Colorado shooting suspect discussed killings, doctor says
James Holmes had few friends, brief romance, before dropping out, say professors
It didn't take long for suspicions to surface at a Colorado university that the man who just hours earlier fired gunshots during a midnight screening of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises was a student who recently resigned from a school program.
The name James Holmes began to circulate in news reports a few hours after the early-morning shooting July 20 at an Aurora movie theatre where 12 people were killed and 58 wounded.
At 6:47 a.m., Angie Ribera, director of the neuroscience program, noted that the gunman could be the 24-year-old of the same name who had just withdrawn from her department.
"Do you think we should meet with students in his class?" she asked colleagues. "If they had been close to him, this would definitely be something that I think we should do. But as they were not, I do not know."
The new insight into the school's reaction came Wednesday with the release of thousands of emails, but they shed little light on the year that suspected theatre shooter Holmes spent as a graduate student there.
The University of Colorado, Denver, released the material in response to public records requests from media organizations, including The Associated Press. But it withheld more than 2,000 documents on Holmes, citing federal privacy laws on student medical and academic issues.
What remained revealed more about the school's reaction to the July 20 shooting than about Holmes.
Holmes had withdrawn from a competitive neuroscience graduate program in June after failing a key exam.
Denver's KMGH-TV reported Wednesday that a university psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, reached out to campus police in June partly because Holmes talked about killing "a lot of people." It said she opted not to place him under a psychiatric hold because he was leaving the school. A university spokeswoman said she could not comment on the report.
Attorneys for Holmes have said he suffers from mental illness.
Holmes had few friends, brief romance, professors say
Despite the avalanche of material on Wednesday, the school has not been able to answer key questions about Holmes and whether there were any signs he might do something violent. That's because, administrators say, a gag order in the case and the federal privacy laws prohibit them from disclosing much information.
As it became clear that Holmes was the suspected shooter, faculty at the school passed on more tidbits of information they knew about him.
While the neuroscience program is very intimate — there are only six students admitted annually — Holmes had no apparent friends in the department, Ribera wrote in an email. She said he had "1-2 friends" elsewhere.
Another professor, responding to a friend's inquiry a few hours later, said Holmes had a "brief romantic relationship" with a graduate student in his computational bioscience program.
"She, fortunately, it turns out is in India right now," Prof. Larry Hunter emailed. "She knows, and is pretty freaked out."
A regular theme is the school's difficulty in dealing with the media swarm that descended after the shooting. At 8:02 a.m. on July 20, the neuroscience program administrator broke the news to the program's students and urged them to avoid mentioning anything on Twitter or Facebook.
School officials wrote that they needed to protect students and staff from reporters and urged all calls to be routed through a single spokeswoman. As reporters pursued the few people connected with Holmes, professors asked the administration to take down their university web pages so journalists would have no more clues. The school did so.
School was bound by gag order
Four days after the attack, the campus police chief, Doug Abraham, told a press conference that school police had no information about Holmes. Then Judge William B. Sylvester implemented a gag order, and administrators said they could say no more.
Sylvester, at the request of the prosecutor, also barred the school from releasing documents under Colorado's public record law, ruling it could jeopardize Holmes' right to a fair trial. He did not lift that order until last month following objections from a consortium of media organizations.
Attorneys in court have presented a rough chronology of Holmes' final two weeks in the program. He failed an oral exam in early June and withdrew from the program after making unspecified threats to a professor, court records and attorneys say. He last saw Fenton on June 11, just after filing his withdrawal paperwork.
Six weeks later, he surrendered to police in the multiplex's parking lot after the attack.
Holmes is charged with multiple first-degree murder and attempted murder counts. He has not entered a plea and won't do so until after a preliminary hearing in which prosecutors will present evidence supporting the charges. That hearing is scheduled to begin Jan. 7.