Theater shooting suspect a mystery despite intriguing details
AURORA, Colo. — The robot snaked methodically through the apartment, creeping past wires, bottles, fuses and volatile shells. One day after a mass shooting claimed 12 lives, bomb technicians used the remote-control device to disarm and preserve dangerous evidence that might help explain — and convict — the enigma at the center of an explosion of violence.
The portrait that continued to emerge of shooting suspect James E. Holmes on Saturday, that of a highly intelligent, troubled young man who had just quit a prestigious doctorate program, did little to answer the essential question: What could possibly motivate someone with such promise — or anyone — to shoot dozens of strangers and leave behind an apartment that was apparently programmed to kill.
“Make no mistake, this apartment was designed … to kill whoever entered it,” said a shaken Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, describing the booby traps Holmes apparently left behind. Whoever entered the apartment, Oates said, “was going to be a police officer ... and if you think we’re angry, we sure as hell are angry [over] what has happened to this city, what has happened to these people here and what he intended to do to our police officers.”
Another law enforcement official familiar with the investigation, however, said police were looking into whether the apartment may have been booby-trapped not primarily to kill police officers, but rather to distract police.
“It’s a working theory,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
Police say Holmes dressed in full body armor, entered a movie theater during a post-midnight showing of the new Batman movie"The Dark Knight Rises,"and opened fire with a handgun, a shotgun and a semiautomatic military-style rifle. The carnage early Friday left 12 people dead and 58 injured, almost all of them by gunshots. Some were shot multiple times.
Arapahoe County Undersheriff David Walcher said Holmes was booked into jail on suspicion of first-degree murder and is scheduled to appear in Arapahoe County Court on Monday. Walcher declined to comment on how Holmes is being housed or his demeanor since he has been in custody.
By late afternoon Saturday, police had publicly identified all 12 of the victims who died, including a 6-year-old girl, a mother of two small children, and several people who died trying to protect family members or friends.
President Obama was expected to travel to Colorado on Sunday to visit with families of the victims. As the city mourned, a makeshift memorial emerged across the street from the Century 16 theater complex, and hundreds of people — mainly students grieving over the killing of recent graduate Alexander Boik — gathered at the Gateway High School football field to pray and console one another.
Throughout the day, a massive team of local, state and federal law enforcement officials fanned out on a hunt for evidence. Authorities repeatedly emphasized that they didn’t want to divulge sensitive information that could be used against the suspect.
The center of the investigation Saturday was Holmes’ 800-square-foot apartment in a modest building alongside a busy road in Aurora, a large Denver suburb. Authorities described the painstaking process of inspecting the apartment, using a robot to defuse and preserve highly volatile devices. Authorities presumably want to retain intact evidence, including not only any bomb mechanisms but also any computers or papers that might shed light on a motive.
James Yacone, an FBI special agent in charge of the Colorado and Wyoming region, described the operation at a news conference, saying the robot and other tools were used “to render safe multiple booby traps and improvised explosive and/or incendiary devices.”
The robot’s first job, he said, was to dismantle a trip wire across the front door. “Once we got rid of that first booby trap ... we then had to neutralize a hyperbolic mixture” — apparently a fuel.
A key objective was to neutralize about 30 commercial aerial explosives, similar to the type used for high-altitude fireworks displays. One law enforcement officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the shells had been emptied of their original explosive material and refilled with “black powder and other substances, transforming them into explosive grenades.”
At least one threat was eliminated through a controlled explosion, and a loud bang could be heard outside. By late afternoon, police said they had finished defusing the apartment and lifted an evacuation order for four nearby buildings.
An explosive ordnance disposal expert wearing a Kevlar vest and helmet with face shield could be seen in front of the apartment building, standing in the back of an Aurora city dump truck and using a shovel to bury confiscated materials in sand.
Those materials were expected to be detonated and destroyed elsewhere. Yacone said, however, that much of the evidence was going to be sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., for examination.
Yacone added that he has broad experience dealing with improvised explosive devices, and that what he saw at Holmes’ apartment was “certainly a sophisticated device” that was “challenging for all involved.”
