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Legal View with Ashleigh Banfield

Aaron Alexis, Naval Yard Shooter's Background; Flood Waters Recede in Colorado

Aired September 17, 2013 - 11:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN CO-ANCHOR: We're standing outside a naval installation that is almost as old as the Navy itself, but for many years to come, the Washington Navy Yard behind me is going to be known for a massacre that claimed 12 lives and then, of course, that gunman who knew that he was disturbed.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CO-ANCHOR: The latest is that, today, the Navy Yard will be closed to all but essential personnel while investigators still try to piece together exactly what happened some 26 hours earlier.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was here last hour, placing a wreath in honor of the dead and wounded in Building 197.

BANFIELD: And that's exactly where the military contract worker and former Navy reservist we now know as Aaron Alexis opened fire, shooting down colleagues with a shotgun, not a semi-automatic rifle as first believed, though.

We're also learning that Alexis recently had sought help at two veterans' hospitals, reportedly for psychological issues.

We're joined now by our justice correspondent Evan Perez with the latest on this investigation.

So get us up to speed on these changes in the details. Clearly, when these things start to roll out, Evan, there are misreports that come in, specifically the weapon and about this person, but get us up to speed on the very latest if you could, please.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Ashleigh. As you know, these scenes, you've covered many of these things and you know these scenes are always very confusing, even for law enforcement, even law enforcement officers who have done this for many years.

Yesterday the D.C. police chief was at a news conference telling us that there might have been two other shooters. We now know there was only one.

So as you can see, the confusion of the initial event is -- brings forward some of these confusing details.

Now, we know that he came on board -- I'm sorry. We know that he came onto the Navy Yard property yesterday with a shotgun. That's what the latest information is from investigators. We know that they recovered a couple of other handguns at the scene. One of them, investigators now believe, was taken from a guard.

One of the first persons he is believed to have shot at the scene was a guard, and now we believe, according to the investigators, believe that at least one of the firearms was taken from the guard.

We also know that right now they're going through the casings at the scene to try to determine who shot which shots.

In these types of incidents you have the first responders, the law enforcement officers at the scene, firing off shots. The suspect apparently was firing back and so now they have to determine exactly -- they have to catalog each shot and try to determine who fired which shot.

BANFIELD: And, as we understand, that's going to take days just to categorize that entire scene.

But what about this car? I mean, Chris and I had been talking through the notion there was a car that was driven onto the site, and there was a hotel room where he was staying not far from here.

There's got to be a lot of forensics they're looking at there. Do we know anything about that yet, Evan?

PEREZ: Right. That's another -- there's a couple of scenes that they're still working, obviously at the Navy Yard. They're still working that scene, and at a hotel which is probably about a mile away in southwest.

In the southwest quadrant of Washington is a hotel where investigators believe he has spent the last few days apparently getting ready to start his job there at the Navy Yard as a subcontractor.

Now, we have pictures of FBI and other authorities taking away boxes of possible evidence. It's something that now they're going to try to piece through.

They -- one of the big, big questions right now is, what triggered this? We know that there are some previous incidents of violence in his past. He's had previous contact with the police.

So now they have to try to figure out whether there's something recent that might have triggered this latest violent outburst, obviously, the worst one he's ever been involved in.

BANFIELD: right.

PEREZ: And that's part of the picture they're trying to put together today, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right, Evan Perez, as you stay on that job, thank you for that.

There's so much more to this picture as well we're trying to piece together.

CUOMO: Well, you know, now we have seven mass shootings that have killed 10 or more people in the last decade, and you start to see patterns.

Early on, it was confusing here because this suspect didn't seem to fit in one of the boxes. There was no stated agenda. There was no known mental health issue or grudge.

But now there a little bit of a different picture developing as more information comes out, and there's some questions coming out about that information as well.

Let's bring in Pamela Brown. Pam's been chasing all this, this morning.

Early on, we didn't have any reason to be suspicious of this man's mental state other than the obvious act, but that's changed, right?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's changed. According to sources I've been speaking with, it appears that the gunman had a history of mental health issues.

Right now investigators are looking into the fact that he made contact with two Veterans Affairs hospitals recently. They're looking into whether that had to do with his psychological state of mind.

They do believe that it had to do with that, but, of course, they're investigating the circumstances surrounding that.

