NORFOLK, Va. — A 35-year-old truck driver with a troubled past walked onto a U.S. warship Monday night, grabbed a guard’s gun and used it to kill a sailor who tried to intervene.
Jeffrey Tyrone Savage had taken a life once before.
Now investigators are trying to figure out how someone with a violent criminal record and no known business with the Navy gained easy access to the service’s largest base – home to half the nation’s fleet of aircraft carriers and dozens of other ships.
The Navy publicly identified Savage on Thursday and released new details about the shooting. The incident, along with Savage’s background, raises questions about a credential commonly used by civilians to gain access to military installations. The breach also calls into question standard security procedures at Norfolk Naval Station.
Savage flashed a valid transportation worker credential to drive his 2002 Freightliner cab onto Norfolk Naval Station around 11 p.m. Monday. He used the same card to walk through another security checkpoint at Pier 1 before climbing aboard the guided missile destroyer Mahan.
On the quarterdeck, Savage stripped a gun from the petty officer of the watch – a sailor charged with guarding the ship while in port. Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Mayo, a base security guard who was patrolling nearby, saw the struggle and rushed to intervene. Mayo, 24, was shot while pushing the guard to the ground in an effort to protect her. Mayo and other naval security forces returned fire, killing Savage.
Investigators do not believe the assailant knew anybody aboard the Mahan and wasn’t a regular visitor to the base. The Navy has ruled out terrorism as a motive.
The Navy said Savage worked for a company named Majette Trucking.
Savage had been in and out of prison over the years, according to court records.
While driving on Interstate 85 in Charlotte, N.C., in 2005, Savage got into an argument with a passenger, Maurice Griffin, also from Hampton Roads. The two men struggled for control of a gun. Griffin was shot and killed and dumped on an interstate ramp, according to a summary of the case.
Savage returned home to Portsmouth. He was later arrested and sent to North Carolina. He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was locked up for more than three years before being released in 2009.
Prior to that, he served five years in federal prison for possession with intent to sell crack cocaine in Virginia.
Sen. Mark Warner has questions about the credential Savage used to access the naval station. He plans to ask the Navy for a briefing, said Kevin Hall, his spokesman.
“He has some serious concerns about … who’s being allowed onto our bases,” Hall said.
Savage had a valid Transportation Worker Identification Credential, commonly known as a TWIC card. The TWIC program was created by the Department of Homeland Security primarily to ensure security at civilian marine terminals, but the government ID can also be used to access military bases.
To get a TWIC card, a worker must provide personal information, including fingerprints, and pass a background check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration. More than 2 million people nationwide hold valid TWIC cards.
Some felonies disqualify applicants from receiving the security pass, but manslaughter is not listed among them. Savage’s drug conviction might have disqualified him had it happened within the past seven years, according to TWIC guidelines.
Since the program started in 2007, about 132,000 people have been disqualified, and about half of those who appealed or asked for waivers received them, according to the TSA.
According to Navy policy, a TWIC card can be used to access a base or pier only if the cardholder also presents proof of official business on the installation. Truck drivers who regularly pick up and deliver freight at Norfolk Naval Station say that doesn’t always happen.
Occasionally, a guard will ask to see a work order or search a trailer. But often, according to several truck drivers interviewed by The Virginian-Pilot, a TWIC card alone is good enough to get past the gate and onto the base.
“Normally, the bases that recognize the TWIC, once you show it to them, they wave you right on through,” said Charles Dirago, a driver for Sheridan Logistics, whose drivers transport military equipment across the country and frequently access Norfolk Naval Station. “They might ask, ‘Pick up or delivery?’ But they don’t usually ask for any proof.”
Other military bases, including Fort Hood in Texas, require drivers to “jump through more hoops” to gain access. “There is no universal standard,” Dirago said. “It depends on the base.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions about the status of Savage’s TWIC card or whether his background should have disqualified him from having it.
Savage’s aunt, who lives in New York, welcomed an opportunity to send a message when a reporter called to ask her about her nephew. Charlotte Savage said she and her siblings, including Savage’s mother in Chesapeake, have been praying for a way to reach out to the Mayo family and express how sorry they are.
Charlotte Savage said her nephew was a loving young man who had problems in life, but she believed he was not an innately violent person. She spoke to him two weeks ago, when he called for her 70th birthday.
He’d just gotten married last year and had three children – two who lived with him, she said.
“We wanted to reach out to that family so bad, so bad,” she said. “We just want the family to know that our hearts are with them, the pain, the grief, everything they are going through.”
Eric Loulies, 40, believes Savage had been living across the street from him in a townhouse on Radford Circle in the Western Branch section of Chesapeake. He said he couldn’t recall ever speaking to Savage, but saw him in passing.
“Sadly, it doesn’t shock me,” Loulies said. “So much stuff like that happens nowadays.”
Another neighbor, who would not give her name, said a woman also lived in the home, along with three kids.
Loulies said that unmarked law enforcement vehicles showed up in the complex on Tuesday, the day after the shooting. It started with one sedan, whose occupant staked out the complex from a side street for at least a couple of hours, he said. Then, as many as seven other unmarked vehicles joined him.
The armed officers – some of them wearing purple latex gloves – stayed for several hours, going in and out of the townhouse.
Mayo’s and Savage’s bodies were taken to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center after the shooting, where a doctor from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office conducted autopsies, a spokesman for the examiner’s office confirmed.
Savage’s body remains at the hospital, awaiting family to claim it for burial.
Pilot writers Dianna Cahn, Corinne Reilly, Tim Eberly, Joanne Kimberlin, Tim McGlone and Lauren King and news researcher Jakon Hays contributed to this report.