By Douglas J. Hagmann
It’s been just over a week since a male identified by law enforcement officials as James Eagan Holmes entered a theater in Aurora, Colorado and allegedly killed 12 people and wounded 58 others. By now, nearly everyone with an internet connection, who watched the television news or read a newspaper, has heard or read various accounts of the shooting.
Considering that many initial reports are incorrect and subsequent reports are often subject to multiple revisions, my silence on this incident has been deliberate. As a career investigator, I prefer to perform my own research and conduct my own inquiries for the sake of accuracy. I have also found that in nearly all cases described as “mass shootings,” the facts are fairly straightforward.
Dwelling on or re-reporting the incidents frequently do nothing more than feed various political agendas at the expense of the victims and their families while unnecessarily elevating the historical status of the perpetrator. This case is quite different, however, as there appear to be some very serious questions about many aspects of this event that have yet to be answered.
Critical insight into the first reports can be found within the police communications of the Aurora, Colorado Police Department (police dispatch to cars and officers, communications between cars, officers, and dispatch). The memorialized recordings were painstakingly reviewed and significant portions of the salient communications transcribed by Dr. Randall Strandquist, a licensed forensic Psychologist. Dr. Strandquist, acting as an independent consultant to this investigator, transcribed the recordings and has contributed much to this report. Over the course of his career, he has conducted over 400 forensic evaluations.
It should be noted that this investigator also reviewed the audio radio traffic from the Aurora Police Department, and requested a source from the department to authenticate the radio (audio) communications. According to this source, who would speak only on the condition of complete anonymity, the radio traffic used to compile this report is genuine and was recorded contemporaneously on the night of the shooting.
It was noted that the first communication from dispatch to police units was at 12:39 a.m. (0039) local time. As widely reported, it appeared to take police under two minutes to arrive at the scene, although the first car to arrive appeared to do so at the front of the movie theater. At least one additional police car arrived at the rear of the theater within that same minute, or at 12:41 a.m. (0041). So far, the times match the official narrative we’ve been told.
At 12:43 a.m. (0043), a police officer notifies dispatch that they have the back (east side) of the theater “covered.” At 12:44 a.m. (0044), a police officer notified dispatch as follows: “I need a marked car behind the theater Sable side I’ve got a suspect in a gas mask.” Based on additional research and information obtained from one law enforcement source at the scene, the suspect referenced was James Eagan Holmes, who was at his car and offered no resistance to police.
At 12:45 a.m. (0045), another officer at the scene asks “Is that ‘dude’ in the white car nearby?” At 1246 (0046), only seconds after the question was posed, an officer asks for clarification: “that white car in the lot, is that a suspect? In response, the officer with the suspect at the rear of the theater responds: “yes, we’ve got rifles, gas masks. He’s detained right now and I’ve got open doors to the theater.”
Radio chatter between officers and between officers to dispatch over the next 90 seconds notes the positions of shooting victims in theater 9.
At 12:49 a.m. (0049), an officer states that “one of the shooters might be wearing a white and blue plaid shirt.” Note that this suggests that there might be more than one assailant or perpetrator. At the same time, an officer states “I’ve got a child victim and need a car at the back of theater 9.”
At 12:51 (0051), An officer reports “that [the] suspect [is] saying he’s the only one but I’m getting conflicting descriptions from the witnesses here.”
At 0103, an officer notifies other officers and dispatch that “one of the construction workers said somebody just came booking out of the parking lot, male, red backpack is all, was headed towards Alameda.” Another radio transmission by an officer on-site that immediately follows notes that “we have an report of a male dressed in all black with a black backpack on Blue Southeast.” Although the suspect caught at the rear of the theater has been in police custody for at least 15 minutes if not longer, the report continues:
“Ok, suspect is gonna be male of unknown race, black camo outfit, possibly wearing a vest, gas mask, and has multiple long guns.”
At 0110, another report goes out: “suspect in all black, black tactical mask, black tactical helmet, gas mask, at least one hand gun, possible shot gun, possible long gun.” It is important to note that the description of the attire worn by the suspect(s) at large was broadcast after John Eagan Holmes, was detained. If he was detained while wearing the gear and carrying the guns, why would they be looking for others in that exact attire?