And also interesting, in a police report, his father noted that he had suffered from PTSD after being involved in a 9/11 rescue effort.

He had several run-ins with the law which --

CUOMO: He mentioned it as well when talking to police, right?

BROWN: And he mentioned it as well, that's right.

CUOMO: That he identified himself as someone who struggled with memories of 9/11 and emotional somewhat kind of an emotional impact on him from it, so this was a common theme for him.

BROWN: Right. And you look at he had three times where he was arrested, 2004 arrested for shooting out the tire of another man's vehicle, 2008 cited for -- briefly jailed for disturbing the peace in Georgia, and then arrested again in 2010 for discharging a gun in public in Fort Worth, Texas. He was never charged in that case.

But when you piece this together, you put the full picture together, that question mark still remains, how did he pass two security clearances in the past year?

BANFIELD: I think that's one of those questions I believe that will be heavily debated not only when it comes to forensics, but also Congress and the Navy itself and the contractor issue and the cutbacks. I think there's a lot that has to play into that question.

BROWN: And I was just going to add to that, we have learned also that in 2011 he was discharged from the Navy. He was a Navy reservist.

We've learned that he was -- it was general -- general under conditions, if I'm not mistaken, still learning about this.

But basically he was discharged from the navy for a pattern of misconduct, so you also factor that in as well.

CUOMO: A lot of muddy waters with this guy. You raised the question, what will this issue mean going forward? I think it's the biggest question.

I think how this particular individual got military security clearance -- because we often bandy about the issues of gun control and how weapons were obtained in a particular shooting, mental health and whether that could have been observed more carefully, but this is new.

BANFIELD: Especially since this building behind us -- for a while we were getting different reports of how you get in, whether you go through a metal detector, whether your bags are scanned, et cetera.

No, in fact, you get your clearance, like this man got, and you're in, and you don't have to go through a metal detector for everybody that enters that building.

So that is a critical, critical question, three arrests, plus issues with mental health that had been raised, and yet a very high level of security clearance.

BROWN: And yet, according to sources, he walked right into the building yesterday with a shotgun.

CUOMO: Once he had a clearance, that part was done, so the question is why he got it.

But, Pamela, thank you very much.

BROWN: Thank you.

CUOMO: We know you're on this.

BANFIELD: I think that's the exact issue.

Pamela, thank you, by the way.

What you haven't seen Pamela doing off camera is she's been working the phones all morning long, getting all of these breaking bits and pieces of information that are starting to put this puzzle together.

But what it doesn't answer, Chris, is, again, how do you get the clearance when you have all of these issues, especially a pattern of misconduct, but yet, an honorable discharge. And there is someone, actually, who can help us to understand a little bit more about that. She's a former military prosecutor and defense lawyer specializing in military justice, Anita Gorecki-Robbins.

Anita, hopefully you can help to lay a little clarity over this very disturbing and murky picture of a man who was troubled, to say the least, had a lot of trouble in his background, yet got in there without a problem.

ANITA GORECKI ROBBINS, FORMER MILITARY PROSECUTOR: It all depends on what kind of level of discharge, basically, he had.

When he got out, I personally think he got out on a general discharge under honorable conditions. That's typically what you get if you have some type of misconduct.

Now, so he gets out, has general discharge. Now he's going for clearance. It's all going to depend on what kind of clearance they required of him because, on some of them, you have to state whether you have any mental health issues because you can have mental health issues and hold a top-secret clearance.

BANFIELD: Sorry. It's up to you, though, to disclose it?

GORECKI-ROBBINS: You have to disclose it. If they find out you had an issue and you didn't disclose it, then they can yank it.

But, again, there's secret level, there's top-secret level, so it depends on what was required of him --

BANFIELD: CNN is reporting he had secret level-two clearance, and yet he did not have that clearance when he was active duty.

GORECKI-ROBBINS: Most people who come in have a general, you know -- do a very basic background check when you get in, when you just enter, when you're a basic level E-1, E-2.

As you go up in rank and you become an officer, then it requires a different level of clearance, so if he didn't disclose and they didn't check, this is how we may have ended up here.

CUOMO: I think there is also the question of the (inaudible) behavior. 2004, he would up getting into the service even though he had a fairly significant criminal act in his background, shooting out the tires of this vehicle. He had a really odd explanation for it at the time that was a little bit of a window into --

BANFIELD: Anger blackout?

