'Nightmare' of Aurora massacre never ends, first responders testify

The Aurora theater shooting victims aren't the only ones who choke up on the witness stand

From the moment the brawny firefighter stepped onto the witness stand and spelled his name for the court reporter -- B-E-R-N-D ... H-O-E-F-L-E-R -- his voice was shaking with emotion.

It's not as if he'd never seen the consequences of violence and tragedy. The color-coded triage system rolled easily off his tongue Wednesday afternoon: Black, no pulse. Red, injuries threatening to life. Yellow, serious injury but not going to die. Green, walking wounded.

But this was different. This was the Century 16 multiplex not long after the gunshots stopped and James E. Holmes was taken into custody in the shooting deaths of 12 moviegoers and the wounding of 70 others.

"What we came across was bodies everywhere," the Aurora Fire Department lieutenant told jurors on the third day of Holmes' trial. "It was like a horror movie."

In a case that has shattered as many lives as this one -- it is among the worst mass shootings in American history -- it is no surprise that Holmes' victims and their families are moved to tears on the witness stand. But during the first week of trial, more often than not, first responders have choked up too.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to 166 charges, including first-degree murder. His attorneys acknowledge that their client is responsible for the carnage. As they fight to keep him from receiving the death penalty, their jobs are made increasingly difficult by the pain and emotion that fill the courtroom.

When Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George H. Brauchler asked Hoefler why his voice trembled, he responded, "I close my eyes and see the picture of the theater."

Among the first victims Hoefler said he came upon at the multiplex was a young woman with her hand blown off, lying not far from another who had been eviscerated by bullets. Brauchler asked Hoefler to define his terms. Eviscerated, the firefighter told the jury, means "her bowels were hanging out of her skin."

And then there was Theater 9, where the shooting began and so many lives ended.

"We come up to the first stairs," Hoefler said. "You had 10 bodies laid out, some of them trampled, some of them missing parts of their head. We're looking for anyone with survivable injuries."

In that room, he didn't find any.

Theater 9 was the first memory that brought Aurora police Officer Justin Grizzle to tears Thursday. "Horrendous," he said, grasping on the witness stand for the proper words to convey the horror, "like a nightmare," "like a war scene."

Racing the wounded to the hospital via police car was even worse. Caleb Medley, an aspiring comedian, "was unrecognizable" as he lay in the back seat moaning, his face torn from a bullet wound, Grizzle told the jury.

"He made some of the most awful noises I've ever heard," Grizzle said between tears. "I could tell he was gurgling on his own blood. I heard him stop. I yelled, 'Don't ----ing die on me!' He started breathing again."

Aurora police Officer Natasha Cabouet sobbed on the witness stand Wednesday while describing a fraught trip from the theater to Aurora South Hospital.

Cabouet maintained her composure when she told jurors about helping carry Ashley Moser from the theater to a police car. She was fine describing how she got into the back seat of the vehicle with Moser for the ride to the hospital and how the woman's boyfriend climbed in the front, frantic, screaming.

"I applied pressure to a wound in her chest," Cabouet said. "I was asking her everything and anything to keep her focused. It wasn't until we got off the highway that she stopped ..."

Cabouet hung her head and cried. "Sorry," she said. And she cried some more.

"By the time we pulled into the hospital, she stopped talking and lost consciousness," the officer said when she was able to resume her story. "I really thought that she died right there in front of me."

Moser, who was pregnant, survived the attack. But she suffered a miscarriage and remains paralyzed. And her daughter, 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was Holmes' youngest victim.

No one on the witness stand has been able to talk about the little girl's death without choking up, least of all Aurora police Sgt. Michael Hawkins.

One of the first victims Hawkins encountered when he arrived at the Century 16, he said calmly Tuesday afternoon, "was a man who had taken a large-caliber bullet to the head. Most of his head was gone."

He guided two disoriented teenage girls out the exit door. A wounded young man begged Hawkins for help: "I think I'm dying."

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

Then Hawkins was called to Veronica's side. The child had been shot in the abdomen. His hands were shaking, and he couldn't find her pulse. Scooping her up, he raced out of the theater.

"I felt her blood on me," Hawkins said, tearing up. "I looked down at her, and I realized she was probably gone." 

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1:12 p.m.: This article has been updated to include some of Thursday's testimony.

This article was originally posted at 6:39 a.m.