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Los Angeles Times
AURORA, Colo. — It was less than half an hour into a post-midnight screening of the latest Batman movie,"The Dark Knight Rises,"when a young man opened an emergency exit door and slipped into a packed multiplex theater. He was dressed in dark, head-to-foot body armor, including a helmet, gas mask, vest and throat guard, and he was armed.
"He didn't say anything," said Tayler Trujillo, an 18-year-old moviegoer. "He like kicked the door open with his foot and held it open with his foot, and he threw something and it landed in the row in front of me."
What ensued was several minutes of grisly horror as the intruder, armed with a combat-grade arsenal, set off two gas canisters and sprayed the theater with sustained gunfire. At least 12 people were killed and 58 others injured in a shooting that rekindled memories of the 1999 tragedy at nearby Columbine High School.
Witnesses described the gunman calmly shooting people throughout the theater at the Century 16 complex, seemingly at random, hitting men, women and children in the semidarkness as the movie continued to run behind him. It was a smoky, surrealistic, unimaginable scene, witnesses said, as moviegoers, some in costume for the Batman opening, realized that these bullets were real.
Seconds after the last shots were fired early Friday, police arrested a suspect, James E. Holmes, 24, whose only previous brush with the law appears to be a speeding ticket. Holmes, who was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado Denver's graduate program in neurosciences, left behind a booby-trapped apartment.
The gunman had entered the theater through an emergency exit next to the screen, carrying his guns and canisters, witnesses said. "Everybody thought it was a joke," said DeJonte Harris, 19, who was in the fourth or fifth row.
That ended when the assailant tossed the canisters, which police said contained either smoke or an irritant. Trujillo said the one near him "went off kind of like a firework, and gas filled the room, and right then all you heard was, 'Get down! Get down!'"
"Then he fired a shot in the air," recalled another moviegoer, Tre Freeman, 19. "And that's when all hell broke loose.
"He started shooting anybody and anyone; he just didn't care," said Freeman. "We were just laying on the ground, praying that we weren't about to get shot."
Harris ran past a woman curled up in a fetal position on the floor. He recalled looking back and seeing the gunman. "The last time I saw him, he was in front of the screen," Harris said. "After that, I wasn't trying to see where he was at."
At least one shot went through the wall into the adjoining theater. One person in that theater was wounded.
"I thought it was part of the movie," said Joel Wheelersberg, 27, a youth pastor with Calvary Chapel in Aurora.
In all, 70 people were killed or injured, according to Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates. Ten died at the scene, and two in hospitals, leaving 58 injured, many critically, Oates said. That appeared to make it the largest mass shooting, in terms of the number of people hit by gunfire, in U.S. history. Thirty-two people were killed and 17 injured in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which stands as the highest number of killings in a shooting rampage.
Oates said police seized four weapons and believe three were used in the assault: an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a .40-caliber Glock handgun and a Remington 12-gauge shotgun. A second Glock was found in Holmes' car, the chief said. A Denver gun shop said it had legally sold one handgun and a shotgun to the suspected shooter.
"Background checks, as required by federal law, were properly conducted, and he was approved," said a statement from Bass Pro Shops. Authorities did not publicly identify the source of the AR-15 and the other handgun.
Speaking at a briefing about theater security Friday, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: "It clearly looks like a deranged individual. He has his hair painted red. He said he was the Joker, obviously the enemy of Batman."
Kelly said he learned that information in a conversation with Oates, who used to work for the New York Police Department. Oates acknowledged speaking to Kelly, but would not say whether Holmes had said anything to police.
Police received "hundreds" of 911 calls within moments after the shooting began at 12:39 a.m. The first officers arrived within 90 seconds of the first call, Oates said. Overwhelmed with bloodied victims, officers rushed the injured to hospitals in their patrol cars.
Police in Aurora evacuated five buildings in the vicinity of Holmes' apartment, which Oates said had been booby-trapped with incendiary and chemical devices looped together with wire. A bomb squad entered the apartment Friday but left after noticing a series of trip wires. Authorities worked into the evening trying to figure out how to disarm the trap.
"We simply don't know how we're going to handle that," the chief said.