CUOMO: That's right. Those were the officers' words, but obviously, he described it in a way where he didn't remember shooting out the tires because he was so angry. He avoided the police for a while afterwards.

But you had a number of these instances, and I think the question that's obvious is, how do you adjust for that in your military vetting process when you're giving someone clearance? Let's get past the honorable discharge because that's, let's say, a little confusing. But you have all these arrests surrounding it. How does that not factor in?

GORECKI-ROBBINS: Right. If there was no conviction -- because, depending on the level, they're going to do a check. And if he wasn't convicted or if it doesn't show up, if they don't pick it up in the interview process, again, depending on what level of clearance he received, they may not have caught it.

CUOMO: But the arrests would show because we got all the information within hours yesterday.

GORECKI-ROBBINS: Right, the arrests should have shown, and that should have been a flag.

And that's not an automatic dismissal. It's something that should have been inquired and asked about.

People can have an arrest and still get a clearance, but clearly, something may have fallen between the cracks, or somebody did see it and still decided to give him clearance anyway.

CUOMO: Three arrests, at least.

BANFIELD: And two attempts, apparently, you know, to get help from the V.A. hospital.

GORECKI-ROBBINS: I would think, typically, the security-clearance clients I represent, if you had three, you're not going to make it through the first level of review. You're going to have to come in in person and explain what happened, depending on how long it was, but ...

CUOMO: Makes sense.

BANFIELD: Anita Gorecki-Robbins, a flag should have come up. I think that's the headline of this entire morning, at this point.

More to come in this area and thank you for your expertise --


BANFIELD: -- and your service as well to the country.

GORECKI-ROBBINS: Thank you. Appreciate it.

BANFIELD: Chris, we've got George Howell who has been working very hard at another big, big story that we've been following from D.C., but in Colorado.

CUOMO: It's very important to get out there. George has been following the situation from the beginning. He's literally watching the waters rise there.

Weather's been an obstacle. Rescuers have been really under it because of the conditions. Let's get to him now. What's the latest?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, another sunny day here on tap. And, look, that's welcome news out here in this part of the world. It will help dry things out after several days of rain, heavy rain.

And we also have some good news as far as the number of unaccounted for. We know that Boulder County has closed 567 of those cases. They now have 183 people who are unaccounted for.

And Larimer County, according to their official Twitter account, they say that now 197 people unaccounted for.

So, again, we're seeing these numbers go down substantially. And what it means, it's people whose cell phones may have died, they weren't able to call family or friend. Perhaps phone lines were down in their neighborhood. They weren't able to give those calls.

So what we're seeing now, people are reconnecting with family members and friends.

And the other thing officials are asking residents to do, if you reported someone missing, be sure to follow up with that report. Let them know if the person is still missing or if that person has indeed been found so they can be crossed off this list.

So we're seeing the numbers go down. That's great news.

And if you look back here, guys, you see the river. I can tell you, from where I'm standing right now, a few days ago I would have been standing in the river, so fair to say the floodwaters are subsiding as well.

It's all good news as we get more sun, and more sun is in the forecast.

CUOMO: George, thank you for the reporting. Of course, as those waters recede, we're going to see what they reveal and all the people who have been under so much torment for so long still have a lot of work in front of them.

Appreciate the reporting from George Howell.

We're going to take a break now. When we come back, on the other side of it, we had an opportunity to interview some survivors. And it's really interesting what they have to say what was going on inside the building, 197, and what they had to do to get out, and some observations about the shooter from one of the survivors that'll surprise you.


BANFIELD: Welcome back live to the Washington Navy Yard. I'm Ashleigh Banfield along With Chris Cuomo. It's hard to believe just 24 hours ago this place was teeming with people streaming out of this area. With law enforcement officers who didn't know the picture and now it's becoming fairly clear what happened.

CUOMO: Well, you have to remember, it was a huge task. They didn't know how many shooters there were. There were tons of casings, bullets exchanged in there, there were thousands of people who work in the area, thousands in the building they had to deal with. Many didn't get to leave until midnight last night. Imagine they were locked, they didn't know what was going on, they couldn't contact family.

But we did get an opportunity to speak to some of the survivors. And here's why it was important, not just for their own personal experiences of the pain and fear, many who observed what happened with their eyes and ears but what they noticed of the shooter in this situation and what it took for them to survive.