Oates said authorities have learned that, over the past four months, Holmes received “a large volume of deliveries” to his home and school addresses. He said investigators believe the deliveries included the ammunition used in the attack and the materials used to booby-trap the apartment.
“What we are seeing here is evidence of, I think, some calculation and deliberation,” the chief said.
Holmes left few obvious clues to any motive or to his general state of mind. He appears to have had no Facebook, Twitter or other social media accounts in his name. Friends from earlier in his life have uniformly expressed shock and bewilderment at his arrest.
Ritchie Duong, a 24-year-old student at UC Riverside, went to middle school and high school with Holmes in San Diego and to college with him at UC Riverside. Duong said he last saw Holmes in December in downtown Los Angeles when the two joined some other friends to have dinner and see the new “Mission Impossible” movie.
“He didn’t seem to change very much from high school,” Duong said. “We knew him as the same guy. We would call him ‘Jimmy James.’ We would laugh all the time about it.”
“Everything came easy for him,” Duong said by phone Saturday. “I had one college class with him, and he didn’t even have to take notes or anything. He would just show up to class, sit there, and around test time he would always get an A.”
In a resume posted on Monster.com, Holmes listed himself as an “aspiring scientist” and said he was looking for a job as a laboratory technician, the Associated Press reported.
The resume described how Holmes worked as a summer intern at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla in 2006 and mapped the neurons of Zebra finches and studied the flight muscles of hummingbirds while he was an undergraduate at UC Riverside.
He also worked one summer as a counselor at a camp for underprivileged children. The chief executive at Camp Max Straus said Holmes worked there in 2008 and “had no incidents or disciplinary concerns.”
In a statement to The Times, Randy Schwab, chief executive of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and director of Camp Max Straus, wrote that Holmes was responsible for “the care and guidance of a group of approximately 10 children” at the camp, in the hills above Glendale.
“His role was to ensure that these children had a wonderful camp experience by helping them learn confidence, self-esteem and how to work in small teams to effect positive outcomes,” he said. In a later e-mail, he added: “That summer provided the kids a wonderful camp experience without incident.”
That background, in part, has left those who know Holmes trying to process what happened Friday morning.
Was it pressure from school? Holmes had been pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora for a year. He had decided to withdraw from the program last month but gave no reason for the decision, officials said.
Or was it something else? A car parked at Holmes’ parents’ house in San Diego had a bumper sticker for an organization called To Write Love On Her Arms, a nonprofit group that helps people with depression and addiction. The organization posted a note on its blog Saturday, saying it had heard about the bumper sticker but didn’t know anything about Holmes.
“We don’t know whose car it is or how the sticker got there,” the blog said. “But we know what that sticker means. It means that millions of people struggle with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. It means that the majority of those people never get the help they need and deserve.”
No evidence has yet emerged, however, suggesting that Holmes suffered from depression or any other form of mental illness. Given his field of study, it may have been an interest. The Associated Press has reported that a James Holmes was listed as making a presentation in May in a University of Colorado class called “Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders.”
Dan Meyers, a spokesman for the school, said he couldn’t confirm that, and that first-year students in the neuroscience program typically work in three different research areas to get an idea of where their interests lie. He said privacy rules prohibited him from saying what Holmes had studied.
In general, he said, students in the program study “how the brain works.”
The program usually enrolls only six students per year and typically takes five to seven years to complete. Those who are admitted “are very bright students,” Meyers said. He added that Holmes, along with the other five students in his class, received a $26,000 stipend from the National Institutes of Health.
He said the shootings have been traumatic for the entire campus community.
“People are in shock,” he said. “The campus — the three research buildings which would have been his realm in this program — they were searched for bombs and whatever other issues there might be yesterday and the campus police came back through there with dogs.... So it’s somber here. People are trying to process what happened.”
Glionna reported from Aurora, and Landsberg and Stevens from Los Angeles.
Times staff writers Louis Sahagun and Alexandra Zavis in Aurora, Seema Mehta in Los Angeles and Richard Serrano in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.