US shooter 'surrounded by brain experts'

2012-07-25 08:26

Centennial — James Holmes spent a year in a small neuroscience doctoral programme, surrounded by scientists and roughly three dozen classmates delving into the inner workings of the brain.

The University of Colorado, Denver, isn't saying if they had any warning signs about the man accused in the deadly shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colorado, cinema.

Experts say, however, the intimacy of the programme and its focus on the brain may not have been enough for staff and students to detect that Holmes was on a course that police say ended with the deadly rampage at a midnight showing of the new Batman movie.

Supported by a prestigious federal grant, Holmes, aged 24, was in the first year of a programme at the Anschutz Medical Campus dedicated to neuroscience, studying such topics as how the brain works or malfunctions or helping develop drugs to treat epilepsy and other disorders.

But it is not behavioural science or psychology, experts say.

David Eagleman, who runs the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor University, said some neuroscientists are experts in mental illnesses and aberrant behaviour, but others spend most of their time studying molecular chemistry.

Preparing for funerals

"It's really only a fraction of professors" who could identify a simmering mental disorder, Eagleman said. "Many people in neuroscience are not specialised in the issue of picking up mental illness ... There are plenty of people who just study mice and cats and stuff like that."

Holmes is accused of methodically stockpiling weapons and explosives at work and at home that police say he used to kill 12 people and injure 58 more at a cinema on Friday in nearby Aurora. Police say he also booby-trapped his apartment with the intent to kill police officers.

Holmes' arraignment hearing is on Monday.

Attention continued to focus on victims of the attack and their grieving families, many of whom turned on Tuesday to the grim task of preparing for funerals. Batman star Christian Bale visited survivors of the shooting and stopped by a makeshift memorial to victims near the cinema where they were shot.

Authorities say Holmes began shopping for firearms while studying neuroscience. He joined the programme in June 2011 after receiving a National Institutes of Health grant to cover his tuition and provide a $26 000 annual living allowance.

Quit programme

The school refuses to say what specifically Holmes studied. But an online syllabus listed him as making a presentation in May during a class called "Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders".

In early June, Holmes took a standard oral exam that ends a graduate student's first year. The school will not say whether he passed, but Holmes filed paperwork to withdraw from the programme just days later. He never provided a written explanation for his departure.

"He had, as is now common knowledge, excellent academic credentials," said Barry Shur, dean of the university's graduate programme.

Shur said the graduate programme is "like a family" in which faculty carefully monitor students' progress.

"It would be a logical step to assume there were people in that programme who worked closely with him and would have the expertise to assess his behaviour," said Mary Ellen O'Toole, a former FBI profiler and the author of the book Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us.

"But being able to recognise concerning, troubling behaviour does not mean you can prevent a mass homicide," O'Toole said. "There are many people at a university level who act quirky and strange and don't go out and commit mass murder."

Raised suspicions

Academics studying the human brain may not have the same ability to size up threats as someone who makes his living spending time with people firing guns, O'Toole said.

Glenn Rotkovich, owner of a private Colorado gun range outside Denver, quickly concluded there was something wrong with Holmes.

Holmes applied to join the range in late June. But Rotkovich said that after calling Holmes back and hearing a "bizarre" voice mail message — spoken in a strange, low-pitched voice with heavy breathing — he concluded he didn't want Holmes as a member.

"I flagged him to people and said, if he shows up, I don't trust him," Rotkovich said.

Holmes apparently never went to the range.

The university's silence on the year Holmes spent there contributed to the mystery surrounding his motivations. Administrators refuse to say whether faculty or students saw signs of dangerous behaviour in Holmes. Campus police said they had no information on Holmes before the attack.

Baby boy

Holmes remained in solitary confinement on Tuesday in Arapahoe County jail, a day after appearing bleary-eyed and disoriented in his initial court appearance. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Working to build their case, a team of lawyers from the district attorney's office spent about 90 minutes inside the movie multiplex where the shooting occurred. Crews were starting to encircle the building with a chain link fence while people continued to flock to a memorial nearby for the victims.

Relatives of those who died were bracing for a string of funeral services, the first of which — for Gordon Cowden, the oldest of those killed — was planned for Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a woman whose husband remains in a coma after being shot in the head gave birth to a healthy baby boy in the same hospital on Tuesday.

A profile for a man whose name and appearance matched Holmes has been removed from a dating website. spokesperson Matthew Traub on Tuesday confirmed reports on and elsewhere that the profile was posted before the movie theatre massacre. Traub would not comment on whether believes Holmes actually posted the profile.

New details

The profile included the question, "Will you visit me in prison?" and said, "I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, mind [equals] blown."

The profile photo showed a man whose hair is reddish orange, similar to Holmes' hair when he appeared in court Monday.

According to reports Holmes had alsohad da profile on AdultFriendFinder.

New details emerged about the night of the shooting.

Clad in head-to-toe combat gear, Holmes allegedly burst into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, tossed gas canisters into the crowd and opened fire.

Friends Stephanie Davies and Allie Young, who attended, said the gunman moved around the room yelling and seemingly targeting people.

Gun sales surge

"He would shout, 'What are you doing? I said stand up!' And he would pick people up. I saw him stand over someone. I just see hair and him holding the shirt and 'boom'," said Davies, aged 21.

Outside Colorado, men accused of making threats during or after other screenings of the Batman film have been arrested in separate incidents in Maine, Arizona and Southern California, underscoring moviegoers' anxieties about security.

In Colorado, the shooting has prompted a sudden surge in gun sales.

In three days, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation approved background checks for 2 887 people who wanted to purchase a firearm. That was 25% greater than the average Friday-to-Sunday period in 2012, and 43% greater than the same period the week prior.

In Arizona, Jeff Serdy, owner of AJI Sporting Goods in Apache Junction, estimated he saw up to 40% more traffic than usual in the two days after the killings.

"I looked out on the floor and said to myself, 'Whoa, look at all these people,'" Serdy said, noting many customers expressed concern that lawmakers may use the shooting to try to pass gun restrictions. Political analysts say there is little appetite in Congress for such laws.

  • cyanideandhappiness - 2012-07-25 09:26

    Anybody ever heard of MK-Ultra? I think this guy is a patsy, a programmed murderer! This is all part of the gun control push, have a dude shoot up a cinema during a freshly released popular movie, demonize guns then start taking them away. Right when the UN is pushing a gun control treaty. This whole event is stinky... Personally I don't like guns, but it's in the American constitution that it is their right to own one (responsibly), how are they supposed to defend themselves against the rampant crime (which is getting worse than in RSA by the way) and a federal government is becoming more and more pushy about taking away the average persons rights. Either way, it is terrible what this man did, makes me sad whenever I hear about it...

      Boos - 2012-07-25 12:06

      What you say, makes sense ... There could be something there.

      maylani.bezuidenhout - 2012-07-30 09:55

      Well in that case there should have been a number of people in that cinema who should have taken him down. The point is unless you're a farmer protecting livestock there really isn't a sane reason for carrying a gun. The chances of it being used against you, being stolen or being used by your kid to off himself or his mates just makes it far too dangerous to keep. No one is saying take away their constitutional rights to bear arms. Just start tightening gun control so that guys like this can get picked up in the system. People need to be switched on like the gun range owner.

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