Here's the piece.


CUOMO: It's a scene that's become all too familiar, reports of gun fire, panicked people rushing out of a building, countless stories of survival. Witnesses of Monday's shooting spree at Washington's historic Navy Yard say the obvious -- this was a day they'll never forget.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's kind of sobering. I can't fathom what drives people to do things like that.

CUOMO: Steve Sikora is an I.T. specialist who works in building 197. He says he crossed paths with the shooter Monday morning while taking a work break outside the office -- a walk he doesn't normally take.

Why did you notice him?

STEVE SIKORA, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Just how fast he went around the corner and went into the building. And the way he was dressed he stuck out. Not like anybody that should have been there. You ever notice how you walk real fast to a direction when you're intent on doing something. It just seemed that way.

CUOMO: Moments later, Aaron Alexis opened fire inside the building.

How did he get the weapons in there?

SIKORA: That's anybody's guess. I don't know. I was outside. I passed him. He didn't appear to have anything. I didn't see anything on him. Just that he -- right in the door.

CUOMO: The incident leaving those that work there wondering if they've seen Alexis before.

The shooter's name, his face, ever see it before, hear it before?

SIKORA: You know what? He's been around. He's been around, you know. When they showed his face on TV, yes, I know that guy, I've seen him around. CUOMO: Because he does the same kind of work, I.T. contracting?


CUOMO: Do you have any kind of recollection of him, any memory at all?

SIKORA: Faint. I've seen him around. But, you know, nothing, you know, sitting here talking like you and I are. It was nothing like that. I just saw him.

CUOMO: Alba Gonzalez is another survivor of the Navy Yard shooting. She and co-workers locked themselves in an office, but in the room next door, she said someone they didn't know barricaded himself inside, S.W.A.T. teams eventually pulling him from the room after they called police to report his behavior.

ALBA GONZALEZ, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: When we called the office and the individual picked up, we asked him to identify himself and he just asked us, well, who is this? We identified ourselves and then he just hung up.

CUOMO: That was the last communication you had.

GONZALEZ: That was the last communication we had.

CUOMO: The common thread among survivors, their concern for those they work with and their loved ones.

SIKORA: I hope that my friends and people that I know aren't among the fatalities and I get to see them again.


CUOMO: So there are questions that come up from the observations, especially that the gentleman had. The woman says there was someone barricaded in. It is at a minimum a window into what the authorities had to deal with in there, who is this guy, why did he lock himself in the room? Is he someone we have to take seriously or not?

BANFIELD: And it doesn't fit with what other people saw. He was at this break-neck pace.

CUOMO: That's right. Then we get to the suspect himself and the man interviewed in there, an I.T. specialist said, he was walking very determined, no weapon, he says he took time to look at him because he looked off. No weapon, no bags.

BANFIELD: No weapon.

CUOMO: So what does that mean? One of the prevailing theories is that he shot his way in. Well, could there have been a double entry? These are questions that investigators have to deal with. Also, he believed he had seen him before. Could he be mistaken? Of course.

However, he had identification, though he hadn't started his new job yet there, he had been credentialed for some time. Now, we had a profiling expert come on and say, this could have been rehearsal. If he had access, he may have been there before and he may have been rehearsing yesterday morning walking in without his weapon and figuring out what he wanted to do. So, all of this is one part of the considerations for investigators.

BANFIELD: And I think it gives a lot of credence to the notion originally they thought there might have been more than one shooter. At this point, we're talking a lot about the shooter. Now it's time to talk about the people who matter more, the victims. Through family and friends we're learning a lot more about these victims, people who wait for hours yesterday for word of their loved ones, only to get what you can only say is the worst news imaginable, that their loved ones were killed in this disaster. Among the victims profiled by "The Washington Post," mothers, fathers, leaving behind teenage children.

CUOMO: It's really tough. These families are going to pay the price. We want to pay our respects. We know 12 people have been killed, so far, only 8 have been identified. We'll give you their names.

Mr. Michael Arnold, 59, a beloved husband and father of two grown sons, described as the best neighbor ever. He served in the Navy for 29 years.

BANFIELD: Sylvia Frasier, 53 years old, she was one of seven children and she grew up in a strong, Christian family.

