Aurora

07.21.12

How Alleged Colorado Shooter James Holmes Bought His Guns

As police enter James Holmes’s booby-trapped apartment, Christine Pelisek and Eliza Shapiro report on how the alleged killer bought his guns—and why he may pursue an insanity defense.

Two months before neuroscience student James Eagan Holmes allegedly shot 71 moviegoers, killing at least 12, at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., he stopped by Gander Mountain, an outdoor shop that sells guns and ammunition, and bought a Glock 40 pistol. Over that eight-week period, according to a local law-enforcement source who spoke on the condition of anonymity, he purchased four more weapons, including a shotgun and an assault rifle from different gun shops around Aurora and Denver—and 6,000 rounds of ammunition from the Internet.

The man had a plan. “A great deal of thought and planning and attention to detail went into [the shooting], but the underlying motivations for it remains a big unknown,” says Scottsdale, Ariz., forensic psychiatrist Dr. Steve Pitt, who consulted during the Columbine school shooting in 1999, just 18 miles from Aurora, but is not involved in the Holmes case.

In June, the wiry 24-year-old started the process of withdrawing from his Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado–Denver. It is not clear why he decided to drop out, although some press reports mentioned he was having problems with his studies.

However, a neighbor of Holmes said that as recently as early July, Holmes was his usual quiet but smiling self. Melvin Evans, who spoke to The Daily Beast, said he saw Holmes drinking a pitcher of beer and watching karaoke at Zephyr, a local pub situated two blocks from Holmes’s red-brick three-story apartment complex. According to Evans, Holmes didn’t sing karaoke that night, but he enjoyed watching the participants and commending them on their vocal prowess. Evans remembered that Holmes once complemented him on his rendition of Korn’s “Coming Undone.” That night, as per usual, Evans said, Holmes “was always smiling.” He added: “You wouldn’t think someone like that would do this.”

Evans regularly spotted Holmes at their local 7-Eleven, he says, and the two men would stop and chat about the weather.

Holmes and Evans lived on Aurora’s north side, a run-down lower-class neighborhood that has experienced two murders in the last three months, according to bar owner Carlos Viera, who was forced to evacuate because his business was located within two blocks of Holmes’s booby-trapped apartment. (Aurora police’s public-information office confirmed that two shootings had taken place in the area, but were unable to provide details.) As of Saturday morning, bomb-disposal experts had disarmed a tripwire linked to a major explosive device, but were still devising a plan to completely clear out the explosive-rigged apartment.

Holmes, with his hair dyed red as a creepy homage to Batman’s Joker, drove from that apartment in his white Hyundai to the popular Century 16 multiplex, where hundreds of moviegoers were lined up to see the much-awaited final installment of the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

Video screenshot

'Watch the first released video of suspected shooter James Holmes.'

According to the same law-enforcement source, Holmes entered Theater 9 shortly before midnight with the rest of the moviegoers and took a seat. At the same time Holmes was in the theater, techno music began blaring inside his apartment. One of Holmes’s neighbors, 20-year-old Kaitlyn Fonzi, told the Associated Press that she went up to the apartment, saw the door ajar, and decided not to enter. Authorities believe that Holmes had rigged his apartment so that it would kill responders when they arrived to investigate after the shooting.

Another pastor added: “If the devil can kill at midnight, we can pray at midnight.”

“He wanted to kill as many people as possible,” the law-enforcement source said. “It was designed to take out as many first responders who would go through the front door.”

Back at the theater, approximately half-hour after the movie started, chaos ensued. According to the law-enforcement source and witness accounts, Holmes left his seat and walked out the back exit, propping the door slightly ajar as he left. He returned minutes later dressed in combat gear, including a Kevlar vest, leggings, and sporting a groin protector. He was armed with an assault rifle, a Glock pistol, a shotgun, and two canisters of what sources say was tear gas.

David Williams, who was sitting at the front of the theater, told The Daily Beast he saw a silhouette of a six-foot-tall man standing motionless for approximately 10 seconds. His friend, Chris Rivas, was convinced it was all just a part of the show.

