Washington, August 1, 2012 – In the early morning hours of July 20, the darkness of one man’s soul ended the lives of twelve people and wounded dozens more in a Colorado theatre. James Eagen Holmes set out on a murderous rampage and left the world searching for answers as to what changed this one time honor student into a mass murderer.
Throughout history, mass murderers have seized the attention of a grieving public looking for signs that could have prevented the loss of innocent human lives. In the case of James Eagen Holmes, examination of his life before coming to Aurora has yielded nothing that would predict the terrible events of that early Friday morning.
Holmes grew up in a middle class San Diego neighborhood and graduated from UC Riverside with a degree in Neuroscience. Friends and neighbors describe him as a “friendly guy” known to them as “Jimmy.” The talkative young man that everyone knew back home got lost somewhere on the way to Colorado, replaced by the disheveled red hair and wide-eyed expressions of the person who called himself the “Joker.”
Holmes had moved to Colorado after being accepted to graduate school in Neuroscience. Shortly after doing poorly on his prelim exams or “orals” given at the end of the first year, Holmes set in motion a plan to spread terror throughout the town of Aurora. That plan involved the mass murder of unsuspecting movie patrons and engineering his apartment into a “death trap,” using homemade explosives that would kill or injure police.
The state court in Colorado has issued a “gag order” that has kept information regarding the case behind closed doors, leaving victims and the public with nothing but heartbreak and unanswered questions. The logjam was broken recently when Holmes’ defense team released information that he had been a patient of Dr. Lynne Fenton, 51, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Colorado, specializing in schizophrenia.
Speculation about the mental state of James Eagen Holmes began immediately due to the coldhearted nature of his crimes and his fascination with the villain called the “Joker” from the “Dark Knight” movies. Charged with 142 criminal counts that include 24 counts of murder, rumors had already surfaced of an insanity defense. Did Holmes suffer a psychotic break exacerbated by substance abuse, or is he in fact a psychopath that “flew under the radar” of authorities until circumstances formed the “perfect storm” that brought this mass murderer into full bloom?
The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study is one of the first comprehensive efforts to look at the correlation between mental health and violence. The results were startling and revealed that “31% of people who had both a substance abuse disorder and a psychiatric disorder (a “dual diagnosis”) committed at least one act of violence in a year, compared with 18% of people with a psychiatric disorder alone.” Research suggests that several factors may greatly enhance the potential for criminal behavior, including exposure to violence or physical abuse as a child. If this factor combines with mental illness, substance abuse and exposure to extreme stress, the results can be explosive. Schizophrenia has been mentioned as a factor in the case of James Eagen Holmes, and according to Fazel S. et al. Archives of General Psychiatry, September 2010, schizophrenics with a substance abuse disorder are three times more likely to commit a violent crime than the rest of the population.
As an undergraduate, I spent a semester working at a “half –way house” for schizophrenics as part of a class project. During periods of lucidity, these patients were as normal as you or I, but in a flash, like someone flipped a switch, they could become agitated and throw a checkerboard across the room. It was heartbreaking at times to see these patients at the mercy of this disorder, and their struggle for sanity showed strength of will that amazed me. In looking at these patients, their potential for violence while properly medicated was low. I could, however, see the potential for that to change if they stopped taking their medication and if other factors such as substance abuse intervened.
The chilling portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the movie “Silence of the Lambs” by Anthony Hopkins has become a frame of reference for many of us in envisioning exactly what constitutes a psychopath. The true picture may be somewhat more difficult to envision. Violent psychopaths are the “Great White Sharks” of the criminal world, swimming through society as they stalk their unsuspecting prey. Although they understand the difference between right and wrong, psychopaths do not think that concept applies to them. The field of mental health has searched for diagnostic tools to better understand disorders such as psychopathy, and with the evolution of those tools, our perceptions have undergone an adjustment.
During the 1970’s, Richard Trenton Chase earned the nickname “The Vampire of Sacramento” for drinking the blood of the people he murdered and cannibalizing their remains. As a child, Chase exhibited worrisome signs of mental instability, and as a young adult was prone to alcohol abuse and heavy drug use that included LSD and marijuana. As a teenager, Chase would trap small animals and remove their organs, eating them raw or mixing them in a blender with Coca-Cola. He told others the mixture was to keep his heart from shrinking. Chase was involuntarily committed to a mental institution in 1975 after it was found he was injecting the blood of rabbits into his veins. While institutionalized, Chase drank the blood of birds and injected the blood of a therapy dog into himself after he took syringes from the trash.
Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Chase was placed on antipsychotics and after improving, was discharged in the care of his mother who immediately began weaning him off his medication. In 1977, Chase was using drugs again and began a series of murders that ended with killing six people. He left perfect handprints at the crime scenes in the blood of his victims making his capture inevitable. He also engaged in cannibalism and necrophilia with many of his victims’ corpses. In his 1979 trial, the jury rejected the insanity defense and found him guilty of six counts of first-degree murder. Chase committed suicide while waiting for the gas chamber by hoarding his antipsychotics and taking them all at once.
Child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. says that not all psychopaths are murderers and that many end up living on the border between two worlds, escaping detection as they dance between sanity and madness. Convicted psychopaths often charm parole boards to earn early release. The classic difference between a psychopath and a normal person is that if you offered both one million dollars to steal a candy bar, both would most likely do so without hesitation. However, if you offered both one million dollars to steal a candy bar, and they had to murder someone in order to do so, a psychopath would act without hesitation while the rest of us would refuse. Elements of psychopathy may be genetic, and overwhelming stress can combine with a psychopathic nature, to cause a reaction that is emotional or just the opposite, coldhearted.
Many children that could be classified as psychopaths are able to escape detection, according to psychologist Paul Frick. In 2007, Frick published a study looking at preschoolers and found that for those who exhibited the early signs of psychopathy, those exposed to consistent parenting “grew” a conscience. According to Frick, under different circumstances these children could be at risk for more “serious outcomes.”
When an individual commits a violent crime and has a previous diagnosis of mental illness, the focus immediately shifts to those professionals who may have treated them. The mental health specialists I have spoken with all agree that it is not always clear what the intent of an individual truly is. Individuals being treated for mental illness say many things in the process of therapy and keep quiet about others. The notebook that James Eagen Holmes allegedly sent to his psychiatrist depicting violence would surely have set off alarms if it had been found before the massacre occurred. There may be instances where a mental health professional misses something in hindsight, but most are quick to take action when imminent violence is suspected.
I am sure that Dr. Lynne Fenton’s conscience will bear the burden of what happened regardless of whether she is found to be negligent. She will probably spend the rest of her life with the faces of the twelve victims staring back at her every time she looks in the mirror.
The mind of James Eagen Holmes is a dark abyss that is a mystery to all of us including Holmes himself. His trial may be up to a year and a half away and a request for change of venue is almost certain. If prosecutors seek the death penalty and Holmes is convicted, it may be twenty years before that sentence is carried out. We must honor the heroes of that night who placed themselves in harm’s way to save a loved one and remember those who were victims of a senseless murder.
If there is one lesson we have learned from this tragedy is that we should all hold our loved ones a little tighter and never miss an opportunity to tell them how much we love them. At times we are harshly reminded of how precious and fragile human life is, and that we need to cherish it even on our worst days.