TAMPA — In December 2007, Patricia DeLorenzo received an envelope from Germany.
It was from her sister, Mary Frances DeLorenzo Knight. There were instructions on the front that the letter not be opened unless Knight were “incapacitated or dead.”
On Sept. 16, DeLorenzo had to open the letter, which contained a will and instructions giving DeLorenzo power of attorney.
That’s because Knight, 51, a civilian cybersecurity expert for the Navy Sea Systems Command, was gunned down at the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capital. She was one of 12 victims of a Navy veteran named Aaron Alexis, who was working at the building as a contractor for a Fort Lauderdale firm called The Experts.
The FBI, which investigated the shootings, said Alexis was delusional.
On Friday morning, a team of lawyers acting on behalf of DeLorenzo and Knight’s two adult daughters filed administrative claims in Washington with the Navy and Department of Veterans Affairs notifying them of her intent to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
DeLorenzo, Nicole Shuck and Danielle DeLorenzo are seeking a total of $37.5 million, claiming those agencies were grossly negligent in how they handled Alexis, who had two previous arrests for gun violence and a well-documented history of delusional and aggressive behavior.
Hours later, at a sometimes emotional news conference at the Tampa Marriott Waterside, DeLorenzo, a 38-year-old hair stylist, said that the legal action was being taken for her sister and to prevent another incident like the one that took her sister’s life.
“My sister would want me to fight for her and fight for her girls, so that’s what I am going to do and make sure this never happens again,” said DeLorenzo, holding up a large picture of a smiling Knight, who was 13 years her senior. “She was sort of like the glue that held everybody together.”
DeLorenzo said that her sister, a divorced mother of two, lived in Tampa between 2005 and 2007 “because I lived there and she loved Florida.”
She then moved to Germany for a job with the government, said DeLorenzo, before moving back to the United States, eventually taking the job in Washington.
Sidney Matthew, the lead attorney representing DeLorenzo and her nieces, likened Alexis to a “rattlesnake” and said that it was up to the Navy and VA “to keep that rattlesnake out of the tent.”
“He was dangerous,” said Matthew. “He had teeth. He slithered on the ground. He had a rattle. He told everyone he was coming.”
The 32-page claim states that Alexis “presented a reasonably foreseeable unreasonable risk of harm and/or death to the safety of employees at the Washington Navy Yard, which was foreseeable by both the Department of the Navy and the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
The claim lays out Alexis’ history of arrests and apparent mental illness, including two shooting incidents, one in Seattle in 2004 and one in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2010. The claim documents Alexis’ other run-ins with the law, including an incident that took place a little more than a month before the shooting. After a disturbance at a motel, Alexis told Newport, R.I., police he believed he was being followed and that people were keeping him awake “by talking to him and sending vibrations into his body.”
Because Alexis was working as a contractor for The Experts at Naval Station Newport, the Newport police contacted the Navy, which said it would follow up.
But that follow-up did not properly take place, according to the claim.
“The Navy told Newport Police that they would follow up on it,” the claim states. “Navy security agents received and reviewed the police report but decided Alexis was not a threat to the institution or himself. The Navy did not try to personally interview Alexis or revoke his security clearance. Nor did the Navy contact Alexis’ employer The Experts for a status report. The Navy breached its duty to ministerially follow its own policies and procedures requiring follow-up of those warning signs.”
The claim also points out that while he was in the Navy, Alexis was twice disciplined, once as the result of disorderly behavior and once because of drunken behavior. The discipline included a demotion of one pay grade.
Despite that, the Navy still gave Alexis an honorable discharge on Jan. 31, 2011, “with the most favorable re-entry code” and a month later, was issued a Navy Reserve identification and privilege card.
Though not taking action against The Experts, the claim takes the company to task for not properly handling Alexis even though it knew he “unstable” after an incident in Rhode Island in July. The Experts acknowledged that it took Alexis off his Newport assignment “for a few days rest after he reported that he was hearing voices and being bombarded with microwaves,” according to the claim. “The company moved Alexis from hotel to hotel but did not have Alexis professionally evaluated by psychiatrists. Eventually, the company allowed him to return to work even though he demonstrated those psychotic behaviors and never received treatment for them.”
The claim also criticizes USIS, the company that ran the background check on Alexis for his secret-level security clearance obtained for the Navy in 2007, despite Alexis’ history of emotional, mental and personality disorders that “could raise security concerns,” according to the claim.
USIS, already under federal investigation, was the company that ran a background check on Edward Snowden, who is accused of leaking reams of information about secret National Security Agency programs.
Another missed opportunity to stop Alexis took place Aug. 23, according to the claim.
That’s when Alexis sought help from the VA, reporting “symptoms of paranoia” and “insomnia,” according to the claim. “The VA negligently failed to diagnose, treat and hospitalize Alexis for his mental illness.”
Because of his history, Alexis never should have had security clearance, the claim argues.
The last opportunity to prevent the killings took place at the Navy Yard itself, Matthew said: There was no gun check to stop him.
On the morning of Sept. 16, Alexis walked into the Navy Yard, which he was allowed to do with his security clearance. He also had a Beretta handgun and a Remington 870 shotgun with the phrase “End to the torment!” etched onto its sawed-off barrel, according to the claim.
Then he went on his rampage, before being gunned down by law enforcement.
The pending lawsuit, said Matthew, “is not about gun control. ... This is not about security clearance. ... What this case is about is negligence controlling the security of the Navy Yard property. The Navy knew and should have known the shooter, Aaron Alexis, was armed and dangerous and should not be permitted access to the Navy Yard.”
The Navy, VA and The Experts did not immediately respond.
USIS would not comment but the Office of Personnel Management, which hired the company to perform a background check on Alexis, said “the appropriate federal records were obtained, and the required fieldwork was performed. OPM has reviewed the 2007 background investigation file for Aaron Alexis, and the agency believes that the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.”
At the news conference, DeLorenzo, daughter of Green Beret 1st Sgt. Frank DeLorenzo, offered a personal message to Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy and Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs.
“Why did you let this happen?” she said.