Also, at this time, data is returned on the Colorado license plate reportedly affixed to the vehicle used by suspect Holmes. The address provided to the officers on site did not match the address known to be that of suspect Holmes.
At 0117, an on-site officer states that they need to clear the area so that they can clear the suspect’s car with the bomb unit. One minute later, a patrol officer reports that he is going to the address where the suspect’s vehicle is registered to perform surveillance, perhaps to watch for other possible suspects returning to that location. Again, the address associated with the vehicle does not match the physical address where the fire trucks and bomb squads congregated. It is relevant to note that there was no indication that police were aware that the suspect’s apartment was rigged with explosives, based on this radio transmission.
As many officers work to clear the parking lots (examining the cars for bombs, people hiding, etc.), the nearby mall, and the rest of the theater, some of the officers begin to interview victims who say the shooting. At 0124, an order over the radio was given to “confirm the plate,” and a need to start as quickly as possible, to get suspect descriptions from key witnesses because of initial conflicting information. As the officers get relevant information, they report to dispatch. Twelve minutes later, at 0136, another officer reports “I had another witness say green camouflage pants.”
At 0149, a report from an officer at the scene states that “it’s gonna be a Hyundai Accent, Tennessee plates…directly in front of the doors. Charcoal color, possibly just a thermos, but it’s covered up. Possible secondary device. Registered to an address out of Columbia TN “clear”
At 0155, an officer breaks the temporary radio silence with the following report:
“It sounds like we have possibly two shooters. One that was in theater 8…and one that came in from the outside theater 9. It sounds like it was a coordinated attack.”
Car to car and car to dispatch radio chatter continues. At 0206, it was reported by an officer on site that a “possible secondary device” was found in the “main parking lot.” No further information was offered or mentioned about the nature of this “secondary device.” At 0227, an officer calls for a bomb unit to search the suspect’s car, adding, “pay special attention to the charcoal hatchback,” a reference to the charcoal-colored Hyundai Accent bearing Tennessee plates.
The recording continues through 0400 hours, which consists of normal radio traffic dealing with witnesses and securing the mall area. A reference was made to the exterior door of Macy’s department store, noting that “a perp” might have run into the store.
It is confirmed that the police had James Holmes in custody at the scene almost immediately upon their arrival. Although Holmes reportedly made utterances that he was the “only one,” on-site officers appear not to believe him based on conflicting (and some corroborating) witness accounts, the report from a construction worker seeing an unidentified subject fleeing the area “bolting,” and the starkly different descriptions of attire of the suspect(s) observed by witnesses.
Another notable observation, or significant omission, is the lack of any mention that the suspect’s apartment was rigged with explosives. It has been publicly reported that the suspect warned officers early during his custody at the scene. Despite this alleged warning, note that an officer departs the crime scene at 0117, destined for the suspect’s residence (although to a notably different address), likely to watch for other possible suspects returning to that location.
Clearly, radio communications from officers at the scene strongly indicate that the responding police officers believed that more than one suspect was involved based on their observations at the scene and in spite of the utterances of the suspect. The possibility that more than one person was involved is later supported by the presence of other duplicate equipment, including a second gas mask found at the NE corner of the theater complex—approximately 25 parking slots away from the alleged shooter’s vehicle.
Although it is normal for first reports to be incorrect or due to the chaos and conflicting eyewitness accounts, it is obvious that the radio traffic identifies two separate vehicles, at least two distinctly different individuals or suspects, and more equipment than carried by a single suspect.
During police custody, the suspect Holmes did not appear to present any threat to police, who were able to converse with him in a normal manner. They did not transmit any communications that would suggest that he was acting aggressively, was overtly threatening or “insane.”
Holmes was reportedly “captured” by police at his vehicle, although he made no attempts to escape nor was he aggressive or threatening to police. He was identified by his attire and possession of weapons, or weapons near his person, and was not identified by witnesses to the extent the surviving witnesses saw his face or even the bright color of his dyed hair.
