Mass Murder the American Way

Jul 25, 2012 - by J. Patrick O'Connor

Updated January 26, 2013 and March 13, 2013

The Century 16 theater in Aurora CO

The Century 16 theater in Aurora CO

The mass murder in Aurora, Colorado was as senseless and as inevitable as any of the mass murders that preceded it. In the United States it is only a matter of time and place when the next gunman with a semi-automatic weapon murders innocent people in cold blood.

by J. Patrick O’Connor

Update:  Judge William Slyvester declined to grant James Holmes a delay in arraigning him on March 12, 2013 in state court in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes’s public defender, Daniel King, had requested a delay to allow the defense more time to weigh the consequences of his client entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead, the judge went forward with the arraignment and entered a plea of not guilty for the 25-year-old Holmes.

Holmes faces numerous felony counts for his alleged assault with semi-automatic weapons at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012 that left 12 people dead and 58 others wounded.

Judge Sylvester said the defense would have the opportunity to change the plea before the trial begins. The judge set the trial date at August 5, 2013. Prosecutors estimate that the trial will last about a month.

In the event Holmes does enter an insanity plea, he would be sent to a state hospital for mental evaluation. In court documents, the judge wrote that if Holmes cooperated with state examiners he would be allowed to be examined by doctors of his own choosing, at government expense.

The midnight premiere of the Batman sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, had been playing for about 18 minutes to a sold-out house in Theater 9 at the Century 16 movie complex in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012. At 12:38 a.m. a commado figure casually entered through an emergency exit door to the audience’s right and took up his position at the front of the theater. Dressed head-to-toe in combat gear that included a gas mask, helmet, a throat protector, a bullet-proof vest and leggings, a groin protector, black gloves, and a long black coat, the man said, “I am the Joker.” Some in the audience thought the figure in black was part of the premier’s promotion – that it was all just some sort of stunt.

The Dark Knight Rises was the final film in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that launched with Batman Begins in 2005 and was followed by The Dark Knight in 2008. As USA Today reported on July 23, “Some fans already considered the trilogy cursed because of Heath Ledger’s death by accidental overdose. Ledger, who played The Joker in The Dark Knight, died months before its premiere.”

The erstwhile Joker then hurled a smoke canister into the middle of the 11th row of the theater, striking a woman there. He then fired a single blast from a .12-guage, pump-action Remington shotgun into the ceiling. As the smoke canister fell to the ground, it began spinning and then exploded, spewing gas into the air and causing panic to grip the stunned audience. Another smoke canister was soon released. As people stood in the middle rows to get away from the noxious gases, the man began rapidly spraying the front rows of the theater with bullets fired from an AR-15 assault rifle equipped with a 100-round barrel magazine capable of firing 50 rounds a minute. This caused most of the audience to huddle on the floor, some using their bodies as human shields to protect loved ones. The gunman then walked up the stairs and began firing into the audience in the middle portion of the theater. As the shooter climbed higher into the theater, some of the people in the front rows attempted to exit the theater up the opposite corridor. The gunman responded by unleashing a hail of bullets that prevented them from getting to the exit and that forced them to retreat back down toward the front of the theater. When the semi-automatic rifle jammed after discharging over 70 shells, the gunman began firing a .40 caliber Glock handgun. Finally, silence engulfed the theater.

Inside the theater, 10 people were dead, including a 6-year-old Veronica Moser. Two other victims would soon die at the hospital. Fifty-eight others sustained gunshot wounds of various severities. Several days after the shootings, 22 of those remained in various area hospitals – 10 of them in critical condition. By July 30, 10 victims still remained in hospitals, four of them in critical condition. Six months after the shooting, two victims remained in grevious suffering. Caleb Medley, 23,who lost an eye in the shooting, has undergone months of rehabilitation, lying on his back with severe brain and motor damage. Ashley Moser, the 25-year-old mother of Veronica, is a paraplegic from a gunshot she took in the neck. She also lost a festus shortly aferwards.

The mass murder at the theater was the worst in the country since a lone gunman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., murdered 32 people in 2007, using two semi-automatic pistols.

A few minutes after the shooting began, the gunman walked out the back exit door. He put his weapons back in his white Hyundai and stood by the car with his hands on the roof of the car and waited for the police to arrest him. Standing there at 12:45 a.m. was 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes, a recent Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado in Denver, and an honors graduate in neuroscience from the University of California at Riverside. When Aurora Plice Officer Jason Oviatt first saw Holmes outside the theater he thought the tall, thin man in a gas mask and combat gear was a police officer. At a preliminary hearing on January 7, 2013, Oviatt testified that he quickly realized he was wrong in that assumption. He said he aimed his gun at Holmes and ordered him to the ground. The officer described Holmes as "completely compliant." Oviatt said Holmes raised his hands when he was ordered to by another officer. Fearing there could be other assailants nearby, Oviatt said he dragged Holmes into an alcove holding trash bins and patted him down. Police then began removing layers of Holmes' body armor, stripping him to his boxer shorts. In his wallet they found his driver's license and asked him if he still lived at that address. Holmes said he did and then advised them he had booby-trapped his apartment with explosives. The car was not booby trapped, but the apartment was.

