Washington, July 21, 2012 — In the early morning hours of Friday, July 20 the town of Aurora, Colorado, became the epicenter of heartbreak as a murderous rampage left twelve dead and fifty-eight injured.
Life horrifically changed for the small town as 24 year old James Eagan Holmes, a former Ph.D. student in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Denver, joined the ranks of mass murderers.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a mass murder as four or more murders committed by an offender or offenders, without a cooling-off period. James E. Holmes has placed himself on the list with some of the most notorious mass murderers history has ever chronicled.
-In 1949, 28 year old Howard Barton Unruh perpetrated the first single-episode mass murderer in U.S. history killing 13 people. His murderous rampage became known as the “Walk of Death,” and in twelve minutes he killed 13 people and wounded several others using a German made pistol. Howard Barton Unruh was committed to an asylum after being found criminally insane. He died in 2009 due to illness at the age of 88.
– In 1958, Charles Raymond Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate murdered 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming by shooting, strangling and stabbing them. Charles Raymond Starkweather received the death penalty for his crimes and was executed at the age of 20 in 1959. His girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate became the youngest female to be tried for first-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
– In 2009, the Binghamton shootings claimed the lives of 14 people with four wounded. Jiverly Antares Wong, aged 41, barricaded the back door to the Binghamton American Civic Association building in New York with his father’s car. Wearing a bulletproof vest and dark sunglasses Wong entered the building and began shooting people with a 9mm pistol. After law enforcement and a SWAT Team responded to the 911 call of an employee, Wong took his own life in a first floor classroom with his victims.
Now Holmes has added at least 12 innocents to the roll call of those killed during an inexplicable rampage of rage.
Some things we know. Holmes had moved to Colorado from San Diego where he lived in a middle class neighborhood with his parents to continue his schooling. Reports are that he had recently begun separating from the Ph.D. program, already returning his building access cards.
Holmes has been described as a loner and highly intelligent.
Entering theatre nine of the Aurora Century 16 movie theater, where a full house was watching the opening moments of the much anticipated film, “The Dark Knight Rises,” Holmes’ intent was deadly. Clad in bulletproof tactical gear and wearing a gas mask, Holmes, armed with multiple weapons and ammunition, entered through an exit door.
The bullet-proof gear Holmes employed is reminiscent of the opening scene for the 2003 film “SWAT” starring Samuel L. Jackson, which was loosely based on a 1997 North Hollywood shootout.
After firing a shot into the ceiling, Holmes tossed an improvised tear gas canister into the confused crowd, opening fire on the unsuspecting movie goers. At first, many in the theatre thought Holmes was a part of the entertainment, quickly realizing the horrible truth as hot bullet casing rained down and people fell bleeding to the ground.
Within a few minutes, 12 were dead, 59 wounded, and those who could lay still as if dead or scrambled toward safety.
As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, I will tell you that these circumstances would challenge the decision-making ability of a combat veteran. The heroic actions of those who shielded loved ones from harm at the cost of serious injury or the sacrifice of their own lives can never be forgotten, and we must never let the perpetrator of this tragedy overshadow their acts of bravery.
The story of this calamity grew even worse as police discovered that Holmes’ apartment was booby-trapped with explosives tied to accelerants, all rigged to wreak a firestorm of death on any first responders.
While law enforcement officials are struggling to find methods to safely defuse the explosives in the elaborate “death trap” Holmes created, the community of Aurora and the world are searching for answers as to how. How could this happen? They also grapple with the questions of hindsight and how Holmes could have been stopped, if only.
All the while, the truth of what happened has been nothing less than elusive.
Preliminary investigations by law enforcement have yielded no “red flags” to foreshadow the bloody rampage. In the Columbine shootings, examination of the facts yielded a pattern that caused major revisions in both law enforcement and public school policies.
So far Holmes’ prior contacts with law enforcement consist only of a speeding ticket, and interviews with family, friends and neighbors indicate no pattern of abnormal behavior.
