Details about what happened this tragic Friday in Aurora, Colo., are beginning to emerge, painting a picture of several horrific minutes in a movie theater and the young man who allegedly shot 71 people gathered for a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
As hundreds of police and FBI investigators continue what is likely to be months of work, mental-health professionals are gathering in Aurora to counsel those who witnessed the shooting and may be experiencing post-traumatic stress.
Arrested behind the theater shortly after the shooting ended, James Holmes is described by law-enforcement officials as in his mid-20s with no police record other than a traffic stop, with no known connection to terrorism, and without accomplices.
He is reported to have grown up in the San Diego area, attending high school and college there before moving to Colorado to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience at the University of Colorado in Denver, although he was in the process of withdrawing from that graduate program.
Initial reports indicate that Mr. Holmes entered the theater with others, propped open an exit door near the screen, then went back outside to reenter through that door once the movie had begun.
At a press conference Friday, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said Holmes was dressed in black and was wearing SWAT-type ballistic protective garments from head to foot, including a helmet and gas mask. That might have indicated an intention to engage in a gunfight with police, but he surrendered without resisting arrest.
Upon entering the theater, he allegedly set off two smoke devices, then began shooting. As of this writing, 71 people are known to have been shot. Ten of them were killed at the scene and two later died at hospitals. Several of the victims were young children, and several others were service personnel from nearby military bases.
“He looked like an actor showboating for the première and getting everyone riled up,” Jennifer Seeger told Newsweek’s Daily Beast website. “No one thought it was real. Then he threw a gas canister and started shooting at the ceiling, and everyone realized it was real.”
“He just went up and down the stairs on the left side, shooting people and reloading,” Ms. Seeger said. “I couldn’t breathe because of the gas. Anytime he came near, we just played dead.”
Theater patrons immediately began calling 911, and within less than two minutes police were on the scene.
Some reports say Holmes had dyed his hair red or orange and told police he was “The Joker” – Batman’s nemesis in an earlier film in the superhero series.
Based on what police say Holmes told them, officers quickly went to his apartment, which Chief Oates said had been “booby-trapped with chemical and incendiary devices and tripwires.” Five buildings in the apartment complex were quickly evacuated.
According to FBI Special Agent James Yacone, about 100 agents have joined other law-enforcement agencies in collecting evidence. That includes Holmes’s phone, e-mail, and travel records, as well as information about his gun arsenal.
“At this point, we don’t see a nexus to terrorism, but we are continuing to look,” Mr. Yacone said.
Police say Holmes carried a Smith & Wesson AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun, and a .40 caliber Glock handgun. Another .40 caliber Glock was found in the car. All those weapons may be legally owned in Colorado.
How many shots were fired remains unclear, but Oates says it was “many, many.”
It was the worst mass shooting in the United States since the 2009 attack at Fort Hood, Texas. Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was charged with killing 13 soldiers and civilians and wounding more than two dozen others.
Friday morning’s rampage was the deadliest in Colorado since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire in the Denver suburb of Littleton, killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves.
Columbine High is about 12 miles from the theater where the Friday shootings took place.
Mr. Obama ordered US flags to be flown at half-staff through July 25 “as a mark of respect for the victims of the senseless acts of violence perpetrated on July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colorado.”
"As we do when confronted by moments of darkness and challenge, we must now come together as one American family," Obama said in a statement. "All of us must have the people of Aurora in our thoughts and prayers as they confront the loss of family, friends, and neighbors."
Likewise, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney curtailed his campaign activities Friday.
“Our hearts break with the sadness of this unspeakable tragedy. Ann and I join the president and first lady and all Americans in offering our deepest condolences for those whose lives were shattered in a few moments, a few moments of evil in Colorado,” Mr. Romney told a crowd of supporters in Bow, N.H.
Among many other statements of sympathy and prayerful wishes was this one from Holmes’s family in San Diego:
"Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved. We ask that the media respect our privacy during this difficult time. Our family is cooperating with authorities in both San Diego, California, and Aurora, Colorado. We are still trying to process this information and we appreciate that people will respect our privacy.”
Holmes is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.