Motive a mystery in Navy Yard shooting that killed 13

Security is under heavy scrutiny after at least 13 people were shot dead at the nation’s oldest military installation

09/17/2013 6:23 AM

09/18/2013 3:24 AM

A mass shooting Monday morning at the Washington Navy Yard left at least 13 people, including a suspected gunman, dead, and three others wounded.

District of Columbia Police Chief Cathy Lanier said that police had determined the gunman was a civilian Navy contractor, Aaron Alexis, 34, of Fort Worth, Texas, who was identified by fingerprints.

Alexis was a full-time Navy reservist until 2011, last serving with a logistics support squadron in Fort Worth.

He reportedly used a friend’s identification to get into Building 197, the Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters where 3,000 people work, and engaged in multiple shootouts with police before being fatally shot.

The three wounded victims, including a police officer, were taken to MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Dr. Janis Orlowski, the center’s chief medical officer, told reporters their chances of survival were good, and that all three were alert and speaking.

The police officer was shot in both of his legs. The other two victims were female civilians. One suffered injuries to her shoulder, the other to both her head and hand. All three were confirmed to have been wounded inside the Navy Yard, which is not far from the U.S. Capitol building.

Security measures

The neighborhood near the naval facility remained sealed off, with residents locked out and nearby schools locked down six hours after the first reports of violence came in at 8:20a.m.

The U.S. Senate was placed on a preventive lockdown Monday afternoon, with votes postponed. The lockdown was later partly lifted. The Washington Nationals, whose stadium is a few blocks from the Navy Yard, postponed their Monday night game against the Atlanta Braves.

“We have no indication of any motive at this time,” Lanier said, adding that “there are very few questions we can answer at this point.”

The FBI had taken over the investigation, the police chief said.

The Washington Navy Yard is the oldest military installation in the nation and is the bustling home to several major Navy commands and other offices, including the Naval Sea Systems Command, where Monday’s shootings took place. About 16,000 employees, including civilian and military, work in dozens of brick buildings spread along the Navy Yard’s sprawling grounds.

Civilians, armed-services members and contract support personnel work there. They are responsible for engineering, building, purchasing and maintaining Navy ships, submarines and combat systems. The Naval Sea Systems Command is the largest of the Navy’s five systems commands.

Because the attack took place at a military facility in the capital, there were immediate fears that terrorism was involved. Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray told reporters there was no evidence one way or the other on terrorism.

On the premises

James Atkinson, a former military intelligence officer who heads Granite Island Group in Gloucester, Mass., said security is “extraordinarily poor.” The Navy hired his surveillance security firm in 2009 to test newly installed electronic security gates and other access controls inside Building 197.

The “controlled penetration” test revealed that a tamper sensor wasn’t working because of a design defect and that hardware-store-variety screws had been used to secure the main access-control panel instead of more-expensive screws that could be loosened only with a specific screwdriver, Atkinson said.

“We found not only had people opened it up, but there were traces that somebody had placed a device inside that was recording data, so somebody could hoax the unit and claim to be a person they were not,” Atkinson said.

More broadly, in two dozen investigations over previous years, Atkinson’s firm found major security lapses throughout the facility, such as doors jammed open with pieces of cardboard, “crisscrossed” video cameras pointed at one another, too few cameras and bad lighting at night.

“The security there is extraordinarily poor … The access controls were appalling. The Washington Navy Yard has security that is below the level of security you see at Harvard or MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] or Boston University or any other major campus.”

Mo Schumann, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to discuss security at the Navy Yard, but said there had been broader security upgrades at military facilities.

“Since the shootings at Fort Hood, the Department of Defense has taken a number of steps to harden our facilities and establish new systems to prevent and respond to active shooter threats,” Schumann said, referring to a 2009 shooting at an Army base in Texas in which 12 people were killed and 31 were wounded.

“They’ll check your badge, and they’ll check your car to make sure it has a Naval District of Washington current sticker, but you can drive through the base with a bazooka in your trunk and they wouldn’t know,” said a midlevel civilian employee who has worked at the Navy Yard for more than a decade and asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly.

“They don’t check inside the car,” he said. “You can drive in with a ham sandwich, a banana and a pistol in your lunch bag, and they don’t check. It’s pretty bad.”

When shots fired

Contractor Sean Carroll described to McClatchy a chaotic scene on the second floor once the shooting started near a cafeteria atrium.

“People didn’t realize what you were supposed to do,” he said. “Just heard the sounds. It was really loud. You could hear the gunshots. That’s a surreal thing. You’re not really thinking. But it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ You know with the world we live in. You know, ‘Oh, my God. This is Fort Hood.’ ”

Patricia Ward, a logistics management specialist, told gathered reporters that she was near the cafeteria area when she heard some shots, followed by a break and then more shots. She and others fled the building. Someone pulled a fire alarm to alert colleagues of a problem.

Witnesses described one gunman dressed in dark clothing with what appeared to be a double-barrel shotgun, perched on a mezzanine and firing at the atrium below.

They said he appeared to be targeting the people he was shooting at, rather than firing randomly.

The gunman was described by witnesses as carrying an AR-15 assault rifle, a double-barrel shotgun and a handgun.

As word of the shootings spread, the end of the Washington morning rush hour began to look like the crush of peak traffic. At least two bridges into the nation’s capital were closed to traffic. Subway service was briefly interrupted.

For tourists, a stepped-up police presence was noticeable at the Washington Monument and other attractions.

President Barack Obama on Monday lamented “yet another mass shooting,” this time in the nation’s capital, where the debate that raged earlier this year over tightening firearms laws has stalled.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president was implementing executive actions and reiterated his commitment to strengthening gun laws, including expanding background checks to sales online and at gun shows.

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters David Lightman, Greg Gordon, James Rosen, Mary Faddoul, Kendall Helblig, Tish Wells, William Douglas and Maria Recio contributed to this report, which includes information from The Washington Post and The Associated Press.

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