Aurora massacre suspect James Holmes was ‘very, very relaxed’ before theater rampage: officer

Posted at 4:22 PM, Jan 07, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-07 18:32:32-05

CENTENNIAL, COLORADO (CNN) — Colorado movie theater shooting suspect James Holmes seemed “very, very relaxed” in the moments after the shooting rampage that left 12 people dead, the first police officer to encounter him testified Monday at the 25-year-old’s preliminary hearing.

Holmes, his pupils dilated, sweating and smelly, didn’t struggle or even tense his muscles as he was dragged away to be searched, Aurora police Officer Jason Obiatt said.

“He seemed very detached from it all,” Obiatt testified, describing Holmes as unnaturally calm amid the chaos and carnage.

Holmes appeared expressionless during the hearing and did not speak. His bushy hair and long beard contrasted with the bright red hair and close-cropped looks he sported during previous appearances.

James Holmes

James Holmes

Security was tight at the hearing. Spectators had to pass through a metal detector and then were searched again before entering the courtroom. At least nine armed officers stood guard inside, some of them scanning the audience packed with reporters and victims’ family members.

Holmes is charged with 166 counts, including murder, attempted murder and weapons offenses tied to the July 20 rampage at a midnight showing of “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora.

At the preliminary hearing — designed to show a judge that the state has enough evidence to proceed to trial — prosecutors are expected to call scores of witnesses and outline their evidence in the case. The hearing could go on for days.

Holmes’ attorneys, meanwhile, are expected to argue that he has “diminished capacity,” a term that, according to the Colorado Bar Association, relates to a person’s ability or inability “to make adequately considered decisions” regarding his or her legal representation because of “mental impairment or for some other reason.”

After the hearing, Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester will determine whether there is enough evidence for Holmes to stand trial.

A gag order imposed by Sylvester has limited the flow of information about the attack. However, a source said Holmes allegedly went out a rear exit door, propped it open and gathered his weapons. He then returned to the theater and tossed a canister inside before opening fire, the source said.

Screaming moviegoers scrambled to escape from the gunman, who shot at random as he walked up the theater’s steps, according to witnesses.

It was a scene “straight out of a horror film,” said Chris Ramos, who was inside the theater.

Obiatt testified Monday that within minutes of the first calls, he responded to the theater and found Holmes standing outside in a helmet and gas mask, his hands atop a white coupe that turned out to belong to him.

At first, Obiatt said, he thought Holmes was a police officer, but as he drew within 20 feet, he realized something was terribly wrong.

“He was just standing there. All the other officers were running around, trying to get into the theater,” Obiatt said.

A trail of blood led from the theater. The rifle that authorities believe Holmes used in the attack lay on the ground near the building.

Holmes calmly complied with all of Obiatt’s orders, the officer testified.

Another officer, Aaron Blue, testified later that Holmes matter-of-factly told him, without prompting, about the complex web of explosives that authorities would later find in his Aurora apartment.

He told Blue that the devices “wouldn’t go off unless we set them off.”

Neither of the officers whose testimony opened the hearing offered insight on the question that so many want answered: What motivated Holmes to stage the attack? It’s unclear if such answers might come later in the hearing.

Holmes was a doctoral student in the neuroscience program at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado, Denver, in Aurora, until he withdrew a month before being arrested outside the bullet-riddled movie theater. He had been a patient of a University of Colorado psychiatrist, according to a court document filed by his lawyers.

His only brush with the law in Colorado appears to have been a 2011 summons for speeding from Aurora police.

If Holmes is ruled incompetent to stand trial, the hearing could provide the best opportunity for victims and the public to understand what happened, and why.

To at least one victim, it doesn’t matter if Holmes stands trial.

“I obviously don’t want him to walk, but as long as he doesn’t see the light of day again, it doesn’t really much concern me beyond that,” said Stephen Barton, who suffered wounds on his face, neck and upper torso in the shooting that night. “To me, I see the trial as being an opportunity to learn more about what happened that night beyond just my own personal recollection.”