Suspected Gunman James Holmes’s Campus Mayhem

Six weeks after dropping out, the alleged shooter becomes the big man on campus in a chilling turn of events.

Just four hours before a dazed James Holmes appeared in Arapahoe County Court yesterday sporting a Joker-esque orange-and-red coif, a suspicious letter was slipped under a door in the central administrative building of the university where the suspected gunman had studied. Security officers dispatched a robot to check the letter for explosives or chemicals, but didn’t find any. Then around noon, a second letter was delivered to the central mailroom on campus, causing another flurry of anxiety.

Officials at the University of Colorado–Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus wouldn’t discuss the content of the packages, or whether they had anything to do with Holmes. But this much is clear: the 24-year-old is gaining much more attention in his absence from campus than he ever did during his year as a graduate student in neuroscience.

Last Friday, on the morning after Holmes allegedly gunned down 12 people and injured another 58 during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, police evacuated 500 people from three research buildings on campus, including Research North 2, where the neuroscience department is located. On the same day, dogs from the Air Force searched for bombs. The following day, university security searched the rest of the buildings on campus.

The Anschutz Medical Campus, which lies two blocks from Holmes’s apartment, has brought mostly good to this rough North Aurora neighborhood. With its glassy, modern buildings, the school has helped slowly gentrify a neighborhood known for gang violence and crack-cocaine use in motels on Colfax Avenue. North Aurora resident Rosando Casaus said, “this place isn’t safe for nobody. The only thing that keeps this place okay is the hospital.”

But now, it seems, the school will be known for all the wrong reasons, thanks to Holmes.

Just six weeks before Holmes allegedly went on his rampage, he took an intensive three-part oral examination at the school. Holmes was one of only six students selected for the prestigious neuroscience Ph.D. program in 2011, and the exam, conducted in front of three professors, was intended to provide him with an academic landmark after his first year.

But three days after the June 7 exam, Holmes mysteriously quit the program.

His departure was “very unusual,” said Barry Shur, dean of the graduate school at the university. “He had excellent academic credentials.” The dean noted that “the percentage of students we admit who don’t receive their Ph.D. is very small.”

As part of the process for leaving the school, Holmes was required to file paperwork explaining why he was leaving. But according to university officials, he left that section blank. “He partially completed the forms,” Shur said. “They weren’t formally executed. He did not fill in the reason for his leaving.”

The program, one of close to a dozen Ph.D. programs on campus, has been in existence since 1986 and focuses on how the nervous system analyzes information. Students research treatments for Down syndrome and stroke prevention, to name a few.

Holmes was given $26,000 from the National Institute of Health for his first year in the program. Law-enforcement officials are now looking into whether any of that money was used to buy weapons and ammunition. Since May, Holmes amassed a veritable stockpile of guns and ammunition, law-enforcement officials say.

With reports surfacing that Holmes took Vicodin a few hours before the shooting, the question of Holmes’s psychological state looms large. Anschutz officials said that Holmes would have found help on campus if he had asked for it.

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“These students are like a family,” Shur said, explaining that the program’s directors know the students well, and advising committees closely monitor their progress throughout the year.

University Chancellor Don Elliman said that he felt the University “did the best we could.”