The family of one of the victims in the Washington Navy Yard shooting accused two federal government agencies of negligence in a wrongful-death claim filed Friday.
Mary Frances DeLorenzo Knight, a computer scientist from Reston, was one of a dozen people killed during the September shooting rampage carried out by a gunman who had an all-access security pass to the military installation. Knight, a 51-year-old cybersecurity expert, worked for the Naval Sea Systems Command and taught computer science management at Northern Virginia Community College.
Knight’s family, which is seeking $37.5 million, alleges that the Navy and the Department of Veterans Affairs overlooked or missed a series of red flags that should have alerted the agencies to the troubled history of the shooter, Aaron Alexis, who was fatally shot by police responding to the rampage. Patricia DeLorenzo, Knight’s sister, said she is also troubled at how easily Alexis was able to get a gun into the Navy Yard.
“I don’t understand why there wasn’t a little more security,” DeLorenzo said in a phone interview Friday. “My sister and the others that were killed and injured, they did not deserve this, nor should it have ever happened.”
The 33-page administrative claim revives criticism of the government’s security-clearance process. The filing comes as members of Congress have seized on weaknesses in the system. A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation this month that would require an automated search of public records for everyone with a security clearance.
President Obama has also ordered a review of security standards for contractors and employees throughout the government.
Much of the claim against the government agencies is a recitation of Alexis’s troubled past that Knight’s attorneys say should have served as ample warning. Three years before the Defense Department approved Alexis’s security clearance in 2007, he had been arrested in Seattle for shooting out the tires of a car. That arrest did not lead to a conviction, and the Navy has released documents that show that contractors who conducted Alexis’s background check minimized the incident and did not provide details.
Alexis was also arrested in 2008 on charges of disorderly conduct in Georgia, and again two years later after firing a gunshot into his apartment ceiling.
There were also signs of Alexis’s mental instability. In the month before the shooting, he called police in Rhode Island to complain that he was being harassed by voices being sent by “microwave machines.” The officers filed a report and alerted the Navy station in Newport, but Navy officials did not enter the information into a security-clearance database.
“This guy slithered on his belly, had big teeth and rattles,” said Sidney L. Matthew, an attorney for the family. “He showed every sign of a rattlesnake. So when you see a rattlesnake, you do not let him in the tent.”
VA is also faulted in the claim for not reporting or warning officials at the Navy Yard after its contact with Alexis. Two weeks after the Rhode Island incident, the Navy reservist sought treatment for insomnia at two VA hospitals — one in Providence and the other in Washington.
Alexis told doctors he was not depressed and was not thinking of harming others, according to the department. He was sent home with antidepressant medication typically prescribed for insomnia.
The administrative claim, filed on behalf of Knight’s two adult daughters and her sister, is the first step required before the family can file a lawsuit against the government in federal court. The action could inspire other victims’ families to seek legal advice or file lawsuits. At least one other victim’s family — that of handyman Arthur Daniels Sr. — has retained prominent D.C. attorneys Peter Grenier and Billy Martin, who said they are conducting “a lot of preliminary investigation and analysis” of the incident.
DeLorenzo said she hopes the claim will “bring change.”
“I want something good to come out of this, and I want justice,” she said. “I just think they all perished with no reason.”
Gina Jackson, a VA spokeswoman, said the agency was “unable to comment due to pending litigation.” Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson declined to comment on the specifics of the claim, saying officials were working with the Justice Department to address it, but she said the Navy is committed to supporting victims of the shooting and their families.
Also Friday, an inquiry concluded that a U.S. Capitol Police commander properly recalled members of a department tactical unit who had “self-deployed” to the Navy Yard after reports of gunfire.
The U.S. Capitol Police Board, which conducted the investigation, said the commander recalled the officers after 30 minutes because they were the only ones available should something have happened at the Capitol building.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.