Colorado shooting: Was James Holmes's notebook 'a cry for validation'?

James Holmes allegedly mailed a package to a psychiatrist that foretold a murderous rampage at a theater showing 'The Dark Knight Rises.' Was it a call for recognition from somebody whose family worried about his isolation?

Alex Brandon/AP
Aurora (Colo.) Police Chief Daniel Oates looks at the memorial across from the movie theater where 12 people were killed and 58 wounded in a shooting attack during a showing of the "Batman" movie "The Dark Knight Rises."

News that James Holmes may have tried to communicate his intentions to a professor raises as many questions as it answers.

Details about the package sent to the professor (who is also a psychiatrist in the school where Mr. Holmes had been a doctoral candidate) are sketchy. And so far, there is no firm indication of his motivation in allegedly killing 12 people and wounding 58 others gathered to watch the midnight premiére of the latest "Batman" movie.

Yet it may have been a last-ditch effort for recognition by someone whose isolation had led family members to express concern.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement authorities in Colorado refuse to talk about anything Holmes might have sent to the university campus; and after several days of press briefings, they have followed a judge’s order in refusing all comment – no doubt out of concern that either prosecution or defense interests could be harmed.

But according to several news sources, beginning with Fox News, the notebook that Holmes reportedly sent included stick drawings of some individuals shooting others. What legal advocates on both sides of the criminal case make of that remains to be seen.

"Is it a manifesto or an apology? If it includes drawings that are sufficiently deranged as to be from someone who appears mentally ill, it could assist defense in a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity defense,” legal analyst Scott Robinson told The Denver Post. “If it appears to be the work of someone who knew exactly what they are doing, and they knew it was wrong, that could help the prosecution."

In retrospect, experts and close associates of those who go on a shooting rampage often recall signs of confused thinking and aberrant behavior that might have provided clues to mass violence. In some cases, that involves a pattern of bullying in school, evidence of “going postal” at work, or unusual mood swings observed by family members or close friends.

According to Holmes family friends who spoke to The Washington Post, Holmes’s mother had confided deep concerns about her son’s isolation over the years and sought counseling for him.

But seldom in the history of such killings has the perpetrator explicitly communicated his or her intent to target a particular group.

“It may very well have been a last-ditch cry for help or recognition ... a cry for validation,” says Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“If the timeline [as reported] is correct,” Mr. Levin says, “he might have wanted to attract attention for merely contemplating an attack rather than doing it.”

In any case, cautions Levin, “What we know now is just a sliver compared with what we don’t know.”

Still, he speculates that the package sent to a professor is probably a sign of social and psychological isolation, depression, and some kind of personal setback – perhaps Holmes's failure to complete his doctoral program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

After his capture, Holmes is reported to have told authorities about the package he mailed, which led to the evacuation of a university building and a search involving bomb-sniffing dogs. As he was being apprehended after the shooting last Friday morning, Holmes also is reported to have told police about his booby-trapped apartment.

Why he apparently tipped off authorities in these instances also remains unclear, although it may reveal something about his overall motivation.

So far, there is no indication that Holmes’s communication prior to the attack included any kind of political or antisocial manifesto, as was the case with Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” who killed three people and injured another 23 in a series of mail bombings over nearly 20 years. When The New York Times and The Washington Post published Mr. Kaczynski’s 35,000-word essay, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” his brother David Kaczynski recognized the ideas and writing style, which led to Ted Kaczynski’s capture.

More recently, between two separate attacks in which he shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech before killing himself in 2007, Seung-Hui Cho sent NBC News a package with a manifesto, photos, and videos of himself.

Initial reports said Holmes’s mailing to the university sat in the mailroom for some days before being found, but school officials denied that in a statement:

"Officials at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus can confirm that the suspicious package discovered at the Facilities Services building on Monday, July 23, 2012, was delivered to the campus by the United States Postal Service that same day, immediately investigated and turned over to authorities within hours of delivery.”

Holmes is due to hear the charges against him at a court hearing scheduled for next Monday.

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