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Colorado gunman's hit rate suggests much practice, officials say

July 24, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano

In the wake of Friday's massacre at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation say the gunman must have had a substantial amount of target practice before the shootings.

They based their assessment on what they call the gunman's “unusually high” hit rate during the attack in the theater. Twelve people were killed, and 58 were injured.

The gunman used -- perhaps most notably -- an AR-15 assault-style rifle with a magazine that could hold as many as 100 rounds. But when that weapon jammed, authorities said, he switched to a less powerful weapon. He also carried a 12-gauge shotgun and a Glock .40-caliber pistol, authorities say.

Police said they recovered a second Glock from the suspect's car.

Among other things, the law enforcement officials said, authorities are searching the suspect's apartment for evidence of a gun range receipt, a brochure, related information he accessed on his computer or phone calls he may have placed to a range.

The officials are being briefed on the local investigation, but did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the developing case.

Such evidence would go to the gunman's state of mind, the officials said, and provide more evidence of premeditation and that he deliberately planned the attack. For the government, investigators said, such evidence would tend to knock down any defense strategy that the suspect is insane.

Or the gunman could have simply gone out to the prairie east of Aurora and practiced alone, much like Tucson shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner did before the attack in Arizona last year.

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One local shooting range owner said the suspect in the Aurora case, James E. Holmes, applied for membership at his club in June. But when the owner, Glenn Rotkovich, called Holmes, he was unnerved by the answering machine message.

"It was this very bass, guttural, rambling, incoherent message that was bizarre, at best," Rotkovich told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. "Freakish, maybe."

Rotkovich ultimately told his staff not to follow through with Holmes without checking with him, but Holmes never showed up. The next time Rotkovich heard his name, it was on television.

Officials monitoring the local investigation in Colorado said the gunman displayed a high degree of marksmanship for an amateur.

They said he first fired the shotgun, which would have sprayed a large area of the theater with buckshot or pellets. Then he fired the semiautomatic AR-15 with the 100-round magazine. When that weapon jammed, he started shooting from the Glock pistol, they said.

Further, the gunman was shooting in a dark theater after midnight and aiming at moving targets, all amid a canopy of thick gas from canisters he'd set off. That environment, when combined with the kick from the shotgun and the Glock, would make firing with much precision all the harder.

To kill 12 people and wound 58 in that kind of chaos would be “unusually high for someone new to this,” one official said.

Officials also theorize that the suspect believed police were being drawn to an explosion at his apartment and that time was on his side.

When he burst out of the back of the theater, he probably had one of several plans in mind, they said. One, retrieve the second Glock from his white Hyundai and return to the theater, or drive off with the Glock and use it should he come under police fire, officials said. Or, as one official said, “turn the gun on himself.”

Instead, police were at the theater within two minutes and arrested the suspect before he reached his car.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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