World & Nation

Victims of Colorado theater rampage recall the sights and sounds of death

James Holmes trial

An artist’s rendering of James E. Holmes, left, in court with lead defense attorney Dan King.

(Bob Pearson / European Pressphoto Agency)

The closer Aurora police Officer T.J. Campagna got to the Century 16 theater, the stronger the smell became.

“It smelled very bad — fecal matter mixed with blood, mixed with urine,” Campagna told the rapt courtroom where accused mass murderer James E. Holmes is on trial. Inside the multiplex, the officer said Wednesday, the stench was “overwhelming, along with tear gas.”

Campagna had left his gas mask in the car. He was in too much of a hurry to reach Theater 9. That’s where Holmes’ rampage began shortly after midnight on July 20, 2012, where a dozen moviegoers were fatally shot, where 70 others were wounded.

Holmes faces 166 charges, including first-degree murder. He has admitted to planning the carnage and carrying it out while swathed in protective gear, techno music blasting through the earbuds he wore beneath his helmet and gas mask. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.


The sights, sounds, smells and sensations of the Colorado massacre have played an integral part in the case against Holmes as the trial’s first week unfolds. Gripping tales from the witness stand make Holmes’ victims real to the jurors who will decide the 27-year-old’s fate.

And the descriptions place the jury inside the crime scene itself: the burning pain of bullet wounds, the rough chatter of 911 calls, the tang of tear gas, the stickiness of strangers’ blood, the flash of gunfire, the screams, the sirens.

“Going inside the theater, I saw an AR-15 rifle and a pink flip-flop,” Campagna said. “Underneath, the sidewalk was painted red with what appeared to be blood. [Inside] I could feel the ground beneath my feet slimy with blood and fecal matter and urine. ... The floor was coated with casings and cartridges.”

Victims and first responders who have testified so far have talked about the cacophony as the deadly attack began. They described the hiss of tear gas and the different tones of Holmes’ weapons: an AR-15, a Remington shotgun, a .40-caliber Glock pistol.


Christina Angelique Blache, who was shot in both legs and required five surgeries, said Wednesday that the gas sounded like bats flying as it whooshed out of the canister about 15 minutes into the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“I continue watching the movie, and then I hear metal clicks,” Blache said. “I heard it roll, and I knew I’d heard the sound before — roll and click, roll and click. That was a canister being shot, a gas canister. The next thing I remember is muzzle flashes, the thing you see when guns fire, its flash of light.”

And where did she hear these sounds before? Blache was asked.

“I went to Baghdad, and have been in gunfire,” said the Air Force veteran, who trained on M-16A2 semiautomatic rifles. “I have seen it myself.... The muzzle flashes are like a camera flash — just quick, just flash.”

Joshua Nowlan went to the new Batman movie with two good friends, newlyweds Brandon Axelrod and Denise Traynom. As Catwoman stole pearls from a safe on the big screen, he said, he heard the hiss. And then the gunshots.

“Once I heard the shotgun go off, the sound was very familiar,” the Navy veteran told the court Wednesday. “We began to grab Denise and hide behind the seats. We knew running to the exits would be a turkey shoot — too exposed and too easy for someone to pick us off.”

He also heard automatic weapon fire, he said.

Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George H. Brauchler asked him to tap out what that sounded like on the wooden wall of the witness stand.


“The bullets were going out a lot faster than a regular gun,” Nowlan said, tapping out the distinctive tattoo: three taps, pause, repeat.

Nowlan was shot in the left leg and the right arm. He required five surgeries in the three weeks after the rampage. Pictures of his wounds flashed on the courtroom screens — graphic, disturbing.

“Once the shootings began, the screams started,” said Nowlan, who leaned on a cane in court Wednesday. “Until I left and got to the hospital, the screams never ended.”

But perhaps the most haunting sounds described Wednesday began after Theater 9 emptied out, after officers were stationed to protect the crime scene and the sirens had tapered off.

That’s when the victims’ cellphones, dropped in the panicked run to safety, started ringing in the bloodied theater.

They kept ringing all night long.