Before gunfire in Colo., hints of mental distress

James Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 in a shooting rampage in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater on July 20.
James Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 in a shooting rampage in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater on July 20.
Published Aug. 27, 2012

AURORA, Colo. — The text message, sent to another graduate student in early July, was cryptic and worrisome. Had she heard of "dysphoric mania," James Holmes wanted to know?

The psychiatric condition, a form of bipolar disorder, combines the frenetic energy of mania with the agitation, dark thoughts and in some cases paranoid delusions of depression.

She messaged back, asking him if dysphoric mania could be managed with treatment. Holmes replied: "It was," but added that she should stay away from him "because I am bad news."

It was the last she heard from him.

About two weeks later, at a special midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, Holmes stepped through the emergency exit of a sold-out theater in Aurora and opened fire. By the time it was over, there were 12 dead and 58 wounded.

Holmes was arrested outside the theater and charged, but he has remained an enigma, his life and his motives cloaked by two court orders that have imposed a virtual blackout on information in the case and by the silence of the University of Colorado at Denver, where Holmes was until June a graduate student in neuroscience.

Yet as time has passed, a clearer picture has begun to surface. Interviews with more than a dozen people who knew or had contact with Holmes in the months before the attack paint a disturbing portrait of a young man struggling with a severe mental illness who more than once hinted to others that he was losing his footing.

Those who spoke about Holmes to the New York Times did so on the condition of anonymity, citing reasons that included not wanting their privacy invaded by other news organizations.

Those who worked side by side with him said they saw an amiable if intensely shy student with a quick smile and a laconic air. There was no question that he was intelligent, they said.

They said sometime in the spring, he stopped smiling and no longer made jokes during class presentations, his behavior shifting, though the meaning of the changes remained unclear.

Prosecutors said in court filings released last week that Holmes told a fellow student in March that he wanted to kill people "when his life was over."

In May, he showed another student a Glock semiautomatic pistol, saying he had bought it for protection. At one point, his psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, grew concerned enough that she alerted at least one member of the university's threat assessment team that he might be dangerous, an official with knowledge of the investigation said, and asked the campus police to find out if he had a criminal record. He did not. But the official said that nothing Holmes disclosed to Fenton rose to the threshold set by Colorado law to hospitalize someone involuntarily.

Yet Holmes was descending into a realm of darkness. In early June, he did poorly on his oral exams. Professors told him that he should find another career, prosecutors said at a hearing last week. Soon after, he left campus.