Woman who met shooter at hotel said he was different person from one day to the next
Alexis smuggled shotgun, ammunition onto base in inconspicuous bag
Witness said gunman didn't see him because he was so intent at shooting woman nearby
Washington police chief called scene 'one of the worst things we've seen in Washington'
Aaron Alexis arrived in Washington on August 25 after a tumultuous month. He’d had a run-in with a family at the airport in Norfolk, Virginia, where he accused them of laughing at him. He told police in Rhode Island that the family sent people to follow him and keep him awake by talking to him through the walls, floor and ceiling of his room and sending “vibrations into his body” via “some sort of microwave machine.”
But when Benita Bell met Alexis on September 10 at a Washington hotel where they both stayed, she was struck by his friendly face.
“We crossed paths, and he had this warm smile, so we both said ‘hello,’ ” she said of their first encounter at the Residence Inn just five blocks from the U.S. Capitol and less than two miles from the Washington Navy Yard.
Bell was in town for her work in astrobiology. He was in town for work as an information technology contractor with the government.
They spoke for about 15 minutes about work and their love of the South. She is from North Carolina. He grew up in New York but had been living in Fort Worth, Texas.
Because he was “very cordial, very engaging, very present,” she gave him her phone number and said he should call if has questions about the city.
“Let’s keep in touch,” Alexis responded.
She knew nothing of his background – “a pattern of misconduct” during his four years as a Navy reservist, his arrest in 2004 after an anger-caused “blackout” or the help he sought from the Veterans Affairs department for sleep issues.
Plus, his father says, Alexis was in New York on September 11, 2001, helped in the World Trade Center rescue effort and was “disturbed” by the terror attack, suffering from what the father described as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Bell and Alexis ran into each other again on this past September 11, and she said he seemed like a different person – “extremely tired, exhausted.”
“I got to go. I got to go. I’m going to take my food up to the room,” Alexis hurriedly said to her.
That was the last she saw him. Until his face was plastered across the media five days later.
In the meantime, Alexis visited a gun range in Lorton, Virginia, across the Potomac River and nearly 20 miles south, and paid $419 for a gun and two boxes of ammunition.
A routine Monday
The heat of the Washington summer had finally broken. Monday morning was cool, and clouds gently blocked the rising sun.
Driving to the Navy Yard, Alexis would have passed the pockets of low-income, low-rise apartments and row houses that are quickly being replaced by taller luxury apartments and renovated single family homes complete with granite countertops.
Passing through the fortress-like red brick walls that separate the Navy Yard from the surrounding neighborhood that bears the same name, Alexis would have flashed his contractor ID and was waved onto the base.
Alexis was among 18,000 people, many of them civilian employees or government contractors, who work at the sprawling Navy Yard complex that sits on the banks of the Anacostia River in southeast Washington near where it flows into the Potomac. He’d been working on a computer system revamp.
Investigators are still going through evidence and clues that Alexis left behind, but they’ll never know what was going through his mind as he parked his rented Toyota Prius in a small parking deck across from Building 197 at 8:01 a.m.
Navy Yard employees were starting a new work week. Inside Building 197, a large rectangular structure with an open floor plan around an open atrium, workers greeted colleagues good morning, talked about the weekend, settled into desks, turned on computers, grabbed coffee, ate breakfast. It was John Weaver’s birthday.
For the couple of weeks he worked at the Navy Yard on a computer system revamp, Alexis was one of those employees, seemingly like everyone else. He went to work in the morning and left at the end of the day. On this day, he was markedly different.
A minute after he parked his car, he entered Building 197, carrying a black bag that drew no special attention. He wasted no time.
He headed directly to an elevator, bypassing the first floor cafeteria and the sunlit atrium of the recently refurbished office building. He got off the elevator on the fourth floor and headed directly to a bathroom, where he quickly pulled out the contents of his bag at 8:03 a.m.
Gun Assembly Shop
The Washington Navy Yard’s long, storied history dates back to 1799. It was the first U.S. Navy land outpost and served as a naval ship-building factory. During the War of 1812, when the Capitol and much of Washington was burned, the yard’s commander ordered the buildings to be burned to prevent being captured.
The yard’s mission changed from shipbuilding to designing and manufacturing weapons and ammunition. It was integral to Washington’s defense during the Civil War.
Building 197 was constructed in 1939 and called the Gun Assembly Shop. In the bathroom, Alexis assembled his gun. Minutes later, he walked out of the restroom with his Remington 870 tactical shotgun.
Alexis had customized the gun. It had been sawed down on both ends, making it shorter and more maneuverable. He had etched “My ELF weapon” into the stock. More alarmingly, the phrase “Better off this way” was also carved into it.
He carried double-aught buckshot shells in the cargo pockets in his pants, each packed with about a dozen pellets and capable of causing tremendous damage.
Meanwhile, Denise Robinson, who works on the fourth floor of Building 197, was chatting with co-workers. The U.S. Navy Band, which is based at the yard, was playing outside on the courtyard.
Alexis fired his first shot.
It was 8:12 a.m. Weaver was at his desk, one cubicle away from the atrium. His co-worker chuckled when he said the commotion in the building sounded like someone “was skateboarding on the ceiling.” Then came a loud “bang.” He thought someone dropped a safe in the atrium.
After the second loud boom, Weaver knew he was under attack.
“We hear pop, pop sounds.” Robinson said. “We really didn’t know what was going on.”
Confused and curious, Robinson stood up to see above her cubicle walls. She saw her supervisor and the gunman. In her boss’ face, she saw fear. In Alexis’ she saw “a cold stare.”
Weaver saw that 50-year old Frank Kohler was hit. So was 73-year old John Roger Johnson.
Weaver stood up, too. He saw Alexis at the end of his row of cubicles. He pointed the gun at the row of cubicles diagonal from Weaver where a friend was sitting.