Illusions Fascinated Colorado Massacre Suspect as Student

Colorado Shooting Suspect James Holmes
Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes, pictured in his 2006 graduation photo from Westview High School in Rancho Penasquitos, California. Source: Westview High School via Bloomberg

When he was 18, before he was awarded a neurosciences research grant from the National Institutes of Health or was accused of killing a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater, James Holmes began studying the workings of biology and psychology.

During science camp at a community college in San Diego six years ago, Holmes focused on temporal illusion, a distortion in perception that he described as “an illusion that allows you to change the past,” according to a video of a presentation released yesterday by ABC News.

Holmes, wearing an oversized collared gray shirt at the Miramar College presentation, said he also studied subjective experience, or “what takes place inside the mind, as opposed to the external world.”

What took place inside Holmes’s mind is the subject of investigations trying to unravel why the 24-year-old graduate student who qualified for a competitive federal grant was transformed into a man police say amassed a cache of arms and ammunition, booby-trapped his apartment with explosives and opened fire on moviegoers, including children.

“We still can’t get into the mind of this twisted, really delusional individual,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday. There’s been no indication so far of motive, “I mean not an iota, nothing,” he said.

Quiet Scientist

In the wake of the July 20 shooting, as the international press descended on the theater and apartment in Aurora, Colorado, and his parents’ neighborhood in San Diego, the image of Holmes that has emerged is one of a quiet loner who excelled in science.

Holmes’s parents live in a two-story home with a Spanish tile roof in Rancho Penasquitos, a San Diego neighborhood 15 miles northeast of downtown. His mother, Arlene, is a nurse. His father, Robert, is senior lead scientist at Fair Isaac Corp., a Minneapolis-based company that developed the FICO credit scoring system, according to his profile on LinkedIn Corp.’s website.

Holmes attended elementary and middle school in Castroville, on the central California coast, according to the Monterey County Herald, citing a former teacher and classmates.

He graduated from Westview High School in San Diego, a school of about 2,400 students in the Poway Unified School District rated on U.S. News & World Report’s best high school list as 40th in California. He played junior varsity soccer his sophomore year, according to a yearbook.

‘Little Nerdy’

High school classmate Breanna Hath, 23, told the New York Times that Holmes had a small group of friends who played video games and were “a little nerdy.”

“He was really shy, really quiet, but really nice and sweet,” Hath said.

Other classmates said they’ve struggled to remember Holmes after seeing his picture on the news.

“Honestly, I just talked to a lot of my friends that I went to school with and no one seems to have known him,” said Justin White, who graduated in 2005, a year ahead of Holmes. “They’re like me, if they see his picture they say that might be someone I used to know, but no one can say for sure.”

Linda Neumann, who at the time Holmes attended was president of a foundation raising funds for the school, said she didn’t remember his family at all.

“We all feel so bad,” she said. “I can’t tell you how strange that is.”

Slurpee Dream

During the presentation at the science camp, a woman introducing Holmes said he enjoyed strategy games, wanted to be a research scientist and dreamed of owning a Slurpee drink machine.

Pursuing his goal to do brain research, Holmes entered the University of California Riverside and earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in neuroscience in 2010, said Timothy P. White, the school’s chancellor.

Holmes, who attended the school on a merit scholarship, had a rigorous major involving the study of chemistry and physics, as well as brain anatomy and physiology, psychology and “how we all behave,” White said July 20 in a press briefing.

“It’s ironic and sad,” he said.

Last year, Holmes was one of a half-dozen students admitted to the neuroscience graduate program on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, which focuses on the workings of the brain with an emphasis “on processing of information, behavior, learning and memory,” according to a statement from the school.

‘Significant Contributions’

Holmes, along with five other students, had his research funded by a National Institutes of Health grant aimed at training “outstanding neuroscientists and academicians who will make significant contributions to neurobiology,” the school said.

Holmes was paid a stipend of $26,000 a year under the grant, said Jacque Montgomery, a university spokeswoman, in an interview yesterday.

Holmes lived in a three-story red brick apartment building near the school in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Neighbors said he kept to himself.

Holmes turned to the Internet to meet women. He created a profile on, a dating and sex chat website, said a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

‘Visit Me?’

His photo showed a man with orange hair who called himself “classicjimbo.” He said he was “looking for a fling or casual sex gal,” according to the Washington Post. In another part of the post, which has since been taken down, he asked: “Will you visit me in prison?”

In June, for reasons he did not specify, he decided to withdraw from his academic program, the University of Colorado said in a statement.

Later that month, he applied for membership at a private gun club 50 miles east of Aurora. Glenn Rotkovich, 65, owner of the Lead Valley Range near Deer Trail, said Holmes submitted an application to join the club, which has a 100-yard-rifle range and charges $150 a year membership fees.

Rotkovich said the application was fine. However, he became wary of Holmes after hearing his voice mail greeting when he called him about arranging orientation July 1.

“It was rambling, incoherent, guttural and bizarre,” Rotkovich said of the greeting in an interview at the gun club. He left three messages for Holmes and never heard back. Rotkovich said he told his staff to be on the look-out.

“If he shows up, don’t let anything happen until I meet with him,” he said he told them.

Buying Guns

Authorities said that Holmes began buying guns in stores in the Aurora region in May, amassing a cache of explosives and ammunition.

Just after 12:30 a.m. on July 20, police say a gunman wearing a helmet and bullet-proof vest opened fire on a sold-out premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Century 16 movie theater at the Aurora Town Center mall.

The man threw tear-gas canisters in the crowd, fired a shotgun with birdshot and then switched to a semi-automatic rifle. When it jammed, he took up a pistol.

Police arrested Holmes in the parking lot. They located four guns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. He told them his apartment was rigged with explosives.

Booby Trapped

For the next day and a half, officials worked to dismantle an elaborately booby-trapped apartment that Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said was designed to kill whoever entered.

Dumpsters and trash bins outside Holmes’s apartment were searched, turning up a shipping label from an Internet ammunition store called, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Over a period of months, Holmes spent about $15,000 on weapons, ammo and equipment, the official said. Surveillance video shows Holmes picking up 150 pounds of ammunition at a FedEx Corp. store in Colorado, the official said. Investigators also say he used his workspace at the University of Colorado medical campus to amass supplies.

Inside the apartment, investigators found a Batman poster, mask and other paraphernalia related to the superhero, the official said.

Holmes is being held at the Arapahoe County jail and is scheduled to be arraigned today in Arapahoe County Court, outside Denver.

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