Navy Yard Shooter Struggled With Growing Mental Issues

Investigators are gathering clues that indicate Aaron Alexis' life seemed to be unraveling. He's been identified as the man who opened fire at a U.S. naval base in Washington, D.C. on Monday, killing 12 workers. Alexis was killed in a gun battle with police.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Let's focus for a moment on the mental state of Aaron Alexis. He's the man identified as the shooter who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, and then was killed himself. We now know some things; among them he'd been a Navy Reservist, he had a history with guns, and he seemed to be having mental problems.

Nobody knows his motivation, but a search of his recent past does offer some clues. NPR's Joe Shapiro is here with the latest. Good morning.

JOE SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So what are you learning about the final weeks and months of his life?

SHAPIRO: All summer, this was a man whose life seemed to be unraveling. He went to work as a Navy contractor, doing computer work. But he was struggling with growing mental health problems. We've heard the stories of how Aaron Alexis lived in Fort Worth, where he worked as a waiter at a Thai restaurant called the Happy Bowl. He had some stability, some satisfaction, some friends. These were things that were rare in his life.

But around July 4th, that started to fall apart. Police in Fort Worth released an incident report. An owner of the restaurant had called the police. He thought Alexis put something in the gas tank of his vehicle, and his vehicle wouldn't start. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said the complaint came from the same man who on Monday called himself the best friend of Aaron Alexis; the man who said he couldn't believe Alexis was capable of carrying out a mass murder.

But the police report shows the two men were at odds. And soon after, Alexis moved out. So that was early July.

MONTAGNE: And so you - picking up at that moment in time, he left Texas, apparently moving around quite a bit. What then happened?

SHAPIRO: So next, there's another incident report on Aug. 7. Police in Newport, R.I., got a call from a man at a hotel. And that's Alexis, and this is laid out in the police report that was released yesterday. Alexis identified himself as a Navy contractor. He said he was hearing voices; they were coming through the walls, the floor, the ceiling of his hotel room; that he'd changed hotels three times.

He said he was being followed by people. They were sending vibrations into his body with some sort of microwave machine ,and tried to get him to stop from sleeping. So this worried the officers. And the police report says they contacted police at the Naval Station Newport. But we don't know how or whether naval investigators followed up, or what they could have done. So that was just six weeks ago.

MONTAGNE: And from what you just said - that he called the police about what he was feeling and hearing - he obviously understood he needed some help.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, that suggests he knew he needed help. Our colleague Carrie Johnson reports that a federal source says that Alexis sought treatment for mental health problems. And The Washington Post reported that in the six weeks since that incident in Rhode Island, Alexis was treated at two VA hospitals.

MONTAGNE: Well, when we hear these stories about Alexis, there are people who will be listening and wondering how a man with this record of mental problems was allowed to buy a gun.

SHAPIRO: The attorney for a Virginia gun store and shooting range, one that's not far from Washington, told NPR that Alexis was there on Sunday - the day before the shootings. He rented a rifle, which he used at the practice range. And then he bought a Remington 870 shotgun and about 24 shells. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The attorney who said Alexis bought the gun on Sunday was mistaken. Alexis bought the gun on Saturday.]

He went through the FBI and the state background check so even with these problems that he had, the gunman legally bought his weapon.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Joseph Shapiro, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

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Correction Sept. 18, 2013

We say that Aaron Alexis bought his gun on Sunday. This information came from the lawyer for Sharpshooters Small Arms Range. However, the lawyer was incorrect; Alexis actually bought the gun on Saturday.

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