Disengaged

07.23.12

Colorado Shooting Suspect James Holmes’s Life in Aurora

In a city of 332,000 people, the Colorado shooting suspect bummed cigarettes, drove around in his Hyundai, went to bars, and kept to himself. Christine Pelisek and Eliza Shapiro report. Plus, six facts about the suspected shooter.

Shooting suspect James Eagan Holmes spent the majority of the last 13 months in Aurora, Colo., a city of 332,000 people whose claim to fame is 17-year-old Olympic swimming hopeful Missy “the Missile” Franklin. Holmes, the son of a schoolteacher and software-company manager, kept largely to himself, barely straying outside a four-mile radius except for a few trips to gun shops—including a pawnshop in San Diego—where he bought a military-style semiautomatic rifle, a shotgun, and two Glock .40-caliber pistols. He used them to allegedly open fire on hundreds of unsuspecting theatergoers at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 cineplex, killing 12 and injuring 58.

Video screenshot

Watch James Holmes dazed court appearance.

His neighbors and local store owners in the crime-ridden north side of Aurora, where he lived in a red-brick three-story apartment complex, repeated a common refrain: they recognized his face when it was magnified on television Friday morning, but nobody really knew him. On occasion, he would bum cigarettes from neighbors, drive around alone in his white Hyundai, and visit local watering holes for a pitcher of beer. Before his face was splattered on television stations across the nation, he barely left a footprint. That was exactly the point.

“I think he came here specifically to disengage, and I think the preparation became the assault at the theater,” said Steven Foster, an international security expert and former Aurora police officer. “He had to disconnect in Colorado. There would be too many ways he would be seen or caught. It speaks of his personality and the level of preparation around this. His rationale behind his actions point to someone who wants to be admired or worshiped or revered for being a maniacal maniac.”

Holmes, who is tall and dark-haired, lived in the shadow of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, a growing hospital complex, just a short 10-minute walk from his apartment on Paris Street. The largely Hispanic neighborhood of low-rent apartments (one-bedroom units are leased for as low as $550 a month) and ramshackle homes is rife with gang crimes and drugs—some of which stem from the crack motels on nearby Colfax Avenue. In the last three months, two people have been shot and killed within a few blocks of Holmes’s apartment.

It is a perfect place to get lost or plot a massacre.

“This is old-school ghetto,” said parolee Rosando Casaus, who lives two blocks from Holmes. “This place isn’t safe for nobody.” Casaus said he bumped into Holmes for the first time Wednesday, the day before the rampage. Holmes wanted to know if he knew of any cheap apartments for rent. Holmes also ended up on the front lawn of 22-year-old Elila Nnah’s home to bum a cigarette and drink a beer. “He never gave me a bad feeling. He was great with my kids,” she said, pointing to her two young daughters.

Fifty-four-year-old Carl Allen, who lives nearby, said he would sometimes see Holmes at the Zephyr, a neighborhood bar. The two men would sometimes talk about football—Holmes was a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. Holmes steered away from talking about his personal life.

Holmes would also sometimes drop by Montview Bar and Grill, a seedy local dive with two bullet holes in its large metal front door. He would sit in the back of the bar, near the window, on a high cracked leather stool. Patrons said he was always alone.

Holmes’s short daily commute to the Research Building North No. 2, where he worked with five other students as a researcher in a neuroscience Ph.D. program, brought him past rows of boarded-up homes, unpaved parking lots filled with rubble, and a Subway, where a young woman he would later allegedly kill in the bloodbath worked as a cashier.

At the school campus, Holmes worked on a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health that paid him $26,000 a year in monthly installments, according to University of Colorado spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery. As part of the advanced program, Holmes made a presentation in May about micro DNA biomarkers in a class called Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders. More recently, he completed a three-part oral exam that marked the end of the first year of his classes.

Holmes’s life seemed to be going in the right direction. He grew up in a well-to-do area of San Diego with a nurse mother, Arlene, and dad Robert, a software-company manager. A father whose son played soccer with Holmes recalls that the young man was “kind of a strange, standoffish kid,” he said.

