Missing the Clues That Lead to Massacre

by Diane Dimond on September 23, 2013

Heard Voices, Murdered Twelve

How can I not write about what happened at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC this past week?

Once again a mentally troubled American picked up a gun and committed mass murder. A dozen dead in the blink of an eye, murdered by a former Navy man, who had left a trail of clues about his volatile mental state.

If only we could figure out a way to collect and analyze these types of red-flag clues – displayed ahead of time, according to research, in more than 60% of mass shooting cases – we might be able to stop massacres before they happen.

Navy officials say Aaron Alexis, 34, showed a “pattern of misbehavior” during his service. His conduct was disorderly, he had been insubordinate, absent without leave after being tossed in jail following a 2008 bar fight in Georgia. He was investigated in 2010 in Texas for firing a gun into the ceiling of an apartment. In 2004, in Seattle, Alexis told police he shot out car tires in an “anger-fueled blackout.” In each case he was not prosecuted for his anti-social behavior.

Navy Yard, DC – Scene Outside the Massacre

None of Alexis’ violation of Navy regulations or run-ins with the law caused the military to downgrade his Honorable Discharge. When he left the Navy Reserves in 2011, Alexis maintained his secret security clearance status as he entered the world of independent military contractors. A division of Hewlett-Packard hired Alexis as a computer technician, probably impressed that he had already had security clearance. It meant Alexis had unfettered entrée to just about every military base.

In retrospect, the carnage at the Navy Yard could have happened at any one of his job postings.

In the last month of his life, Alexis’ mental health problems apparently escalated. On August 7, he called police from a hotel room in Newport, Rhode Island. He complained that people had followed him from an airport in Virginia. A police report reveals Alexis said he had, “heard voices speaking to him through the wall, flooring and ceiling.” He said he had been forced to go to three different hotels in one night to escape the people who were “sending vibrations into his body,” by using “some sort of microwave machine.”

Newport police were so concerned with what they had heard that they alerted Navy police and immediately faxed over their report. Police say the on-duty Navy officer promised to check out whether Alexis really was a contractor.

The episode was a pretty big red flag, I’d say, but, apparently, the information was either not recognized as being the behavior of a man teetering on the brink of reality.

Help is Elusive for the Mentally Ill

Two weeks later, Alexis turned up at the VA hospital in Providence suffering from sleep deprivation and asked for help with his chronic insomnia. He got a prescription for the anti-depressant Trazodone.

And then his independent contracting firm sent Alexis to Washington, D.C. to work a job at the Navy Yard. He went to the VA hospital in D.C. on August 28, again complaining that he couldn’t sleep. His prescription was renewed.

Medical records are, of course, private so Alexis’ employer and the military bases where he was assigned likely had no idea they were dealing with a man who suffered torturous, sleepless nights and had delusions that mysterious strangers were zapping him with microwave signals.

As after every mass shooting there have been the predictable calls for more gun control laws but I’m here to tell you that won’t work. Common sense tells us people planning mass murder don’t pay attention to the law. Alexis certainly didn’t follow D.C.’s toughest-in-the-nation gun laws. He went right next door to Virginia and bought himself a rifle – legally – and transported it – illegally – into the District where civilians are not allowed to carry weapons. We’ve been passing more gun laws for decades now and the carnage hasn’t stopped, has it?

Theater Shooter James Holmes Looked for Help

What we have not been concentrating on is paying attention to the red-flags so many of these killers send out. We dislike categorizing even the most disturbed people as, “potentially dangerous.” We loathe the idea of opening up medical records to quietly keep track of the unstable. We closed up mental health facilities years ago fearing they were somehow inhumane. Today, as the facts show us how foolish we were, we are now too broke to even consider building institutions to help the mentally disturbed.

The man who murdered 12 and wounded 58 in a movie theater in Colorado last year had been seeing a psychiatrist who likely realized before his deadly attack that she was dealing with a person with significant mental issues. He had even prepared a notebook for the doctor outlining his planned crime but she failed to see it in time.

