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Witnesses silence Colorado courtroom with recollections of theater rampage

'I had to save my unborn child. I thought Caleb was going to die. It was my last piece of him'

For 45 minutes in Division 201 of the Arapahoe County Justice Center, it seemed as if no one drew a breath.

James E. Holmes, facing 166 charges of first-degree murder and other terrible offenses, swiveled gently in his chair at the defense table as Katie Marie Medley explained slowly and haltingly what a shooting rampage does to a young family.

Medley was nine months pregnant when Holmes swathed himself in black protective gear, threw a tear gas canister into Theater 9 of the Century 16 multiplex and began to fire, killing 12 moviegoers and wounding 70 others in Aurora, Colo. The theater had been packed for a midnight screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises."

July 19, 2012: "In the afternoon, me and my husband were together. We had a little apartment in Aurora. We were just watching TV. My husband, Caleb Medley, saw the commercial for the new Batman movie. ... His eyes lit up."

July 20, 2012: "I had to save my unborn child. I thought Caleb was going to die. It was my last piece of him. He squeezed my hand. I told him I loved him and I would take care of our baby if he didn't make it."

Medley headed to the exit, jumping over bodies, her flip-flops slipping in blood. She did not get to the hospital, she said, until her husband was in his second brain surgery. Caleb was in a medically induced coma when he held his newborn son for the first time.

The first witnesses called to testify in the months-long trial that will decide Holmes' fate talked Tuesday about terror and despair, blood and bodies, death and birth. Their stories, punctuated by tears and accompanied by graphic photos, brought the massacre to horrible life.

Derick Arthur Spruel talked about going to see "The Dark Knight Rises" with his wife, Chichi, and two co-workers from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. One of them, his close friend Jesse Childress, had bought the tickets and talked the group into the excursion.

"After the AR was being fired, I identified it as an auto rifle," Spruel said. "I got scared. I started praying. I remember Jesse getting up. I seen him jolt, then he went toward me and fell."

Spruel thought the shooter would make his way back and shoot them all. He thought that he was going to die. He yelled, "Jesse, Jesse!" He shook his friend, the man he had cracked jokes with for the last two years. Childress did not respond.

"I could not pick him up," Spruel told the court. "I wanted to take him with us.... I had to leave Jesse."

Munirich Fatimih Gravelly remembers lying on the ground between two rows of seats, her face resting on something sticky. She remembers watching the shooter's feet as he walked the theater aisles and the shotgun pellets that hit her left hand, nicked her arms, embedded in her scalp.

"It was a pool of blood my face was in," Gravelly said, describing her desperate minutes on the theater floor. "I thought it was soda, but it was blood. Somebody else's."

Chichi Spruel dialed 911 as the shooting unfolded. Her frantic call, screams in the background, was played for the jury.

"Please," she begged the dispatcher, "come get us out of here. Please."

When a shaken Sgt. Michael Hawkins, a first responder from the Aurora Police Department, arrived at the theater, he found chaos and carnage the likes of which he had never seen.

"The first thing I encountered was a man who had taken a large caliber bullet to the head," Hawkins told the jury. "Most of his head was gone."

He saw panicked teenage girls and Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6, dead with a bullet through her abdomen. A young man asked for help: "I think I'm going to die."

"I told him if he could say that, he wasn't going to die."

One of the next victims Hawkins came upon wasn't so lucky, the officer said: "I could see blood and other matter coming from his mouth, and at that point, I realized he was gone."

But it was Katie Marie Medley whose testimony set the tone Tuesday, the second day of the shooting trial, and riveted the courtroom.

When the shooter entered Theater 9 about 20 minutes into the movie, Medley said, she first thought it was a prank. She changed her mind in short order. Medley and her friend, Ashley Kurz, hit the ground as the tear gas canister exploded near them and gunshots roared.

She saw Holmes, she said, in a mask and Kevlar, armed with a long gun that had been fitted with a scope. She didn't know whether there were other attackers coming to kill them. She didn't know whether Holmes would come back. She turned to her husband.

"I saw he was sitting in his chair," Medley recounted. "His shoes were on the ground. I couldn't understand why he was sitting in the chair when someone was shooting. Then I saw blood pouring from his face, and I knew he was shot in the head. He wasn't breathing."

The gunshots stopped. From the theater floor she saw a group of people run by her row, desperately heading for safety. The gunfire began again. They dropped to the floor. Eventually, the gunshots stopped for good.

Medley stood up. She saw Caleb was breathing again. But blood, she said, was pouring into his mouth, choking him. She poured a bottle of water onto his face, frantically trying to wash the blood away.

This is when she stopped testifying, teared up, apologized to the court. She had come to the hard part of her story, of leaving her husband behind.

The exit door opened, she continued. The police arrived. They screamed for the survivors in Theater 9 to go out through the exit door.

As police cars and ambulances began to arrive and the crowd outside the theater grew, a young woman turned to Medley, stunned.

"'I think my boyfriend is dead,'" she said. "I hugged her. I didn't know what else to do. I put my arm around her. When I took it off, I saw there were chunks of blood and him on me."

Medley gave birth to their son, Hugo, two days after the rampage, as Caleb was undergoing yet another brain surgery one floor away. The baby is healthy. His father is not.

"He's still in a wheelchair," Medley said, as Caleb watched from the second row. "We're working on walking. His speech is getting better, but it's taken three years.... He understands everything. He just can't communicate."

Medley finished testifying. She left the witness box and took a seat behind her husband. She leaned her head against Caleb's wheelchair.

And she cried.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


5:19 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with Tuesday's testimony.

12:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with witness testimony from Tuesday's morning court session.

This article was originally published at 5:41 a.m.