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Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes was an 'unusually bad intern'

James Holmes was an academic achiever, but there were hints of a troubled young man. John Jacobson, Holmes' supervisor at Salk Institute described him as "oddly stubborn.' A Colorado gun club rejected him after hearing his 'guttural rambling' on a voice message.

By Stephanie Simon and Dan WhitcombReuters / July 23, 2012

This photo provided by the University of Colorado shows James Holmes. Holmes, who police say is the suspect in a mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater, is to appear in court Monday July 23, 2012.

(AP Photo/University of Colorado)


Aurora, Colo., and San Diego

For most of his 24 years, James Holmes seemed to be doing everything right.

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He worked for a summer as a counselor at a camp for needy kids, guiding them through activities designed to teach empathy, compassion and good citizenship. Another summer, he snagged a prestigious internship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

He attended church with his family in their quiet, upper-middle-class San Diego neighborhood, listening to his sister play bass in the worship band. He breezed through high school and college, taking a strong interest in science and graduating with honors from the University of California, Riverside.

Friends and acquaintances of Holmes say they had no inkling that anything was awry with him -- much less that he would be arrested Friday morning outside a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, clad head to toe in body armor and accused of killing 12 people and injuring 58 in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

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"It's absurd. It's so out of character for this young man," said Jerry Borgie, senior pastor at Penasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego, where the Holmes family worshipped. "James had goals. He was going to succeed."

But a few hints have emerged in recent days that Holmes may have struggled far more than those around him realized.

His summer internship at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, in 2006 might have been impressive on paper, but his supervisor described him in an interview as "an unusually bad intern."

John Jacobson, supervisor of the neurobiology lab at Salk, said he asked Holmes to create several online demonstrations of the lab's work on temporal perceptions. Jacobson said he repeatedly tried to explain to Holmes exactly how to do the computer programming, but Holmes kept insisting on a different approach -- one that did not work.

"He was really, oddly, stubborn," Jacobson said.

Jacobson said he made a point of sitting down to lunch with Holmes at least a half-dozen times, trying to draw him out and encourage him, but found it impossible to make conversation. "He was extremely shy," he said. "It was really hard for him to say anything. You had to ask yes or no questions."

At the end of the summer, Holmes had to make a presentation to his fellow interns about the work. A video, widely circulated online since the shooting, shows him smiling shyly and talking with some confidence.

But Jacobson said he spent an entire day going over that presentation with Holmes and never got the sense that he understood any of the basic science.

"He was very undistinguished," Jacobson said.

After the internship ended, Jacobson said he emailed Holmes to ask if he wanted to try to finish up the project. Holmes never responded, he said.

Holmes did succeed academically as an undergraduate at the University of California at Riverside, graduating with honors in a neuroscience program that is considered very demanding. He then won a spot at the prestigious neuroscience doctoral program at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus.

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