CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The movie theater was a blood-soaked nightmare that night in July. Wounded moviegoers screamed for help and tried to crawl for the exits. Bodies lay in the aisles. The floor was a carpet of shell casings, the air stung with the smell of tear gas, and dozens of abandoned cellphones bleated incessantly.
But outside, James Holmes stood with eerie calm, his head hidden behind a gas mask and helmet, his hands resting on the roof of his car. He was, police officers recalled in court Monday, detached from the chaos he had created moments before. He was sweating heavily underneath a sheath of black body armor. He smelled foul.
"He was very, very relaxed," said Officer Jason Oviatt of the Aurora Police Department, who apprehended Holmes behind the theater minutes after the shooting. "It was like there weren't normal emotional responses. He seemed very detached from it all."
Oviatt was one of six police officers to testify here on the first day of a weeklong preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to try Holmes, 25, for killing 12 people and wounding dozens more inside the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, a Denver suburb. An Arapahoe County district judge, William B. Sylvester, will make that decision.
Holmes faces more than 160 counts of murder and attempted murder.
For victims and their families, the hearing may offer the best, and perhaps only, opportunity to understand how the July 20 shooting unfolded, and to get a glimpse of Holmes' actions and mindset in the weeks and minutes before the attack. A criminal trial — if one ever convenes — remains months away, probably at the end of a long series of legal arguments, including over Holmes' mental fitness to stand trial.
On Monday, some of the first police officers to the scene drew a grim and detailed picture of the moments before, during and after the mass shooting, the deadliest in Colorado since a 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
They described searching vainly for a pulse on a 6-year-old girl, the shooting's youngest victim. They described a theater floor littered with popcorn and bullets, flip-flops and blood. They recalled carrying wounded victims to their squad cars and racing them to local hospitals, yelling to one man, "Don't you die on me!"
The officers gave a moment-by-moment account of arresting Holmes, a once-promising student from Southern California who moved to Colorado to study neuroscience.
Oviatt said he stumbled upon Holmes at the rear of the theater, at first believing that the tall, thin man in the gas mask and commando gear was a police officer. He quickly realized he was mistaken — Holmes was just standing there when other officers were rushing to the theater. Oviatt said he aimed his gun at Holmes and ordered him to the ground.
As sirens wailed and bloodied, terrified moviegoers streamed out of a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Oviatt said that Holmes made no attempt to run, to confront the police or to resist them. He raised his hands when ordered to by another officer, lay prone on the ground and glanced around at the lights and sounds piercing the night.
"He just did what he was told," Oviatt said. "No resistance."
Fearing there could be other gunmen lurking, Oviatt said he dragged Holmes into an alcove for trash bins and patted him down, searching for other weapons. The police would find an assault rifle just outside the emergency exit door of the theater and a shotgun inside.
After officers removed layers of Holmes' body armor, stripping him to his boxer shorts, they found his wallet and driver's license and asked whether he lived at the listed address. Holmes said he did, and then told them he had booby-trapped his apartment with explosives.
Daniel King, a public defender for Holmes, homed in on observations from the police about Holmes' behavior that night. He called attention to the fact that Holmes was so relaxed and disconnected from his surrounding, and that his eyes were dilated.
Holmes' lawyers have signaled they may call witnesses this week to discuss his mental state. Although Holmes has not yet filed a plea, his lawyers have said several times that he is mentally ill. Holmes had seen a psychologist at the University of Colorado at Denver, where he had been a graduate student.
Prosecutors contend that Holmes methodically planned the killings for weeks, buying guns, ammunition and ballistic gear, and purchasing his ticket to the movie 12 days in advance.
On Monday, for the first time, the final placid moments before the shooting came to life in video images captured by the theater's security cameras. As excited teenagers high-fived each other and bought popcorn, Holmes walked into the Century 16 theater, holding the door open for another couple. He dawdled at the popcorn counter for a few moments, and then headed toward the theater.
In the next silent video played by prosecutors, theater employees suddenly craned their heads toward something offscreen. Gunshots. They ducked behind the ticket counter. Frantic moviegoers filled the screen, racing through the front door and into the night.