Carrying a sawed-off shotgun etched with haunting phrases about his emotional misery — including the belief that his mind was under the influence of electromagnetic waves — Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis picked his victims at random in the hallways and stairwells of Building 197 before law enforcement officers shot him dead, authorities said Tuesday.
Alexis, 34, a government contractor from Ft. Worth, Texas, who'd started an assignment at the Navy Yard only a week earlier, didn't appear to be motivated by any kind of workplace dispute, the officials said in their fullest account of the Sept. 16 massacre. Rather, Alexis "held a delusional belief that he was being controlled or influenced by extremely low frequency, or ELF, electromagnetic waves," Valerie Parlave, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field division, said in a news conference outside her office.
The FBI also released chilling video that showed Alexis pulling into the Navy Yard parking garage in a rented blue Toyota Prius and moving through the cavernous Building 197, crouching around corners and through doorways with a shotgun wrapped with purple duct tape. Authorities have described their chase of him through the building as a “tactical nightmare.”
Scrawled onto the shotgun, purchased legally at a Northern Virginia gun shop two days earlier, were several phrases, including, "End to the torment," "My ELF weapon," and "Better off this way," Parlave said.
In documents recovered after the attack, Alexis indicated that the electromagnetic waves drove him to commit the hourlong morning assault, in which a dozen workers died and several more were injured.
"Ultra-low frequency attack is what I've been subject to for the last three months," Alexis wrote in a document obtained by authorities, Parlave said. "That is what has driven me to this."
Those clues represent a significant part of the picture that authorities are trying to assemble in an attempt to explain how and why Alexis committed one of the deadliest attacks on a U.S. military installation. Many clues came from belongings Alexis left behind in a Washington hotel and in a backpack recovered in a bathroom on the fourth floor of Buliding 197, according to court documents and authorities. Those items included a cell phone, laptop and thumb drives.
The clues indicated that Alexis had planned the attack for days, and expected to die in it, but told no one, Parlave said.
Alexis, a contractor for a private information technology firm called Experts IT, arrived in the Washington D.C. area on Aug. 25 for an assignment at the Navy Yard. He stayed in hotels and began work on Monday, Sept. 9, Parlave said.
That Friday, Alexis was the subject of an employee review in which a “routine performance-related issue” was discussed, Parlave said. But there is no indication that the results of that review motivated him to carry out the attack, or that he targeted people he worked for or with, she said.
Nevertheless, the day after the review, Alexis went to a Northern Virginia gun shop and bought a Remington 870 shotgun and ammunition, Parlave said. He also went to a home improvement store and bought a hacksaw.
The following Monday, at a few minutes before 8 a.m., Alexis drove a rented 2013 Toyota Prius into a Navy Yard parking garage. Using a security pass, he entered Building 197 at 8:08 a.m. Video footage released Tuesday showed him walking calmly through the entrance, a bag over his shoulder.
Moments later, he began his assault. The FBI video does not show Alexis shooting anyone. But it captures him at various moments in between — moving down a long, white-paneled hallway, looking into rooms, bounding down steps and through a doorway.
At one point — authorities did not say when, or how — Alexis obtained a Beretta pistol, possibly from one of his victims; many workers at the Navy Yard are permitted to carry handguns.
When he was finally killed on the building’s third floor, the pistol beside him, 12 of his victims were dead and four were injured, including a Washington D.C. police officer who was hit in the legs during a volley between Alexis and law enforcement agents. A Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent carried the wounded officer to safety.
Alexis' shotgun and identification badge were later recovered on the first floor, according to court documents.
In the chaos, there were initial suspicions that there was more than one gunman. That turned out to not be the case. Parlave confirmed that fact on Tuesday, saying Alexis acted alone and warned no one he knew.
“There are indicators…that he was prepared to die during the attack and accepted death as the inevitable consequence of his actions,” Parlave added.
She would not comment on Alexis’ mental health, beyond his references to the electromagnetic waves.
Extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves are used for naval communications, but are also a popular subject for conspiracy theorists who suspect the government uses them for mind control and to manipulate “unsuspecting citizens,” Parlave said.
Ronald C. Machen, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, called Alexis “a mentally unstable individual” who was nevertheless able to buy a gun.
Neither Machen nor Parlave commented on whether there were any breakdowns in the way various government agencies handled troubling episodes involving Alexis in the weeks and years before the Navy Yard attack.
Alexis, a Navy reservist, had once been arrested in Seattle for shooting out a neighbor’s tires, and was questioned for shooting through the ceiling of his apartment in Fort Worth. While in Rhode Island last summer, he created a stir at a hotel when he claimed to be hearing voices.