Jared Loughner’s Parents Begged for Help

The parents of the man who killed six and wounded 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, in Tucson had been desperately trying to get their son some psychiatric help in the months before his killing spree. When they couldn’t find a program to take him they disabled his car so he couldn’t leave the house.

And, the mother of the young man who killed nearly 30 children and adults at Newtown Elementary School was overwhelmed trying to raise a mentally disabled son alone. Nancy Lanza knew her son had major mental problems and was working to find him a special school.

My best guess? Nothing much is going to change.

With an estimated 310 million non-military guns available in America today it would be impossible to scoop them all up. And why should we? The vast majority of civilian gun owners are completely responsible. Until we learn to identify and control the irresponsible person holding a gun we better steel ourselves. The next massacre is just around the corner.



Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 11:13 am

ABQ Journal Reader Mickey Dowling (President, Board of Directors at Mental Health Association of New Mexico)

“Wow you sure want to profile. The poor deceased and their families have not finished burials. Talk about seizing an opportunity. That is not how Advocacy works. On the backs of the dead and then you speak not of purely prevention but of behavior that applies to many of the men and women in our Corrections, probation and parole system.

You’re words can become a hell for African-American and other people of color. Imagine Albuquerque and New York City Police over reacting with the NAMI mentality of fear mongering that you are helping deliver. You’re article is as layman as it gets.”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 11:15 am

Mr. Dowling:

With all due respect, (and noting that you are President of a Mental Health Association) I think you are burying your head in the sand. And, playing a racial card at the same time!

My column had nothing to do with “people of color” – it had to do with those poor souls who hear voices, feel trapped in their own tortured minds and ultimately pick up a gun and take it out on innocent people.

They are not a majority of the mentally disturbed in America – but there are enough of them that our President says these types of massacres are becoming “routine” every 3 or 4 months.

To refuse to see that these mass shootings are the result of mental illness is to invite more and more of them. We need to help the mentally ill and their families who are frustrated beyond belief as they search for programs to help their loved ones.
~ DD

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Twitter pal ShrinkTweets writes:

“@DiDimond Profiling w/o adequate diagnosis or help available will further stigmatize. We need to get rid of guns like Australia.

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Twitter Pal 08Migneault writes:

” @DiDimond They will always find a way to procure guns … I agree, changing the laws won’t make a difference to them.”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Twitter Pal TeamBlitzen writes:

“@DiDimond the big question is who determines irresponsible? Those that brought us Obamacare and Benghazi?”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Facebook Friend Patti Petow writes:

“Sometimes it takes more than “training” to see through a situation, glaring as it may be. I don’t know if common sense can be taught. When you combine that with lenient requirements, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Facebook Friend Lynne Adrine writes:

“DD quote: < < We’ve been passing more gun laws for decades now and the carnage hasn’t stopped, has it?" >>
Actually, we’ve been repealing and blocking gun laws for the past 15 years. Part of the problem is that some people are quite “normal” when they get guns, but circumstances change. And the change from normal to dangerous does not always happen in public. Mental health issues are part of the problem, sometimes. But so is the access to guns.”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Dear Lynne:

I don’t think its correct to say we’ve been repealing gun laws, Lynne. There are (collectively) thousands of gun control laws on the books now – and still every few months there is another scene of unspeakable carnage. Its not hard for the DETERMINED individual to get a gun these days. and the truly DETERMINED aren’t paying attention to any laws anyway. Think the Colorado Theater shooter or the guy in the Tucson, Az parking lot with Giffords stopped to think -“Oh, my. I’m using a gun in the commission of a crime. I could get an extra 5 years in prison!” Yeah – I don’t think so. ~ DD

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Lynne replies to my reply:

“Diane — not the point I’m trying to make. The assault weapons ban was repealed in the last 15 years. Efforts at even minimum registration have either been repealed or ignored. The question is not whether people think of the penalty for illegal gun use before they grab a gun. Heck, if that were the standard, we should repeal laws against murder because the possible punishment hasn’t stopped the crime. The question to me is about access to guns and how that access can turn a split second impulse into a tragedy — suicide and other calamities.
I’ve shot guns. I have certifications from the NRA. I have a more comprehensive view than you might imagine. However, just because DETERMINED individuals will break laws doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have laws…and enforce them.”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 5:42 pm