Booby-Trapped

It would come out at the second day of Holmes's preliminary hearing, January 8, 2013 that the reason he was willing to inform police that his apartment was booby-trapped was because he had intended for the apartment to erupt in an explosive fire that would divert area police to that site while he was inside the movie theater. Garrett Gumbinner, an FBI bomb technician, testified on the second day of the preliminary hearing that Homes had rigged the front door of his apartment with five-feet of fishing line tied to a thermos bottle filled with glycerin. If the door were to open, it would knock over the thermos, spill glycerin into a pan filled with potassium permanganate, and set off a massive explosion. The carpets in the apartment had been soaked with gasoline and oil. Jars of napalm, thermite and other explosive devices were positioned throughout the living room, along with 30 fireworks canisters known as “artillery shells” filled with smokeless powder and gasoline connected to trip wires. Also in the apartment were liter-size soft drink bottles filled with incendiary liquids and rounds of ammunition. Authorities said there was enough explosive power in the apartment to take down the entire, three-story red brick apartment building.

When police officers arrived at Holmes’s apartment building at 2 a.m. they peered in a window to Holmes’s third-story apartment to see a wired maze of booby-trapped explosive devices. Police then ordered the entire apartment building vacated as well as four other nearby apartment buildings.

The booby-trapping of Holmes’s apartment was extremely devious. Shortly after midnight the night of the shootings, electronic music began blaring in an endless loop from a sound system in his apartment. Holmes had use his computer to program the music to blare away for one hour. Kaitlyn Fonzi, a 20-year-old woman who lived directly below Holmes’s apartment, was preparing to go to bed. She went upstairs to investigate the racket, knocking loudly on Holmes’s door, causing it to rattle as though it were unlocked. Fonzi, a biology student, told police she considered entering the apartment but decided not to because she heard no other sounds on the other side of the door except the booming beat of the music.  She said the oddness of that put her off.

The door had been left unlocked. Had she opened it she would have most likely triggered a massive explosion that would have added significantly to the mass murder tally. Instead she went back down to her apartment and called the non-emergency line at the police department to report the irritating noise. The music shut itself off about 1 a.m.  An hour later, Fonzi and the rest of the residents of the apartment building were awakened by SWAT team members toting assault rifles. All residents were immediately evacuated.

Residents of the building evaded a second triggering device Holmes had set up near a trash bin ouside his apartment. Agent Gumbinner said Holmes told him he had placed the device in a garbage bag that also contained a boom box and a remote-control car. The FBI agent said Holmes's plan was for a CD from the boom box to blast music, attract a passer-by  who would inadvertanely trigger the explosion by attempting to shut off the music by manipulating the remote-control car.

Later that day, police deployed a robot to disarm the triggering devices tied to explosives in Holmes’s 800-square-foot, top-floor apartment located not far from the University of Colorado campus in Aurora. Police then spent two days disarming various incendiary devices, including one that was rigged up to 10 gallons of gasoline. The 30 aerial shells commonly used in commercial fireworks had to be defused. USA Today quoted an unidentified official as saying the aerial shells “had been cannibalized, reconstructed and set up in the living room, where a stream of wires connected them to a ‘control box’ in the unit’s kitchen.” Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates told reporters there was no question the booby traps were “designed to kill” and that most likely they were meant to kill arriving police officers.

For many Coloradoans, the senseless Century 16 shooting was all-too reminiscent of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre when two heavily armed students gunned down 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. Columbine is about 16 miles from Aurora.

A Killing Arsenal

For the academically gifted James Holmes, who spent a good portion of his free time online participating in role-playing games, a great deal of planning allegedly went into the mass-murder assault in Aurora. During the five weeks after he unexpectedly dropped out of an elite graduate program on June 10, 2012 – after failing part of his first-year oral exam – he amassed a major arsenal of weapons, ammunition, combat gear, and explosive booby traps. USA Today estimated that within the 60 days leading up to the Aurora disaster, Holmes spent $2,248 on the four guns he purchased from local gun dealers; $2,870 on the 6,300 rounds of ammunition he purchased online; $970 on body gear online; and $300 for booby traps placed in his apartment. He apparently tapped the $21,000 a year graduate student grant he received from the National Institute for Health and the $5,000 stipend he received as a graduate student from the University of Colorado to pay the more than $6,350 expended on armaments and gear – material that arrived in some 90 packages for him at the university and at his apartment.

