James Holmes, suspected of mass shooting at Aurora, Colorado theater
Photo Courtesy: University of Colorado, Denver
By Trevor Hughes, Marisol Bello and Haya El Nasser
AURORA, Colo - The man suspected of shooting 71 people in a sold-out movie theater was a neuroscience graduate student who decked himself out in full-body armor for the attack, dyed his hair red and told police he is the Batman villain known as "The Joker."
James Eagan Holmes, 24, legally bought the four weapons he allegedly used. Police said he opened fire in a suburban Denver theater with four sold-out showings of the premiere of the Batman movie Dark Knight Rises. He was dressed head-to-toe in black bullet-proof gear, including helmet, vest, leggings and a groin and throat protector. He wore a gas mask, goggles and black gloves.
He threw tear gas into the crowd to disorient moviegoers, police said. When he was arrested, he told officers he was the Joker, said New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who spoke with Aurora police about the incident.
Authorities are still piecing together how the young man from San Diego went from the study of human genes to suspected mass murderer.
He was in the process of dropping out of the neuroscience department, according to the University of Colorado, where he enrolled last June as a graduate student.
"He was in some of the research towers," said Dan Meyers, communications director for the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Holmes was not in the medical school, but worked in research facilities on the campus.
Meyers would not say if any particular event led to Holmes' withdrawal. He said Holmes "voluntarily left that program in June 2012. He was in the process of completing withdrawal."
He said Holmes' access to the facilities was terminated and his entry cards were confiscated.
However, the university still evacuated three research buildings on the campus Friday afternoon where Holmes may have worked.
"We want to make sure everything is safe for our people," university spokeswoman Erika Matich said.
A federal law enforcement official said the four weapons police found when they arrested Holmes behind the movie theater were purchased within the past six months at Denver and Aurora-area gun shops. Police said he used an AR 15 assault rifle, a Remington shotgun and a 40-caliber Glock handgun during the attack. Police found the weapons and another 40-caliber Glock in Holmes' white Hyundai when they arrested him, said Aurora Chief Dan Oates.
The assault rifle was traced to a Gander Mountain gun store in Thornton, Colo., the Remington shotgun and one of the Glock handguns were bought at a Bass Pro Shop in Denver, and the second Glock handgun was purchased at Gander Mountain store in Aurora.
Holmes bought the weapons in May, June and July, the federal law enforcement official said, adding that investigators have recovered at least one video from a store security camera recording the purchase.
The federal law enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said a cache of ammunition was recovered in the suspect's car, and used magazines were found discarded in the movie theater where the assaults took place.
At Holmes' apartment in a student-housing complex in northern Aurora, police are still working their way inside the booby-trapped unit.
"We have an active and difficult scene there," Oates said during an afternoon press conference outside of the theater. He said the apartment has been booby-trapped with various devices and trip wires.
Biology student Kaitlyn Fonzi, who lives below Holmes, says loud techno music began playing in his apartment promptly at midnight.
Against the advice of her boyfriend, Fonzi says she went up and banged on the door but no one answered. She said she called police to report the loud music, which was playing on a loop and stopped at exactly 1 a.m., she says.
Fonzi says they went to sleep but were woken up by a SWAT team breaking down doors and ordering everyone out around 2 a.m.
Fonzi says she's seen Holmes around few times, and that he looks like any other student on the medical and academic campus across the street from their apartment.
"You never really think anything like this is going to happen," Fonzi says while standing outside her cordoned-off building, still in her pajamas.
Holmes was not on the radar of any law enforcement agency. He had no previous contact with the Aurora police department, save for a traffic summons for speeding in 2011, Oates said. Holmes will have a preliminary court appearance on Monday.
Holmes graduated in the spring of 2010 with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California-Riverside, where
he was remembered as an outstanding student who attended on a merit-based scholarship.
"He was at the top of the top," said Chancellor Timothy White at a hastily called news conference. "He really distinguished himself."
White said the campus community was in shock over the Riverside connection. He described the reaction as "shock and horror" and that students and faculty who knew him were closing ranks to support each other.
In San Diego, a woman who was contacted by ABC News told reporters she was Holmes' mother. She said she had awakened unaware of the shooting and had not yet been contacted by authorities, but immediately expressed concern to ABC that her son may have been involved.
"You have the right person," she said. "I need to call the police. ... I need to fly out to Colorado."
The woman is identified in public searches as Arlene Holmes. The family lives in a two-story house that was assessed at $398,000 in 2000.
The family released a statement through the San Diego police that reads: "Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy, and to the families and friends of those involved," the statement said. "We ask that the media respects our privacy during this difficult time. Our family is cooperating with authorities in both San Diego, Calif., and Aurora, Colo. We are still trying to process this information and we appreciate that people will respect our privacy."
A neighbor in the upper-middle-class neighborhood where the family lives describes him as a "quiet young man," according to the North County Times.
Neighbor Tom Mai, 61, told the newspaper that he had lived next door to the Holmes family for years and was friendly with them. He said James Holmes had a degree in neuroscience from a University of California school. He said James Holmes' mother told him that James had been unable to find a job, so she sent him to a school in Colorado to earn an advanced degree.
Mai told the newspaper that Holmes, who graduated from San Diego's Westview High School in 2006, was a "typical American kid," who "kept to himself" and "didn't seem to have many friends."
Police believe Holmes acted alone.
"Lone-wolf terrorists are extremely intelligent and often come from very good socio-economic backgrounds," said Todd McGhee, a former Massachusetts state trooper who is now managing partner of Protecting the Homeland Innovations, a security training firm in Braintree, Mass.
"But they become despondent. They become isolated from family members. Then they grab on to an ideology. Some people find religion. Some people find anti-government," he said.
There is no doubt the accused shooter knew the theater well, McGhee said.
"He had a level of comfort to walk in to the theater. He had been there before. He knew the layout."
He planned his attack well enough to create what is called "a fatal funnel." When people hunker down to avoid bullets, he throws the tear gas to flush them out and shoots them when they do.
But, he said, Holmes took his attack one step further.
"His mission wasn't to end it right there at the movie theater," McGhee says. "There was a part B to this attack."
Part B was the booby-trapped apartment.
"He can see what he was a part of," McGhee said. "He can view the response. This is what his claim to fame would be."