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COLORADO THEATER SHOOTING

Aurora suspect's profile grows murkier

Brilliant loner? Nice guy? Stubborn near-dropout? A website and a gun range raise further questions.

July 23, 2012|Sam Quinones, Kim Murphy and Joe Mozingo
  • Lead Valley Range, a gun range in Deer Trail, Colo., got a membership application from James Holmes in June. When the owner followed up, he reached a "guttural, rambling, incoherent" message on an answering machine.
Lead Valley Range, a gun range in Deer Trail, Colo., got a membership application… (Kim Murphy / Los Angeles…)

AURORA, COLO. — Three days after the mass shooting at a Batman movie screening in Colorado, the profile of the suspected killer has only become more ambiguous and confounding.

At first, the image of James E. Holmes was of an incredibly smart, hopelessly shy young man who barely spoke -- a loner isolated in a brilliant mind.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 24, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Colorado shooting: In the July 23 Section A, an article about the background of James E. Holmes, suspected of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., said that between high school and college he had an internship with a computer laboratory at the Salk Institute at UC San Diego. The Salk Institute is not affiliated with UC San Diego.

Then people came forward and said, yes, he was quiet, but he had circles of friends with whom he joked around and socialized. He was a counselor at a camp in the hills above Glendale in 2008, and snapshots from camp show him beaming.

"He was a very nice guy. He was very, very smart; a little weird -- kind of like you'd expect a really smart guy to be," said Jessica Cade, 23, who was an undergraduate with Holmes at UC Riverside.

Descriptions of his brilliance, or at least his academic prowess, also did not quite hold up. Holmes, 24, studied neuroscience, but he was dropping out of a doctorate program at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, and some reports suggest it was because he was having troubles with his studies.

A graduate student who oversaw him during an internship at a prestigious computer laboratory at the Salk Institute at UC San Diego scoffed at reports of his extreme intelligence.

"I saw a shy, pretty socially inept person," John Jacobson, who is a doctoral candidate at UC San Diego, said Sunday. "His grades were mediocre. I've heard him described as brilliant. This is extremely inaccurate."

Holmes attended the Salk program between high school and college and performed poorly, Jacobson said. "He shouldn't have gotten into the summer program."

Jacobson said he was taken aback when in a video of a summer-end presentation, Holmes called him his "mentor." "That's almost slanderous," Jacobson said. "I was never his mentor."

Jacobson also said Holmes was enormously stubborn and refused to follow instructions.

He said he set Holmes to work writing computer code for an experiment Jacobson had done involving a game of rock, paper, scissors, in which the computer always beats the human, no matter who goes first.

He said that although he urged Holmes to use one method of programming, Holmes insisted on using another that Jacobson described as vastly more time-consuming and complicated.

"He just refused," said Jacobson. "Finally, I said, 'Do it any way you can.' "

The work never got done. "He never completed the project. What he gave me was a complete mess," Jacobson said.

So one might add "stubborn" to the list of traits in the wispy profile of Holmes -- except students who knew him say they don't particularly recall pronounced stubbornness at all.

"I think he just liked to share his opinions on stuff he really believes in, what's right," said a 26-year-old UC Riverside graduate who was in his lab group in 2008. "There were times he can come off arrogant. He definitely could."

The graduate, who requested anonymity given the delicacy of the situation, said he didn't discuss much about his personal life. "There were times when he would talk about superheroes. He was really into that," she said. "Batman was one of them."

Holmes' apartment in Aurora was decorated with Batman paraphernalia and contained waist-high trip wires attached to more than 30 improvised grenades, a law enforcement official close to the case said Sunday. Nearby were 10 gallons of gasoline "to enhance the thermal effect."

"If the devices -- including the 10 gallons of gasoline -- had gone off, the fireball alone would have blown up and consumed the entire third floor of the apartment building," said the official, who could not speak on the record because the investigation was continuing.

After dismantling the bombs, police recovered a desktop computer in the apartment.

"We're hopeful that will yield some information," Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said on CBS.

The FBI is also among the agencies trying to paint a fuller portrait of Holmes, who is scheduled to make his first court appearance Monday. FBI agents are investigating whether an AdultFriendFinder account opened July 5 under the name James Holmes was his.

The page on the sex site includes a photo that shows a young man resembling Holmes, with hair dyed red. A message on top of the page: "Will you visit me in prison?"

It's known that Holmes amassed an arsenal of weapons. On June 25 he emailed an application to join a gun range in the prairies east of town. When Glenn Rotkovich, who owns the business, reviewed the application, he made a routine telephone call to invite the applicant for a personal orientation, and reached an answering machine.

What he heard was anything but routine, he said.

"It was this very bass, guttural, rambling, incoherent message that was bizarre, at best," Rotkovich said in an interview Sunday. "Freakish, maybe."

The range owner has no idea what the message said, but he did know he probably didn't want Holmes to be shooting at his range.

"I told the staff, 'If this guy shows up, nothing happens till I meet him. I want to see him.' "

Holmes didn't call back. The next time Rotkovich heard that name, it was on television: A man called James Holmes, living at the address listed on the application, had just shot some 70 people in a movie theater, police said.

"My reaction was pretty simple," he said. "Thank you, Lord, that we didn't have to deal with him."

--

sam.quinones@latimes.com

kim.murphy@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Murphy reported from Aurora, and Quinones and Mozingo from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Louis Sahagun in Aurora and Matt Stevens in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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