World & Nation

James Holmes’ father narrates a parent’s worst nightmare

Robert and Arlene Holmes

Robert and Arlene Holmes, parents of Aurora theater gunman James Holmes, walk from the courtroom at the Arapahoe County Justice Center last year. On Tuesday, Robert Holmes testified in the hope that his son’s life would be spared. 

(RJ Sangosti / AP)

He sounded like a proud father leafing through the family album: There’s Jimmy with his grandma, kicking a soccer ball, in a tae kwon do uniform, holding his new baby sister. There’s the annual family portrait. Mouse ears at Disneyland. Boating at Big Bear Lake.

On Tuesday, however, Robert Holmes was narrating a parent’s worst nightmare: The story of his son’s youth, told at the young man’s murder trial in front of the jury that would decide whether his first-born would live or die.

“Jimmy” is James E. Holmes, now 27, who was convicted less than two weeks ago of 165 counts of murder and attempted murder in the 2012 theater massacre in Aurora, Colo. He killed eight men, three women and a little girl and wounded 70 others, many seriously.

His parents have sat just a few feet behind him throughout the lengthy trial in Centennial, Colo. They’ve watched survivors of the grisly shooting describe their horror, heard the families of victims cry, looked at photographs of the bodies their son left strewn across the floor of Theater 9 of the Century 16 cineplex.


Defense attorney Tamara Brady: “Is James Holmes your son?”

Robert Holmes: “Yes, he is.”

Brady: “Have you been here throughout this trial?”

Holmes: “Yes, I have.”


Brady: “Has it been hard for you to listen to?”

Holmes: “Yes. It’s been a very difficult experience....”

Brady: “Do you still love him?”

Holmes: “Yes, I do.”

Brady: “Why?”

Holmes: “He’s my son. We got along pretty well. He’s an excellent kid.”

The death penalty trial of the Aurora gunman is nearing  the end of the so-called mitigation phase -- the time when defense attorneys are trying to convince jurors that one of the deadliest mass shooters in American history is a human being. The defense wants mercy for Holmes, a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole rather than execution.

For the last week, a parade of school friends, college friends, church friends and elementary school teachers has testified that Holmes was quiet, socially awkward, maybe withdrawn, but also very smart and completely nonviolent.


They talked about his love of video games and his volunteer work at a Mexican orphanage. They called him “Jimmy.”

It is a childhood nickname only witnesses may use in court, as per the order of Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. Defense attorneys call him Mr. Holmes. Prosecutors began trial referring to him with a disdainful “that guy,” but have since settled on “the defendant.”

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On Tuesday morning, former neighbor Lori Bidwell talked about how “Jimmy was very shy.” His second-grade teacher, Ann Hestand, said, “I cared for him in 1996, and I still care for Jimmy.” Fifth-grade teacher Paul Henry Karrer said the defendant -- “he’s Jimmy to me” -- was “like a renaissance child.”

That child grew into a deeply uncommunicative young man.

Once he went off to college, James Holmes was someone who largely interacted with his parents via e-mail and text, his father testified. Holmes gave his parents no inkling until it was too late that he had found and lost a girlfriend, dropped out of graduate school, amassed an arsenal, the father said.

His psychiatrist at the University of Colorado called Robert and Arlene Holmes in mid-June 2012, concerned about their son’s behavior. On July 4, they decided to make the trip from their home in San Diego to check on his welfare.

They never got there. On July 20, James Holmes wrapped himself in protective armor, grabbed his weapons and shot up the Aurora multiplex.


Brady: “Assuming Mr. Holmes stays in jail or prison, do you and your wife intend to try and visit him if he will let you see him?”

Robert Holmes: “Yes.”

Brady: “Will you write him letters?”

Holmes: “Yes.”

Brady: “Will you always do that?”

Holmes: “Yes.”

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