It is relevant to insert here that throughout history, most of the perpetrators in “active shooter scenarios” has either been killed by police or killed themselves. For example, the August 1, 1966 shooting rampage by Charles Whitman, who killed a total of 14 people and wounded 32 others at and near the University of Texas when he began shooting people from the university’s tower was shot on the scene by police.
The mass shooting at the McDonald’s restaurant on July 18, 1984, nearly 28 years to the day from the Aurora shooting, left 21 people, including 5 young children, dead and 19 others injured. The shooter, identified as James Huberty, was shot by police inside the restaurant.
There are many other such instances, yet there are exceptions as well. Notable examples include Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of the shooting death of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, to Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter who killed 6 people (including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll) and wounded another 14 (including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords) in January, 2011.
Dr. Randall Strandquist, a licensed forensic psychologist, offered interesting analysis and commentary about the behavior of suspect James Holmes.
The public has many questions about James Holmes: Was he wasted on drugs? Was/is he crazy, like schizophrenia? Is he/has he been faking mental illness? Not having the ability to evaluate James Holmes or review police reports I can only offer my opinion based on the data available and my experience. There are no data from police communications available that indicate James Holmes appeared wasted or crazy when initially detained. The communications indicate that the commanding officer wanted to make sure that he was detained, indicating that he likely did not appear as the shooter (decked out in body armor, touting guns).
One of the detaining officers reported that James Holmes claimed he was alone (which may or may not have been true) but the officer did not believe him, based on reports from eyewitnesses describing the shooter. The fact that the officer’s inclination is to believe James Holmes is lying gives us information about James Holmes’ presentation at the time. James Holmes appeared to have the cognitive ability to communicate sufficiently and respond accurately to the detaining officer’s questions. The officer appears to find no indication of cognitive impairment and that James Holmes understands the questions asked of him. Again, these are my conjectures, based on limited information and lack thereof.
The next report we get, as far as I know, is the jailers reporting that he is acting incoherent manner, flopping in his cell, spitting everywhere, and talking about the Batman movie. They said they forced him to wear a spit mask, for the protection of the correctional officers (or anyone else) interacting with him. There were reports that he initially told officers he was “The Joker” but it appears that his condition had significantly decompensated from the time he was initially detained.
The first time we see James Holmes (other than a college photo and the mug shot) was in the courtroom, this is presentation number three. (I find it interesting that, considering the theater had cameras in the front, the interior and the back of the facility, we still have seen no film of James Holmes’ entrance or his detainment). When I saw his demeanor and facial expressions, my first thought was, “This guy’s mind is wasted.” His demeanor and expressions appear inconsistent with an individual with whom you would be able to have productive communication. I have no information to even conjecture as to the reason for his presentation on that day. I will say that if he were faking, he’s pretty sophisticated. Typically, individuals who are faking mental illness go for the typical Hollywood presentation. For example, sudden jerks of the head and laughing, as if they’re hearing voices or seeing things. That was not what I saw.
Presentation number four is that James Holmes is reportedly coherent, complaining about the food and reporting that he has no memory for the incidents which led to his arrest. In cases where malingering is considered, amnesia is an unsophisticated attempt in pursuit of being acquitted of charges based on a mental illness. There are no reports of a continued need for a spit mask and no reports of him thinking he is acting out a part in a movie.
Four different presentations within a short period of time is atypical of a malingerer. Typically the individual will claim to have certain symptoms and stick with that. They may increase the intensity of the symptoms or add more on, if they think that the evaluator isn’t buying the “crazy card” they’re trying to play. In this case, James Holmes appears to go from relatively cognizant, to incoherent, to coherent. Not a typical pattern of an individual facing the death penalty and trying to get off as insane.
It would be my opinion, with the limited data I have, that this presentation would be more consistent with someone coming off of mind-altering drugs, than someone trying to fake a mental illness. I will conclude by stating that these are only conjectures based on limited data, and all possible causes considered (including some not mentioned) are possible.