Everything Holmes bought, he bought legally, including 6,000 rounds of ammunition. As a person with no felony record, no state or federal background checks or government oversight at any level was required for any of his purchases. Not even the Department of Homeland Security – an organization provided with vast powers to protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks like this one – got a whiff of what the young man was up to. Unlike in California, Massachusetts and New Jersey where there are restrictions on ammunition sales – requiring permits for buyers or licenses for sellers – Colorado, like the vast majority of states, has no such regulation. Holmes could have bought 50,000 or 500,000 rounds of ammunition without setting off one red flag. At the federal level there is no statue restricting the Internet sales of ammunition. As Dudley Brown, the executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, told The New York Times, “I call 6,000 rounds of ammunition running low.”

At an earlier preliminary hearing in July of 2012, Holmes appeared in state district court in Centennial, Colorado. The hearing  dealt with such issues as informing the suspect of his constitutional rights as well as a motion to limit pretrial publicity advanced by one Holmes’s public defenders. In response to the defense motion, Judge William Sylvester issued a gag order to limit the information law enforcement may release about the shooting. The suspect did not speak during the 12-minute hearing, not to the judge or to either of his public defenders. One of his attorneys had to nudge him to stand when Judge Sylvester entered the courtroom. Various news accounts reported that Holmes, his hair dyed a reddish orange, seemed to fade in and out. The Wall Street Journal reported that he “looked alternately sleepy and wide-eyed, bobbing his head as the judge and the lawyers spoke.”

Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers told reporters after the July hearing that the state may seek the death penalty, but would wait on deciding that until she had discussed it with the wounded and families of those killed in the theater. Pursuing the death penalty is “a very long process that impacts their [victim’s] lives for years,” D.A. Chambers said. Since capital punishment was reinstated in Colorado in 1976, there has only been one execution – that in 1997. Currently there are three people on Colorado’s death row.

In the wake of the Aurora mass murders,condolences to the victims and their families flowed in from around the world. Pope Benedict XVI expressed his regrets during his Sunday morning blessing from St. Peter’s Square.

Across the street from the movie multiplex in Aurora, a makeshift memorial took shape where hundreds of people congregated throughout the weekend. Teddy bears, flowers, candles and hand-written notes dotted the site. On a hill overlooking the impromptu memorial, 12 white crosses were placed in honor of each of the dead.

Charges Filed

Shackled around his waist and ankles, Holmes was back in district court on July 30. Prosecutors formally charged him with 142 criminal counts, including 24 counts of first-degree murder, 116 counts of attempted murder, one count of felony possession of explosives devices, and one count for use of assault weapons during the shooting at the Century 16 theater. On the murder and attempted murder counts, Holmes was charged twice for each of the 12 murder victims and for the 58 persons wounded. One count was for “showing deliberation” and the other was for “showing extreme indifference to human life.”

The count pertaining to the explosives devices stemmed from the booby-trapping of his apartment.

The 120-seat courtroom was packed. Victims and family members of victims occupied about half of the seats; the proceedings also were piped into a satellite room outside the courtroom that overflowed with spectators.

Various media outlets reported that Holmes, his hair dyed orange and matted down on top, showed no emotion while the charges against him were being recited or when the judge informed him that he could face the death penalty. Instead, throughout the 45-minute hearing, he stared “blankly” at the judge’s bench, the ceiling lights and the floor and spoke only one word. When Judge Sylvester asked him if he understood why his defense attorneys were asking for additional time to prepare for his preliminary hearing, he quietly stated, “Yes.”

The judge informed the prosecution and defense that hearings would be held on August 9 and 16 and that during the week of November 12 to plan on both a preliminary hearing and an evidence hearing that will include several days of testimony.

The first hearing will concern the high level of secrecy in the prosecution’s case file against Holmes that has been kept under seal by court order. A consortium of news organizations had petitioned the court to open those files to the public.

A primary purpose of the August 16 hearing will be to consider a defense motion filed July 27 with the district court to suppress the contents of a package Holmes mailed to his psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. When the package arrived at the university’s mailroom on Monday, July 23, university officials notified law enforcement. A search warrant was issued and the package was collected by Aurora police without Dr. Fenton seeing it.

Dr. Fenton is the medical director of student mental health services at the university, where Holmes had been a student until resigning from the program in early July. She has held that position since 2009. She is also a member of the university’s faculty. The New York Times reported that Dr. Fenton’s research interests include “psychotherapy and the neurobiology of schizophrenia.”

News reports soon quoted unnamed police officials saying the package contained a notebook that detailed Holmes’s plan for the assault on the theater that included “violent drawings.” Lawyers for Holmes objected in their motion that information about the contents of the package was being leaked to the news media despite the gag order Judge Sylvester imposed at the initial hearing on July 23 and that leaking the contents of the communication with Dr. Fenton violated the doctor/patient relationship.