As a society we desperately want answers about how a tragedy such as this could happen and how to stop it from ever happening again. The reality may be that we never fully understand the mind of James E. Holmes and the darkness that consumed it.
We can further limit access to firearms and explosive materials, but in many cases the onset of mental instability may be triggered by the chaos of overwhelming circumstances and be entirely unpredictable.
There are other ways to kill than with legally purchased firearms.
Having worked in the life sciences field for many years, I have seen the stress that graduate school can impose. Neuroscience is one of the most demanding fields for a graduate student to enter, and the program at the University of Colorado is one of the best in the country. I have known several people who earned their Ph.Ds from programs at the same university, and they were among the best trained I have ever encountered.
But problems can arise when a Ph.D. candidate is at odds with his supervising professor, and in some cases it has ended the career of many aspiring scholars.
There may also have been factors in Holmes’ personal life that combined with stress to cause a psychotic break. To be clear, this in no way attempts to provide an excuse for any actions that cause harm to others, but is rather an attempt to understand how someone can “fly under the radar” of so many people only to suddenly “snap.”
Millions of people have undiagnosed conditions that are precursors to mentally unstable behavior. There is no sure way to know just what goes on within the human mind. The idealistic environment of the undergraduate sometimes leads to culture shock when the realities of a graduate education are finally embraced.
I have seen both a suicide and a murder occur in response to the stress of graduate school. The suicide occurred as a result of the high expectations of family members and the feelings of disappointment the individual experienced when those expectations were not met. There were no signs that suicide was a possibility before he took his own life.
The murder occurred when the graduate student in question was “made an example of” and not awarded a Ph.D. after his seven years of work deviated from the plan approved by his graduate committee. He devised a plan that resulted in the murder of one of his committee members.
Neither of these individuals raised any red flags during the entirety of their academic careers, and in examining their behavior only in hindsight can we find the subtle indicators of a path that led to tragedy.
The cause of Holmes’ rampage may be indeed be reminiscent of another famous mass murderer, Charles Whitman, who killed fourteen people and wounded thirty-eight. Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas on August 2,1966 armed with a high-powered rifle and began shooting at any person who came into view. As a young man, Whitman had been a model student and had been labeled as exceptionally bright, even becoming an eagle scout. In fifteen months he earned a total of twenty-one merit badges.
Whitman enlisted in the United States Marine Corps following high school, and it was then his behavior changed. He became overly aggressive toward fellow Marines and was eventually court martialed.
Despite his troubles he eventually earned a scholarship to the University of Texas, and then everything began to fall apart. He began having terrible headaches and consumed large quantities of aspirin.
On the day before his murderous rampage Whitman wrote himself a note stating he could not control his own behavior. He then paid a visit to his mother, and beat, strangled and stabbed her to death, crushing the back of her skull. Whitman left a note on his mother’s body admitting to his crime while professing how much he loved the woman he had just murdered.
Neighbors described hearing Whitman crying after his mothers murder and described it as sounding like a child. They thought it was odd because there were no children in the building. Whitman then returned home to murder his wife by stabbing her in the chest with a large hunting knife, again leaving a note declaring his love for his wife and asking for a good home for his dog.
Whitman was shot and killed by police on August 2, 1966, as they stormed the tower on the University of Texas campus. An autopsy done on Whitman found a large glioblastoma, a highly aggressive brain tumor. A commission determined the tumor, along with the abuse of amphetamines, contributed to his actions.
Some people just turn their backs on life and surrender to the darkness inside, leaving the world forever confused as to their motives. In the case of Holmes, we may never know what drove a man everyone has described as a “normal guy” over the edge.
Holmes, however, survived and is in custody. So there may be some answers found, though at the end of it all we are still going to be left wondering why the lives of twelve people were lost to Holme’s senseless violence.
The names of Holmes’ victims will be forever etched on our minds as will the face of evil that descended upon theatre nine as the darkness of one man’s heart swept across the depths of our humanity.