The everyday guy that everyone knew began changing slowly, bit by bit. James Holmes was smart and a little shy, but not mean or weird — at least not until just weeks ago.
A Phi Beta Kappa, the budding neuroscientist stopped studying and decided to drop out of graduate school. Then, he dyed his brown hair a garish orange. And he started buying guns — four of them.
Now, the 24-year-old Holmes is accused of yesterday’s movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., what authorities describe as one of the bloodiest mass shootings in U.S. history.
Holmes slipped into the midnight premiere showing of the “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest Batman film, and opened fire — aiming at everyone and no one, according to police and witnesses.
“He looked like an assassin ready to go to war,” said Jordan Crofter, who was unhurt in the attack.
Last night, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates refused to speculate on what could have caused Holmes to turn violent, but his decision to transform his looks suggests he wanted to draw connections between himself and Batman’s archenemy, who had red hair in the last film in the series. The California native told officers who captured him that he was “the Joker,” according to New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who was briefed by Oates.
After surrendering, Holmes pointed police toward his apartment, which was booby-trapped with explosives, Oates said. Officers evacuated the building and four others in the area; they are hoping to go inside sometime today.
“It’s not something I’ve ever seen before,” Oates said.
In consoling grief-stricken Colorado residents last night, Gov. John Hickenlooper described Holmes as a “very deranged mind.”
“He is an individual clearly disturbed,” Hickenlooper told reporters.
Those who knew Holmes growing up, though, remember him as just an everyday guy, smart but not that different from anyone else. He grew up in San Diego, in a tile-roofed stucco home in a well-to-do subdivision called Rancho Peñasquitos. Neighbors described Holmes and his parents as quiet and active in their Presbyterian church.
“They’re just a nice, normal, middle-income family, enjoying San Diego,” neighbor John Couris told The Daily. “I wasn’t even aware they had a son, never saw him.”
Classmates described Holmes as smart and somewhat reserved. Dan Kim went to middle school with Holmes and remembers a kid who loaded up on Advanced Placement classes and was tight with just a few equally bright friends.
“He didn’t seem like a troublemaker at all,” Kim, 23, told the Los Angeles Times. “He just seemed like he wanted to get in and out, and go to college.”
Holmes was an athlete as well as an academic, going out at least one year for the cross-country team at Westview High School.
“He was very quiet,” recalled teammate Tori Burton, 24. “He was a nice guy when you did occasionally talk to him. But he was definitely more introverted.”
Holmes enrolled at the University of California at Riverside right after he finished high school in 2006. It was only a 90-minute drive from home. He majored in neuroscience and excelled, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 2010.
“Academically, he was the top of the top,” Timothy White, the university’s chancellor, told the Denver Post.
If Holmes seemed quirky, his dorm mates dismissed his behavior as a consequence of intelligence.
“I thought he was a little weird,” Jessica Cade told San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “But when someone is that smart, it isn’t strange for them to be weird.”
Last year, Holmes enrolled in a graduate-level neuroscience program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, where his behavior grew stranger. When a faculty member heard that one of his students had been involved in a shooting, he immediately suspected Holmes.
The instructor described Holmes as “very quiet, strangely quiet in class,” and “socially off.” Holmes scored badly on his comprehensive exams last semester, the instructor told the Washington Post, and was on the verge of being placed on academic probation.
Holmes, though, acted before the school could, opting to withdraw from the program. The university confirmed Holmes’ status in a terse statement yesterday.
At the same time Holmes was struggling in class, he was amassing weapons. He bought each of the four guns found in his possession yesterday from retailers in the last two months, according to a federal law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Holmes bought a Glock pistol in Aurora on May 22. Six days later, he picked up a Remington shotgun in Denver. About two weeks later, he bought a .223-caliber Smith & Wesson AR-15 assault rifle in Thornton, Colo., and then another Glock in Denver on July 6 — 13 days before the shooting, the official said. A high-volume drum magazine was attached to the rifle, an assault weapon, the official said.
A representative of the Arapaho County Sheriff’s Office declined to say if Holmes holds a concealed weapons permit.
Hours before the shooting, a neighbor saw Holmes outside his apartment building — loading suspicious, oddly shaped packages into his car.
“I saw him put two packages, long boxes, into his car,” said Yi Zhang, 34. “His car was already filled with packages.”
Holmes had no known presence on major online social networks, but according to TMZ.com, a person identifying himself as “James Holmes” from Aurora, Colo., maintained a profile on the dating site Adult Friend Finder and used a photo resembling the orange-haired suspect. On it he described himself as “a nice guy” and “looking for a fling or casual sex” – and admitted that his “male endowment” is “short/average.”
The person last logged into the site three days before the shooting, when he left a message, “Will you visit me in prison?”