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Holmes prepared carefully for Colorado shooting, prosecutors say

James E. Holmes spent months amassing weapons and ammunition and carefully booby-trapped his apartment before the deadly theater shooting in Aurora, prosecutors say.

January 08, 2013|By Jenny Deam and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • James E. Holmes is shown in a courtroom sketch being escorted to his preliminary hearing in Centennial, Colo.
James E. Holmes is shown in a courtroom sketch being escorted to his preliminary… (Bill Robles / Associated…)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — James E. Holmes acted with precision as he amassed weapons and ammunition and set up his apartment with explosive booby-traps to siphon authorities from the deadly shooting rampage he planned at a suburban movie theater, the prosecution alleged Tuesday, the second day of the suspected gunman's preliminary hearing.

The hearing has offered the deepest look at the prosecution's case against Holmes, 25, charged with 166 criminal counts in the July 20 rampage at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Twelve people died and as many as 70 were injured in the attack that shocked the nation.

Prosecutors clarified their strategy in court Tuesday by carefully chronicling what they described as Holmes' months of preparation for the shooting, aiming to portray him as a deliberate and calculating killer. Prosecutors have not indicated whether they would seek the death penalty.

Defense attorneys seized upon Holmes' bizarre behavior during initial police interrogation, presumably to build their case he was mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. Lawyers have indicated they will use an insanity defense if the case goes to trial as expected. Holmes has not yet entered a plea.

Holmes made 16 separate purchases from May to July to acquire his arsenal, said Steven Beggs, a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent. Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, began by buying tear gas canisters on May 10 over the Internet and ended July 14 with his purchase of explosive chemicals from a Denver science supply store, Beggs said.

In all he bought 6,295 rounds of ammunition, two handguns, a shotgun, an assault rifle and a cache of military-style accessories, including ballistic gear, laser sights and holsters, the agent said.

The timeline included the June 7 purchase of a Smith & Wesson semiautomatic assault rifle — the same day Holmes failed a key oral exam at the University of Colorado-Denver. Three days later he began to withdraw from the university, a move prosecutors have previously said indicated the further unraveling of a brilliant and once-promising student.

In an indication of the defense efforts to call Holmes' mental state into question, attorney Tamara Brady cross-examined Beggs of the ATF:

"Is there any process in Colorado to screen out whether a severely mentally ill person is purchasing these items?" she asked about the arsenal and other material used in the attack.

"No," the agent replied.

New details emerged Tuesday about the elaborate trap authorities say Holmes set up at his Aurora apartment. According to testimony from Garrett Gumbinner, an FBI explosives technician who said he interviewed the suspect after his arrest July 20:

Holmes rigged his computer to play loud music to attract attention to his unit. He used a five-foot fishing line as a trip wire from the door to a thermos filled with glycerin. The thermos was rigged to spill into a frying pan filled with other chemicals that would ignite should someone open to his door. He sprinkled ammonia chloride across the carpet, which would cause clouds of smoke "to scare us," Gumbinner testified that Holmes told police. He also soaked the carpet with gasoline and oil and filled jars with homemade napalm.

Holmes told police he rigged explosives to a remote-controlled toy car left outside as a trap, the FBI technician said. The suspect told police he hoped someone would find the car and want to play with the remote, which would detonate the explosives inside his apartment, Gumbinner testified.

"He said he was hoping to send resources to his apartment rather than the theater," he said.

A new twist was revealed Tuesday when police said Holmes had purchased a ticket more than a week in advance of the 12:01 a.m. showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Theater 8. It remains unclear why Holmes, according to authorities, ultimately chose to enter the screening of the same movie in Theater 9. Three people were wounded in the adjacent Theater 8 when bullets went through the wall.

Holmes was apprehended outside the theater by Aurora police, one of whom initially thought he was a heavily armed SWAT team member responding to the emergency call because of his body armor.

One Aurora detective described how police put paper bags over Holmes' hands to protect evidence of gun residue. Holmes played with the bags as though they were puppets, police testified. They have also testified that he had dilated pupils and appeared emotionally detached at the time of his arrest.

The prosecution also sought to show that Holmes was aware of the consequences of his crime. Police testified that he had posted profiles on two online dating sites, both posing the question: "Will you visit me in prison?"

The most chilling testimony of the day came in the morning, when police for the first time played the initial 911 tapes from inside the theater.

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