In the motion, Holmes’s public defenders asserted that “Mr. Holmes was a psychiatric patient of Dr. Fenton and his communications with her are protected” under the doctor/patient relationship.

Prosecutors responded to the motion by asking the judge to deny the defense request. D. A. Chambers wrote in rebuttal that the contents of the package had not been examined and had been retained for later inspection. In her court filing, D.A. Chambers stated, “The media is getting information from hoaxers, fraudsters, or maybe from nobody at all.”

On July 30, 2012, Colorado prosecutors formally charged James. E. Holmes with 142 criminal counts, including 24 counts of first-degree murder, 116 counts of attempted murder, one count of felony possession of explosives devices, and one count for use of assault weapons during the shooting at the Century 16 theater. On the murder and attempted murder counts, Holmes was charged twice for each of the 12 murder victims and for the 58 persons wounded. One count was for “showing deliberation” and the other was for “showing extreme indifference to human life.”

The count pertaining to the explosives devices stemmed from the booby-trapping of his apartment.

In a hearing October 11, 2012, attorneys for mass murder suspect James Holmes told Judge William Sylvester they would need additional time to review the 19,000 pages of evidence the prosecution has turned over to the defense before they would be ready to proceed to the preliminary hearing. “We have not begun to understand the nature and depth of Mr. Holmes’s mental illness,” public defender Daniel King told the court.

During the 75-minute hearing in Centennial, Colorado, Arapahoe County prosecutors added 14 more counts of attempted murder to the charges against the 24-year-old former neuroscience graduate student. Prosecutors also amended five other counts, but no details about the new or amended charges were made public.

Dressed in a red jumpsuit and with his legs shackled, Holmes, now with a crew cut, mustache and long sideburns, “looked straight ahead at no one in particular and didn't appear to speak to anyone at the defense table during the hearing.  He periodically widened his eyes, causing wrinkles in his forehead,” according to the CBS web site.

By the time the preliminary hearing began on January 7, 2013, thousands of more pages of evidence will have been collected by the prosecution and turned over to the defense.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing -- which was expected to run up to three days -- will be to determine if there is sufficient evidence for the state to make Holmes stand trial on the numerous charges against him. Lawyers for Holmes are expected to call witnesses to discuss their client's mental state. An insanity defense would appear to be the thrust of their representation. Prosecutors, on the other hand, will argue that Homes methodically planned the mass murders for weeks -- buying guns, ammo, combat gear, and even purchasing his ticket to The Dark Night Rises 12 days in advance of its premiere showing. On the first day of the preliminary hearing, prosecutors showed closed-circuit video from the theater's security system of Holmes walking into theater, holding the door open for an arriving couple, then stopping briefly by the concession counter before entering Theater 9. Having a ticket allowed him to exit by the back door of the theater, leave it slightly ajar, get dressed in combat gear, arm himself, and re-enter shortly after the movie had begun.

The Victims

Three of the 12 mass-murder victims died in the theater attempting to save the lives of others. As shots rained down on the audience, Matt McQuinn, 27, pulled his girlfriend, Samantha Yowler, to the floor and shielded her with his body. Three bullets hit McQuinn – one in the chest, one in the back, and one in his leg. One bullet hit Yowler in the knee. She underwent surgery and is recovering. The couple had been dating for three years and worked at Target.

Jonathan Blunk, a 26-year-old Navy veteran and father of two, covered his girlfriend’s body by lying on top of her. Jansen Young was not hit. Blunk was planning to re-enlist in the Navy.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesse Childress, 29, died trying to shield a friend, a woman stationed with him at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora.

The youngest victim was 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, the daughter of Ashley Moser, who was shot in the abdomen and throat during the theater assault. Mrs. Moser, who was pregnant, suffered a miscarriage on July 28, the day she underwent surgery for her wounds. A statement released by her family the following day, said the family was still making plans for Veronica’s funeral and that Mrs. Moser’s “lifetime of care will be a long road.”

The oldest victim was 51-year-old Gordon Cowdon, a divorced single father of three girls and a boy.

Alex Sullivan was murdered on his 27th birthday shortly after he tweeted that this would be “the best birthday ever.” A bartender at the Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, he would have celebrated his first wedding anniversary with his wife Cassie two days later.

Jessica Ghawi, 24, came close to death at a mall in Toronto last summer during a shooting spree that killed two people. “I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath,” the sports reporter for MSNBC wrote on her blog about that tragedy. Some 22,000 Twitter users followed her postings under her Twitter handle @JessicaRedfield.

Other victims included Alexander Boik, 18, Navy Petty Officer John Larimer, 27, Micayla Medek, 23, Alexander Teves, 24, and Rebecca Wingo, 32.
Whatever else will ever be said about the mass murders at Aurora, there was a chillingly indiscriminate cold-bloodedness to them. This assailant did not care who he killed, only that he killed en masse.

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