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Theater shooting suspect a mystery despite intriguing details

James Holmes' booby-trapped apartment in Aurora, Colo., is defused as officials search for a possible motive.

July 21, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Matt Stevens and Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Bomb disposal experts lower an explosive device into James Holmes’ apartment to destroy part of the booby traps found inside.
Bomb disposal experts lower an explosive device into James Holmes’… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

AURORA, Colo. — The robot snaked methodically through the apartment, creeping past wires, bottles, fuses and volatile shells. One day after a mass shooting claimed 12 lives, bomb technicians used the remote-control device to disarm and preserve dangerous evidence that might help explain — and convict — the enigma at the center of an explosion of violence.

The portrait that continued to emerge of shooting suspect James E. Holmes on Saturday, that of a highly intelligent, troubled young man who had just quit a prestigious doctorate program, did little to answer the essential question: What could possibly motivate someone with such promise — or anyone — to shoot dozens of strangers and leave behind an apartment that was apparently programmed to kill.

"Make no mistake, this apartment was designed … to kill whoever entered it," said a shaken Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, describing the booby traps Holmes apparently left behind. Whoever entered the apartment, Oates said, "was going to be a police officer ... and if you think we're angry, we sure as hell are angry [over] what has happened to this city, what has happened to these people here and what he intended to do to our police officers."

PHOTOS: 'Dark Knight Rises' shooting

Another law enforcement official familiar with the investigation, however, said police were looking into whether the apartment may have been booby-trapped not primarily to kill police officers, but rather to distract police.

"It's a working theory," said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

Police say Holmes dressed in full body armor, entered a movie theater during a post-midnight showing of the new Batman movie"The Dark Knight Rises,"and opened fire with a handgun, a shotgun and a semiautomatic military-style rifle. The carnage early Friday left 12 people dead and 58 injured, almost all of them by gunshots. Some were shot multiple times.

Arapahoe County Undersheriff David Walcher said Holmes was booked into jail on suspicion of first-degree murder and is scheduled to appear in Arapahoe County Court on Monday. Walcher declined to comment on how Holmes is being housed or his demeanor since he has been in custody.

WHO THEY WERE: Aurora movie theater victims

By late afternoon Saturday, police had publicly identified all 12 of the victims who died, including a 6-year-old girl, a mother of two small children, and several people who died trying to protect family members or friends.

President Obama was expected to travel to Colorado on Sunday to visit with families of the victims. As the city mourned, a makeshift memorial emerged across the street from the Century 16 theater complex, and hundreds of people — mainly students grieving over the killing of recent graduate Alexander Boik — gathered at the Gateway High School football field to pray and console one another.

Throughout the day, a massive team of local, state and federal law enforcement officials fanned out on a hunt for evidence. Authorities repeatedly emphasized that they didn't want to divulge sensitive information that could be used against the suspect.

The center of the investigation Saturday was Holmes' 800-square-foot apartment in a modest building alongside a busy road in Aurora, a large Denver suburb. Authorities described the painstaking process of inspecting the apartment, using a robot to defuse and preserve highly volatile devices. Authorities presumably want to retain intact evidence, including not only any bomb mechanisms but also any computers or papers that might shed light on a motive.

TIMELINE: Mass shootings in the U.S.

James Yacone, an FBI special agent in charge of the Colorado and Wyoming region, described the operation at a news conference, saying the robot and other tools were used "to render safe multiple booby traps and improvised explosive and/or incendiary devices."

The robot's first job, he said, was to dismantle a trip wire across the front door. "Once we got rid of that first booby trap ... we then had to neutralize a hyperbolic mixture" — apparently a fuel.

A key objective was to neutralize about 30 commercial aerial explosives, similar to the type used for high-altitude fireworks displays. One law enforcement officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the shells had been emptied of their original explosive material and refilled with "black powder and other substances, transforming them into explosive grenades."

At least one threat was eliminated through a controlled explosion, and a loud bang could be heard outside. By late afternoon, police said they had finished defusing the apartment and lifted an evacuation order for four nearby buildings.

An explosive ordnance disposal expert wearing a Kevlar vest and helmet with face shield could be seen in front of the apartment building, standing in the back of an Aurora city dump truck and using a shovel to bury confiscated materials in sand.

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