Seconds later, the man threw the canisters and they exploded behind Rivas and 37-year-old Williams. Audience members say the gunman began picking off children, grandparents, and others one by one.

A young woman who was sitting two seats away from Williams was shot in the neck. “I jumped over the banister and I fell and got up and kept on running and didn’t look back,” he said. As he was dashing for cover, Williams saw a father carrying his wounded young daughter out of the theater to the parking lot. People in the parking lot were yelling, “We've got a child.”

“Everywhere I turned I saw someone with a hole in their leg, back, or face,” said Williams.

Hundreds of frantic 911 calls were made to local dispatchers. Two hundred officers responded to the scene. Within minutes of their arrival, Holmes was arrested outside the theater near his car. Although he was wearing protective paramilitary gear, presumably in anticipation of a confrontation with police, he gave up without a struggle.

Holmes was transported to the police station where he reportedly told police his apartment was booby-trapped.

Six of the victims went to the Children’s Hospital, 23 to the University of Colorado Hospital, 15 to the Medical Center of Aurora, four to the Swedish Medical Center, two to Parker Adventist Hospital and six to Denver Health Medical Center, according to The Denver Post. The bodies of those killed remained in the theater for most of Friday while authorities investigated the crime scenes.

As the world woke up to the news of the tragic slaughter at the movie theater, people began to ask: who is James Eagan Holmes and why did he do it? Holmes moved to Aurora in May of 2011 to attend the University of Colorado’s neuroscience program at Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

According to The Denver Post, Holmes described himself as “quiet and easygoing” on his apartment-rental application last year.

He spent his youth in an upper-middle-class suburb of San Diego, played soccer and ran cross-country in high school, and graduated with honors at UC–Riverside with a degree in neuroscience before he moved to Colorado.

When police arrived at his Aurora apartment they used a cherry picker to put a robot through the window, and found the apartment was cluttered with multiple strings of spaghetti wiring all over the living room. The majority of the wires were attached to 30 IED devices the size of baseballs, according to the law-enforcement source. Inside the baseballs, police believe, is black gunpowder, with the power of a grenade. Also in the apartment were glass jars containing what is believed to be accelerant, black gunpowder, and bullets.

“We are going to disrupt the most dangerous thing which is the IED that is set up as a booby trap and initiate that with the robot and then we may have the bomb-squad personnel perhaps using tools to carry things out,” said the source. “That is a decision that will be made after we attack the additional threat.”

The law-enforcement source believes that Holmes’s intention was to die at the hands of local police officers at the theater. “I absolutely think he planned to die,” the source said, “We are obviously not dealing with a sane individual.”

Authorities say once the explosives are removed from the apartment, they will be put inside a city dump truck filled with sand and taken to a disposable site where they can be detonated.

On Monday, Holmes is set to be arraigned in an Aurora courtroom. Pitt, who is not involved in the case, speculates that he will raise an insanity defense.

“There is zero doubt in my mind,” Pitt says. “He has no other defense. It doesn’t matter if it is premeditated. What matters is it will likely be a death-penalty case and regardless it is all the more reason why the defense has no other defense. It is considered the defense of last resort. It is rarely raised and rarely successful.”

Friday night, almost 24 hours after the shooting, 350 people gathered in the parking lot of Kaiser Permanente, across the street from the Century 16 Theater, for a community vigil led by local pastors. “The answer is not the police, the answer is not the FBI,” said one local pastor. “Let there be peace.”

Another pastor added: “If the devil can kill at midnight, we can pray at midnight.”

Onlookers raised their hands and closed their eyes in prayer, wept, and embraced each other. Two toddlers carried a sign with “Amor” scrawled in pink letters. A young woman wore a blue shirt with the words “save my city Aurora” written on it. At one point, the group was asked to hold hands and hug four people in the crowd. Large cardboard boxes of Kleenex, each with 36 tissue boxes, lay open for people to take.

The vigil ended with the crowd reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison. After the vigil, the crowd dispersed into the grass between the health center and the theater. In the center on the sloping hill was a makeshift memorial with a teddy bear, candles, flowers, and a sign that read: "Aurora is strong."