Parents of Colorado theater gunman James Holmes keep a lonely vigil

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He called his mother “Goober” and his father “Bobbo,” affectionate names from a different life.

They sit behind him every day, not more than 20 feet from his silent form swiveling quietly at the defense table. He does not turn around.

James E. Holmes, 27, is on trial for his life. Every day, Arlene and Robert watch.

The facts are well documented. Nearly three years ago, Holmes donned what prosecutors call his “kill suit” and shot up an Aurora, Colo., movie theater filled with happy Batman fans at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The killing took only minutes: 12 dead, 70 wounded.


Arlene and Robert Holmes sat through the first week of what could be a five-month proceeding, listening to their son’s victims describe in grim and sorrowful detail the day that changed everything, July 20, 2012.

Every day, the couple sit in the second row, near the wall, Arlene to the left of Robert, closest to James. Much of the time they are joined in their vigil by James’ uncle.

Every day, they stare straight ahead, silent, intent, reaping what their only son has sown, their awkward little boy turned murderous man.

No one speaks to them. Robert, a retired scientist, and Arlene, a registered nurse, enter and exit the brick court complex in this Denver suburb through a back door, away from the television cameras camped on the grass, nowhere near the main entrance that victims and their families use.

If two people could be invisible and have a flashing neon sign over their heads at the same time, it would be Robert and Arlene. They are middle-aged, middle class and dressed to blend in, husband in khakis, wife in dark monochrome, faces lined, glasses glinting in the fluorescent light.

If they have one thought, it would have to be mercy. This is how Arlene describes their reality in a slim book she self-published in March, a prayer journal she began keeping not long after she became the mother of a killer:


10-9-2013: We are not celebrities.

We are mourners —

just like everyone else in the courtroom

and nothing like anyone else in the courtroom

because we are the parents.

We are like no one else in the world.


Most days in Division 201, the only person who says their son’s name out loud is Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., and then only briefly: “This is the case of the people of Colorado versus James Eagan Holmes. Let the record show that he is present with his attorneys.”

Otherwise, he is “the shooter,” “the defendant,” “the person that they had detained” or “that guy,” as in Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George H. Brauchler’s opening statement to the jury: “I’m going to ask you to reject that guy’s claim that he didn’t know right from wrong.”

The gunman’s attorneys call their client Mr. Holmes and acknowledge that he carried out one of the worst mass shootings in American history. He faces 166 counts, including first-degree murder, the criminal attempt to commit murder in the first degree and possession of an explosive device. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

“In his words, ‘I have fought for years to overcome my biology,’” public defender Daniel King told the jury as the trial began. “He lost that struggle with his mind to a disease. A disease called schizophrenia.”

And that disease, King said, is inherited. Arlene’s father was diagnosed with psychosis, King said, and “hospitalized after wandering his Carmel yard, naked.” Their son’s attorney spoke as if they were not sitting there, stoic. Their son still had not looked at them.

But there was more.

Robert’s father first experienced mental illness as a West Point cadet, and his twin sister was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and disabled for most of her life. “She takes meds,” King said, “but still periodically gets bad enough to be hospitalized.”


Still, there was more.

The shooter, the lawyer said, tried to kill himself at age 11, and as a high school sophomore began having “intrusive, unwanted thoughts telling him to kill people. They continue to this day.” He was “blessed and cursed by his genetics. He is very smart and loaded for mental illness.”

When your son’s mug shot — eyes wild, hair a bright, unruly orange — has been broadcast around the world, there is no such thing as a family secret.

02-13-2013: I just put a password on my phone.

My texts, my emails, my contacts

are now password protected.

How do I put a password on my life?


No protection possible.

Praying for those

who feel vulnerable today.

Samour has ordered journalists not to approach the Holmes family or the victims and their loved ones when they are on court property. The couple’s attorney, who asked via email that reporters respect their privacy, did not respond to requests for comment. A gag order prevents attorneys and police officers from speaking about the case outside of open court.

The San Diego couple have been largely silent since the massacre, but they did give a single interview, not long before the trial began, to talk about Arlene’s prayer journal, “When the Focus Shifts.”

Arlene told the Del Mar Times that she prays for the victims daily and agonizes over what she and her husband might have done to address their son’s condition — if only they had known it existed. Before July 20, 2012, his worst offense was a speeding ticket.


“That’s some of the guilt we have,” she told the small San Diego County newspaper, “that we didn’t recognize he was ill and needed treatment.”

01-08-2013: Forgive yourself for not knowing

what was happening.

And then forgive the people

who hate your guts and

want you dead.


Praying for all parents.

The first three days of the trial were harrowing for everyone in Division 201, as witnesses and first responders relayed in blunt and grievous testimony what happened at the Century 16, where “400 people filed into a box-like theater to be entertained,” Brauchler said, “and one came to slaughter them.”

Robert and Arlene watched as Caleb Medley, once an aspiring comedian, was wheeled up to the witness stand by his father, Otis. Shot in the head by their son and left for dead, Medley lost an eye, cannot walk and cannot speak.

He was in the middle of his third brain surgery after the shooting when his son was born on a different floor in the same hospital. He was unconscious, in a medically induced coma, when the newborn was placed in his arms for the first time.

Medley answered the prosecutor’s questions Tuesday by tapping out letters on a big, white alphabet board balanced on the witness stand in front of him. An interpreter then said the letters aloud, so the court could hear his answers.

Prosecutor Lisa Teesch-Maguire: “Good morning. Could you please spell your name for the record?”


He grunted and began to tap with his good right hand: C-A-L-E-B.

“And could you spell your last name for the record, please?”

M-E-D-L. He paused. Thought. Scanned the board. E-Y.

“Mr. Medley, did you go to the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 19, 2012? Could you spell that answer, please?


12-31-2013: Bob and I perch on the top step of the


that descends into hell.

We will listen to all the testimony

from all the victims and hundreds of others.


How will everyone withstand it?

It is Thursday morning, the fourth day of the trial, and court is not yet in session. Robert puts his arm around his wife. Their heads are together, and they talk softly. Arlene’s shoulders begin to shake, as if she is sobbing. By the time the jury files in, they are again staring straight ahead, their default posture in this hostile territory.

Arlene looks even more haggard than she did on the first day of her son’s trial, if that is possible, as if she knows what is coming: photos of the massacred bodies at the scene.

On this day, a stoic first responder, Officer Justin Grizzle of the Aurora Police Department, talks about slipping in blood on the theater floor, of seeing people shot in the face and head, of checking pulses to figure out whether victims sprawled in the darkened auditorium are still alive. Or not.

Grizzle starts to cry.

“The one I will always remember is the little girl,” he says, unable to hold back his tears. “I had to step over her and continue on. It was the hardest thing I had to do.”

Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6 years old, was dead.

She was James Holmes’ youngest victim.

Sandy Phillips’ daughter, Jessica Ghawi, died in the massacre. Before jury selection began in January, Phillips had this to say about the Holmes family: “I don’t hate them. I don’t even hate him. We have been numb to them from the beginning.”


But by Friday that numbness was breached.

“The Monsters parents & uncle staring at us,” Phillips tweeted, “the cops crying on the stand, the killer playing the jury = Hard week.”

01-27-2013: When will July 20 stop playing in our heads

over and over


And how do we lessen the guilt of being alive?


Twitter: @marialaganga

Special correspondent Jenny Deam contributed to this report.