Los Angeles Times
AURORA, Colo. — It was less than half an hour into a post-midnight screening of the latest Batman movie,"The Dark Knight Rises,"when a young man opened an emergency exit door and slipped into a packed multiplex theater. He was dressed in dark, head-to-foot body armor, including a helmet, gas mask, vest and throat guard, and he was armed.
“He didn’t say anything,” said Tayler Trujillo, an 18-year-old moviegoer. “He like kicked the door open with his foot and held it open with his foot, and he threw something and it landed in the row in front of me.”
What ensued was several minutes of grisly horror as the intruder, armed with a combat-grade arsenal, set off two gas canisters and sprayed the theater with sustained gunfire. At least 12 people were killed and 58 others injured in a shooting that rekindled memories of the 1999 tragedy at nearby Columbine High School.
Witnesses described the gunman calmly shooting people throughout the theater at the Century 16 complex, seemingly at random, hitting men, women and children in the semidarkness as the movie continued to run behind him. It was a smoky, surrealistic, unimaginable scene, witnesses said, as moviegoers, some in costume for the Batman opening, realized that these bullets were real.
Seconds after the last shots were fired early Friday, police arrested a suspect, James E. Holmes, 24, whose only previous brush with the law appears to be a speeding ticket. Holmes, who was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado Denver’s graduate program in neurosciences, left behind a booby-trapped apartment.
The gunman had entered the theater through an emergency exit next to the screen, carrying his guns and canisters, witnesses said. “Everybody thought it was a joke,” said DeJonte Harris, 19, who was in the fourth or fifth row.
That ended when the assailant tossed the canisters, which police said contained either smoke or an irritant. Trujillo said the one near him “went off kind of like a firework, and gas filled the room, and right then all you heard was, ‘Get down! Get down!’”
“Then he fired a shot in the air,” recalled another moviegoer, Tre Freeman, 19. “And that’s when all hell broke loose.
“He started shooting anybody and anyone; he just didn’t care,” said Freeman. “We were just laying on the ground, praying that we weren’t about to get shot.”
Harris ran past a woman curled up in a fetal position on the floor. He recalled looking back and seeing the gunman. “The last time I saw him, he was in front of the screen,” Harris said. “After that, I wasn’t trying to see where he was at.”
At least one shot went through the wall into the adjoining theater. One person in that theater was wounded.
“I thought it was part of the movie,” said Joel Wheelersberg, 27, a youth pastor with Calvary Chapel in Aurora.
In all, 70 people were killed or injured, according to Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates. Ten died at the scene, and two in hospitals, leaving 58 injured, many critically, Oates said. That appeared to make it the largest mass shooting, in terms of the number of people hit by gunfire, in U.S. history. Thirty-two people were killed and 17 injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which stands as the highest number of killings in a shooting rampage.
Oates said police seized four weapons and believe three were used in the assault: an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a .40-caliber Glock handgun and a Remington 12-gauge shotgun. A second Glock was found in Holmes’ car, the chief said. A Denver gun shop said it had legally sold one handgun and a shotgun to the suspected shooter.
“Background checks, as required by federal law, were properly conducted, and he was approved,” said a statement from Bass Pro Shops. Authorities did not publicly identify the source of the AR-15 and the other handgun.
Speaking at a briefing about theater security Friday, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: “It clearly looks like a deranged individual. He has his hair painted red. He said he was the Joker, obviously the enemy of Batman.”
Kelly said he learned that information in a conversation with Oates, who used to work for the New York Police Department. Oates acknowledged speaking to Kelly, but would not say whether Holmes had said anything to police.
Police received “hundreds” of 911 calls within moments after the shooting began at 12:39 a.m. The first officers arrived within 90 seconds of the first call, Oates said. Overwhelmed with bloodied victims, officers rushed the injured to hospitals in their patrol cars.
Police in Aurora evacuated five buildings in the vicinity of Holmes’ apartment, which Oates said had been booby-trapped with incendiary and chemical devices looped together with wire. A bomb squad entered the apartment Friday but left after noticing a series of trip wires. Authorities worked into the evening trying to figure out how to disarm the trap.
“We simply don’t know how we’re going to handle that,” the chief said.
The shooting riveted national attention on Aurora, a large Denver suburb known for its hospitals and as the home of Buckley Air Force Base.
At least three military personnel, one Navy and two Air Force, were among those wounded in the shooting. A second sailor who was in the theater is believed to be among the dead, a U.S. official said.
Both President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney suspended campaign advertising in Colorado, canceled campaign events and urged Americans to extend compassion to the families of the victims.
“There are going to be other days for politics,” Obama told a crowd in Fort Myers, Fla., before heading back to Washington. “This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.”
Obama touched on the universal nature of the tragedy when he noted that his daughters, like the children of most Americans, go to movies.
“Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children,” he told the Florida crowd. “But for those parents who may not be so lucky, we have to embrace them and let them know we will be there for them as a nation.”
Romney struck a similar note in remarks he delivered in Bow, N.H. “Grieving and worried families in Aurora are surrounded by love today, and not just by those who are with them and holding them in their arms,” he said. “They can also know they are being lifted up in prayer by people in every part of our great nation.”
Although gun control advocates demanded action, not words, there was little evidence that the shooting would lead to stricter gun laws or to any serious discussion of firearms in the presidential campaign. Obama and Romney have been advocates of stricter gun laws in the past, but neither is eager to alienate gun owners now and both have pledged support for the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.
The shooting occurred less than 20 miles from Columbine High School in Littleton, where two students went on a shooting rampage in 1999 that killed 12 students and one teacher. Both shooters committed suicide.
That attack sparked vigorous debate over gun control, teenage alienation, Goth culture and parenting, among other issues.
Oates said Holmes was arrested near his car, which was parked next to the rear exit that the gunman used to enter the theater.
Holmes grew up in Southern California, and graduated with honors from UC Riverside in spring 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. He went on to graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus, but was in the process of withdrawing, according to a statement from the school.
His parents live in San Diego, where the family distributed a statement to reporters shortly after the shooting: “Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved. We ask that the media respect our privacy during this difficult time. Our family is cooperating with authorities in both San Diego, California, and Aurora, Colo. We are still trying to process this information and we appreciate that people will respect our privacy.”
Glionna reported from Aurora and Landsberg from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Pearce reported from Ann Arbor, Mich. Times staff writers Stephen Ceasar, Michael Muskal, Laura J. Nelson and Rick Rojas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.