Explosion of James Holmes’ Apartment Would Have Been ‘Catastrophic’

What if James Holmes’ IED-filled apartment had exploded? Christine Pelisek and Eliza Shapiro look at the horror that almost was.

Chris Schneider / Getty Images

If alleged mass shooter James Holmes had succeeded in his apparent plan to blow up his apartment, the results would have been “catastrophic,” a law enforcement source tells The Daily Beast. According to the source, who did not want to be identified, Holmes’ apartment was packed not only with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) filled with black gunpowder, but also 10 gallons of gasoline that, if ignited, would have created a destructive “domino effect.”

Holmes’ 850-square foot apartment on 1690 Paris Street in a run-down section of North Aurora was a veritable military powder keg.

The intricate, sophisticated booby trap Holmes allegedly planted seemed to be designed to kill anyone who entered or lived in the building. “If the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were set off, the detonation would have absolutely exploded those gas cans,” the source says. “The large amount of gasoline in the apartment would have created a fireball that would have consumed the third floor and ultimately consumed that building.”

Aurora, Colo., police announced today that all the evidence inside Holmes’ apartment had been collected. The IEDs and chemicals found in the unit have been transported to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va. Due to the ongoing investigation, the Aurora Police Department would not confirm which chemicals were discovered in the apartment.

The law enforcement source told The Daily Beast, however, that police discovered Batman paraphernalia—a mask and poster—inside the 24-year-old neuroscience Ph.D. candidates’ apartment. “The apartment was cluttered,” the source says, “much like his life.”

After he allegedly opened fire at the Century 16 movie theater during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 and injuring 58 (seven of whom remain in critical condition), Holmes was apprehended by police officers in the theater’s parking lot. Holmes introduced himself as the Joker, enemy of Batman, and hinted that there were explosives in his apartment, police said. Inside his car, police found a Glock and a bottle of sedatives.

FBI and law enforcement agents spent around 36 hours attempting to identify and clear Holmes’ apartment of the most major IED threats before police could enter Saturday. The residents of 1690 Paris Street and the four surrounding apartment complexes were evacuated and transported a few blocks away to Aurora Central High School, which was being manned by the Red Cross. Residents were given less than five minutes notice to collect their belongings and board the city buses taking them to the nearby school.

On the night of the shooting, bass-heavy techno music blared from Apartment 10 at midnight, prompting Holmes’ downstairs neighbor Kaitlyn Fonzi to bang on the door and threaten to call the cops. If she had opened the door, she almost certainly would have been killed by the force of the explosives, and would have set off a chain reaction that would have eventually destroyed the entire building, investigators say. Fonzi decided not to enter, before calling in a noise complaint. “I’m counting my lucky stars,” she told CNN.

Steven Foster, an International Security Expert and former officer with the Aurora Police Department, says he thinks that Holmes’ ultimate plan was to create a diversion and to bring police to his home, thus leaving fewer resources at the theater four miles away, where the alleged gunman was carrying out what seems to be a meticulous plan to kill as many people as possible. Foster believes that Holmes used a stereo timer to set the music to start playing at midnight.

“This is a classic military tactic,” says Foster. “You create a diversion, and during the confusion you can have a higher level of impact in wounding people.” Foster adds that it appears to be that Holmes "booby trapped his house so the radio would go off at a certain time,” which would prompt law enforcement to acknowledge the problem and attempt to enter the apartment themselves, which would have led to destruction.

On Saturday, residents of three of the four surrounding buildings were allowed to return home. However, residents of 1690 Paris Street were not. Today police allowed them to pick up personal items, but forbade them from returning until the apartment was deemed safe.