“I think he came here specifically to disengage, and I think the preparation became the assault at the theater,” said Steven Foster, an international security expert and former Aurora police officer.

“He didn’t talk a lot, but you could tell he was smart,” he added. “But it seemed like he thought he was better than the other kids somehow. He just seemed to think he was smarter than everyone else. Maybe he was. But I don't think he was a real popular kid.”

Mike Fortin, who lives directly across the street from the Holmes family, said his daughter went to high school with Holmes. “He was a good student. He lived in a nice home. And then he just loses it. It’s crazy. This is a kid that I just don't recognize. The kid they talk about on the news is not the kid that lived on our street.”

Before moving to Colorado, Holmes worked as a summer intern at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla prior to graduating from the University of California, Riverside, with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.

By the time he landed in Colorado, there was nothing in his public life to indicate that just over a year later he would allegedly open fire at a sold-out screening of the latest Batman movie.

But according to Foster, that was his plan all along. “It was like a clock ticking down for him,” he said. “He started doing various things to disengage his life. He made a decision: I am going to follow through with this. The affirmative decision occurred months ago.”

In May, police believe, Holmes began to stockpile weapons. Over the last few months, even before he purchased his first rifle on May 22, Holmes had “a high volume of commercial packages delivered to his home and addresses,” said FBI agent James Yacone. Police suspected those packages contained some of the chemicals and ammunition Holmes amassed before the shootings.

In June Holmes withdrew from the Ph.D. program for unspecified reasons.

“I think the one thing [his school] became less important than the other, so he didn’t want to give it the attention it needed,” said Foster. “He became so focused on this event that he began to disengage from his studies. Those studies became less important, and this became all important. This had to become the focus of his everyday life.”

On June 25 Holmes applied for a membership at a shooting range called the Lead Valley Range in Byers, Colo. “Nothing in the application raised any red flags,” owner Glenn Rotkovich told The Daily Beast. Holmes attached the application form in an email along with a short note: “Hi folks,” he wrote. “See the attachment for membership attached. Cheers, James.” However, he was never granted a membership, because Rotkovich had a bad feeling about him.

On July 2 Holmes purchased an urban-assault vest, two magazine holders, and a knife from TacticalGear.com. He also purchased 10 gallons of gasoline along the way.

Eighteen days later Holmes colored his hair red and allegedly booby-trapped his apartment with a complex maze of trip wires, IEDs, and gasoline. He then drove to the Century 16 theater, where he purchased a ticket and waited for the movie to begin. Thirty minutes later he left his seat and propped open the back door, where his white Hyundai was parked. He donned a Kevlar vest, a riot helmet, and a gas mask and armed himself with an automatic weapon, a shotgun, and a .40-caliber Glock pistol, authorities said. The rest is history.

“The way he choreographed it from a tactical and planning standpoint, it was to cause the most amount of damage and casualties,” said Foster. “He had probably been in the theater multiple times. He knew how long the trailers would take. He would know what the timing would be when the gunfire scenes started. He had to have bought movie tickets and gone in and out of there.”

Holmes was apprehended in the parking lot of the theater a few minutes after his rifle apparently jammed. He introduced himself to the police as the Joker. “He was standing out back with a rifle and mask on, and the cops came upon him and he gave up readily,” said Foster. “That is a clear indicator that what he wants out of all of this is fame, infamy, and recognition.”

On Sunday night thousands of people gathered on the lawn in front of the Aurora Municipal Center for a vigil. President Obama had just met with wounded survivors of the shooting and families of the dead. People handed out booklets of the New Testament. Boy Scouts passed around bottles of water, wet wipes, and snack bars. Mourners held bunches of colorful balloons—some of which were released into the sky—and held candles as FBI agents surveyed the crowd with binoculars from the roof of the municipal center. Mayor Steve Hogan told the crowd, “Tonight each of us is reaching into the depths of our souls and asking why—why did this happen?”

The answer to that question is known only in the deep recesses of the mind of the killer. “I think this had been stirring up in side of him for a period of time,” said Foster. “We may find out it has been brewing inside for months or years.”