WASHINGTON — The employer of Aaron Alexis grew so concerned over his erratic behavior on a business trip that it ordered him home for a rest break last month and relayed its worries to his mother, according to a friend.
Melinda Downs, who became acquainted with the Washington Navy Yard shooter in Fort Worth, Texas, said Alexis told her that someone in the Human Resources Department of an Alexandria, Va.-based company, The Experts, had alerted his mother. Alexis expressed a measure of chagrin, she said.
“I can’t believe HR called my mom,” Downs said he told her.
But The Experts, a Hewlett-Packard subcontractor that had employed Alexis for about six months over the past year, called Alexis three days later, summoning him back to work the next day, Downs said.
The company’s concern, coming six weeks before Alexis gunned down 12 people with a sawed-off shotgun in the Navy Yard building where he worked, provided another example of people noticing his bewildering behavior, yet doing nothing that might have prevented his progression to violence.
It also raises questions about whether his behavior was so peculiar that either his employer or authorities should have intervened and prevented his reassignment to other Navy bases where he worked on computer systems.
During a stay in Newport, R.I., employees of a hotel where he stayed had to juggle a succession of incidents that arose at a time when Alexis told police he was hearing voices, and knocking on the doors of other hotel guests trying to find the source of those voices. Eventually, his employer called the Residence Inn in Middletown, according to hotel logs first reported by The New York Times.
“Brenda from The Experts Inc. called re: Mr. Alexis in 407,” a hotel employee wrote in an Aug. 7 notation in the logs, confirmed by The Washington Post.
“She explained that he is unstable and the company is bringing him home. She asked me to check the room (it was vacant) and check him out.”
A company spokesman said they were aware that Alexis was having trouble sleeping and said that after he rested he performed his job without problems.
“During these few days, we understood that Aaron Alexis was having difficulty sleeping and was being disturbed repeatedly by various noises in his hotel surroundings,” said the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We moved him to a different hotel, after which he took a few days off. He returned to work the following Monday and performed satisfactorily.”
The Experts never notified the Navy about his bizarre behavior, according to a government official familiar with the contract. Navy security would have expected the subcontracting firm to report Alexis to Hewlett-Packard and ultimately to the Navy if the company was concerned enough to require he take a leave of absence, even a short one, the official said.
The Navy did, however, hear from police in Newport, after Alexis called them complaining voices were coming at him from a “microwave machine.” That report did not get passed beyond the naval station’s security office, a Navy official said. Nor did it prompt a Navy review of Alexis’ security clearance or any inquiries to the company.
Experts in the security clearance system said that the standard for whether to report an employee because of problematic behavior is a subjective one but that contractors are urged to consult with their on-site security officer if they are uncertain how to proceed. As a subcontractor, Alexis’ employer probably would have not have had its own security officer in charge of employees with classified access. Rather, it probably would have relied on the security staff of the prime contractor.
“It is subjective, and they have to use a lot of judgment,” said Mark Riley, a former Army officer who works as a private security clearance attorney. “But if you think something’s wrong or out of kilter, you report it and let the security folks make the decision. Better safe than sorry.”
Connie Bertram, a partner in Proskauer Rose’s labor and employment practice, said all companies — contractors or not — have a responsibility to act if an employee makes a threat.
“Before there is an incident of workplace violence, there almost always are signs or prior incidents leading up to it,” she said. “Very often, I think, a company is kicking itself saying, ‘I should have done more.’ “
Contractors are required to report threatening or physically violent behavior by employees with clearances to the government, Bertram said.
“You would have an ongoing obligation to — as things happen in the workplace and outside of the workplace — keep the Office of Personnel Management€ apprised,” she said.
“The problem is, I think, that some contractors have found that it’s a very slow process of having them look into incidents,” she added.
Even if a company plans to fire the employee, she said, it’s advisable to notify the government, in case they’re hired by another contractor or federal agency. “You don’t want to make it somebody else’s problem,” she said.