“Ok – I’ll give the you assault weapons ban … but in that same time period how many other localities/states have passed more gun control laws? Actually, Lynne, I think we agree more than we disagree here. My point was that we have spent decades looking at the GUN – and not at the irresponsible/criminal/mentally ill person who may pick it up and use it to kill people. With more than 310 million civilian guns on the street that horse is already out of the barn. As an NRA certified shooter you must agree that a huge majority of gun owners are very responsible. I think we need to expand our mental health facilities, focus on getting kids on the right path early in life (before the gangs get to them) and generally shift our focus – because what we’ve been doing the last several decades has not done the trick. ~ DD

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Lynne Adrine responds again.

“Diane – we probably have several areas of commonality. However, I think the mental health argument is a red herring when it comes to the gun debate. I feel strongly that there should be more and more comprehensive access to mental health benefits, and parity for mental health treatments along with other medical benefits (which could get us into a discussion about universal health care, and that’s a distraction here). However, I know that I only am capable of firing one weapon at a time. I also know that guns are a non-perishable commodity, and if gun manufacturers are going to continue to make money, they need to encourage the sale and acquisition of more and more guns. The more guns there are, the more likely that someone will use them inappropriately, whether through theft or mental illness. What we’ve done in the past two decades is make guns more accessible, and eliminate any legal liability for gun manufacturers. I’ve had training, and I’m doing my part. What are the gun manufacturers doing?”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Twitter Pal ReginaLupo writes:

” @DiDimond To me a gun is a gun.It’s when one gets in the wrong hands that leads to all the violence.”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Twitter Pal MariaKoeppl writes:

” @DiDimond that’s shortsighted.New laws (written&implemented w/ success in mind&not an NRA rating) would deal w/ problem who is holding a gun.”

Diane Dimond September 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Twitter Pal MaggioMatt writes.
Exactly; #NavyYardShooting debunked the idea of “universal background checks” as he’d passed one – but was plainly crazy. @DiDimond”

CLS September 23, 2013 at 9:54 pm

My thoughts on this are quite mixed. On the one hand, I support profiling people who are identified by psychologists as having violent or potentially violent inclinations.

On the other hand, the mentally ill are so badly discriminated against, my concern is anyone with a mental-health disorder will find himself or herself inappropriately on such a list. I speak from personal experience, and even mentioning it on a column is making myself vulnerable.

Years ago, my employer learned I had bipolar disorder. She took me to lunch, told me about the sister-in-law she hated who had the same disorder, said she didn’t understand how somebody that intelligent could have that, and told me she wasn’t sure she wanted somebody like me working for her, despite nine years of impeccable employment. You can guess how it ended. I couldn’t make up this story if I wanted to. This, unfortunately, is the prejudice and discrimination people like me have to face. So when something violent happens and people scream about mental-health disorders, I cringe.

I think one solution is to educate the public about these disorders, in order to remove the stigma attached to them. After that, I think the door would be opened to seeking preventative measures, for the handful of people who actually are a danger.

As an aside, I take pride in the fact I have learned how to manage my illness and live a normal life. But most people I know are unaware I have it. The work incident left a bad taste in my mouth about the repercussions of discrimination.

Diane Dimond September 24, 2013 at 12:32 am

You were very brave to write this and I appreciate your viewpoint so much. ~ DD

Diane Dimond September 24, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Twitter Pal POPSHOTS writes:

“@DiDimond One is too many, especially if it’s me or mine! Hypothetically, if there were no guns, psychopaths would still kill.”

Diane Dimond September 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Linked In Reader Dick Smillie writes:

“Missouri has closed almost all of the Mental Hosps and turned loose all of the inmates that wish to do harm to others and themselves.”

Diane Dimond September 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Dear Dick:

Hope we don’t hear that the next mass shooting has taken place in Missouri ~ DD

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