There was also Kathy Gaarde, 62 years old, described as a loving wife and mother of two grown children and an avid Washington Capitals fan. She was just in the midst of planning for her retirement.

CUOMO: Mr. Arthur Daniels, 51, who had five children and nine grandchildren. He worked in a Navy Yard building off and on for more than 19 years.

BANFIELD: John Roger Johnson was 73 years old and was described as a delightful neighbor who loved children.

Frank Kohler was 50 years old. He was married and had two daughters.

CUOMO: Vishnu Pandit, 61, a husband and dog owner.

Kenneth Bernard Proctor, 46 years old, loved his boys and his Washington Redskins. He was newly divorced but very close to his ex. They had been high school sweethearts and talked every day.

Those are the names we know so far. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to the families. We'll be right back.


BANFIELD: Welcome back live in Washington, D.C., I'm Ashleigh Banfield along with Chris Cuomo. Will we're getting breaking news from our colleague Barbara Starr at the Pentagon who has told us now that the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is ordering a full review, I'm going to read this verbatim, "of all physical security at the Navy and Marine Corps installations. The first review will be a quick look to ensure that all physical security requirements are being met, and then the second review will be a deeper review to ensure that the right physical and personal security requirements are in place."

I don't think this is any surprise, given what's happened here, that someone with absolute clearance, security clearance, considered secret level two security clearance, was able to access this Naval Yard behind us yesterday a little over 26 hours ago, and fire off a weapon, or at least one weapons, killing 12 other people before he himself was killed.

CUOMO: It goes to the power of asking the questions and scrutinizing what happened in the situation. It does a little bit to address the immediate need, to find out how he got in and if he was able to get weapons in and how. But there's a bigger issue this doesn't touch. I'm sure the secretary and his staff are aware of that.

A lot of this vetting for clearance is done by private contractors. They're going to have to figure out what the review is, what the checks are in place, if this is a money issue or not, if it's just about practice versus policy. That's the big concern that's been raised here in terms of what lessons can be learned. This is a first step but certainly not the final one.

As we're doing our analysis here, there is attention paid to the shooter because we need to learn about motivation and planning to protect against this in the future. And as much as we have to study who this was, we are getting new photos of the Navy Yard killer, Aaron Alexis. We're going to put them up for you now. They're showing a variety of his lifestyle photos we've gotten, a picture is developing of this man.

BANFIELD: One of the unusual things I don't know how this struck you, Chris, when I learned he was a practicing Buddhist, when I learned he spent so much time vacationing in Thailand, it was not the profile of who I expect to pick up a weapon and kill 12 people in a rampage.

CUOMO: Which goes to the legitimacy of being a practicing Buddhist as opposed to some one who was fascinated with Buddhism and maybe hung around with Buddhists, because you know, it is a very defined philosophy, and being someone who has a violent tendencies and appetites does not square with the philosophy involved there. So there are those considerations as this picture develops of the man. And we will continue to examine him because of his motivations and give our respect to the family as the number of those who were wounded and killed come out, we'll show respect.

BANFIELD: I think it bears mentioning that some of the people who have supplied these photos to CNN, friends of the shooter from White Settlement, Texas, who owned a Thai restaurant and who described him as perfectly lovely and kind and quiet except for the fact that he played violent video games, but for the fact he complained about not getting paid, but for the fact that he complained about not getting access to mental health at the VA. Those are the only clues they may have provided.

CUOMO: May have put sugar in the gas tank of the woman who gave us these photos, Kristi, whom we interviewed on "NEW DAY" this morning. But she gives the photos because she knew a different man and she wants to help everybody understand what might have happened here, and it's all coming from a good place and that's appreciated because we need the information. Now, we're going to take a little bit of a turn here. We're going to stick obviously with the latest regarding the Navy Yard when we can but there are other stories we want to talk to you about that are making news.

First up, when it comes to the U.S., the Russian plan on getting the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons. The devil will be in the details there with the latest in Syria. We know a news conference earlier today with the French counterpart to our secretary of state here, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov rejected any U.N. resolution authorizing force against Syria. The U.S. and France want to keep the use of force as an option if Syria doesn't comply in a timely fashion. That's going to be a big issue.

Also, for the rest of the time this week, we're looking at Colorado, for weather change. The good news is the sun seems to be out and strong. That will help the weather improve, it will help things dry up.