
In a bizarre incident in Newport, Rhode Island, Alexis told police on Aug. 7 that disembodied voices were harassing him at his hotel using a microwave machine to prevent him from sleeping. After police reported the incident to the Navy, his employer, a defense contracting company, pulled his access to classified material for two days after his mental health problems became evident but restored it quickly and never told Navy officials it had done so.
Just 16 days later, after Alexis, 34, told an emergency room doctor that he couldn’t sleep, the doctor wrote that his speech and thoughts seemed “clear and focused” and noted that he “denies flashbacks, denies recent stress.”
“He works in the Defense Department, no problem there,” the doctor added.
Alexis, a defense contractor and former Navy reservist, went on a deadly shooting rampage at the Navy Yard on Sept. 16, spraying bullets in a hallway and firing on workers from a balcony. He died in a gunbattle with police.
He had purchased the shotgun he used two days before the shooting from a gun shop in Virginia. Alexis had been involved in at least two earlier shooting-related incidents, in 2004 when he was arrested in Seattle and charged with malicious mischief for shooting the tires on a construction worker’s vehicle and in 2010 when he was arrested in Fort Worth, Texas, for firing a rifle into a neighbor’s apartment.
No charges were filed in those two cases, but it was not immediately clear whether Alexis was answering honestly on Aug. 23 when he was asked whether he still had any weapons. The FBI told the AP it found no weapons when it searched the hotel where Alexis had been staying after the shootings.
Before the Navy Yard shootings, Alexis left behind a note that FBI agents recovered saying he had been targeted by ultra-low frequency radio waves for the previous three months — the period that covered his visits to the VA medical facilities when he denied he was experiencing any stress or violent thoughts.
Sidney Matthew, a lawyer representing the family of one of the shooting victims, told the AP it’s possible that Alexis was evasive with his doctors but expressed skepticism that physicians adequately questioned Alexis about why he wasn’t sleeping.
Matthew noted that Alexis aggressively confronted a family at Norfolk (Virginia) International Airport on Aug. 4, just days before his encounter with police on Aug. 7 that was so bizarre that police contacted the Navy about their concerns. Alexis’ family also had concerns about his mental health during the period.
The AP obtained 114 pages of Alexis’ medical records under the Freedom of Information Act after requesting them a few weeks after the shootings. It is unusual for the government to disclose anyone’s medical files, but the Veterans Affairs Department agreed that the public interest in the mass killing outweighed Alexis’ privacy rights in keeping his treatment records secret after his death. In the records the AP obtained, the government withheld the names of all the doctors and others who treated Alexis to protect their privacy.
Congress and the Pentagon are investigating the shootings, including whether faulty security clearance procedures allowed him to get and maintain his job. Some lawmakers have said Alexis fell through the cracks at the VA and should have been treated by mental health professionals, but they have stopped short of specifying what government doctors should have done differently.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.