By: Gary Straus
Some family members of the shooting victims will attend the five-day hearing, where prosecutors will present evidence in the hopes of putting James Holmes on trial.
CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Police officers who arrested James Holmes after a shooting massacre that left 12 people dead testified Monday that they found Holmes outside the movie theater standing with his hands resting on top of his car and that he was “completely compliant” when told to surrender.
Aurora Police Officer Jason Oviatt said in the preliminary hearing that he at first thought Holmes was a fellow officer because he was dressed in full body armor and wore a gas mask and helmet.
“He was just standing there not doing anything, not urgent about anything,” Oviatt testified as Holmes, dressed in a red jump suit with a full beard and dark, brown hair, sat passively next to his defense team — occasionally looking at the two officers during their testimony.
Prosecutors on Monday began laying out their case against the accused mass murderer at a five-day preliminary hearing at Arapahoe County District Court here. The hearing is expected to include the first extensive public disclosure of details of the attack.
Holmes, 24, faces 166 counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder in the July 20 shooting spree at a suburban Denver movie theater in Aurora that left 12 people dead and 58 wounded. The preliminary hearing will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to put Holmes on trial.
Oviatt on Monday testified that he ordered Holmes on to the ground, handcuffed him and then dragged him a few feet away from the white sedan so he could safely search him for weapons.
Holmes, he said, didn’t resist “not in the slightest. He was completely compliant.”
As he was dragging Holmes a handgun magazine fell out of his pocket. He also found a knife in his belt and another knife in his pocket.
Aaron Blue, a fellow officer, testified that he took out a knife and cut away Holmes’ protective gear to search for any other weapons. Blue said he asked Holmes if he had any explosives and Holmes told him that he had improvised devices at his house that would go off if they were triggered.
Blue described a scene of mayhem, with victims fleeing the theater as he tried to maneuver his police car to the rear of the theater.
He said once they got Holmes into the back of a police car he became fidgety, was sweating profusely and reeked of body odor.
A third officer, Justin Grizzle, described in emotional detail transporting six shooting victims to the hospital on four separate trips.
“There was so much blood,” he said. “I could hear it sloshing around in the back of my car.”
One of victims was Caleb Medley, who was shot in the head. Grizzle, using profanity, implored the budding stand-up comic not to die on the way to the hospital. She later died.
The shooting is among the largest mass shootings in U.S. history but has been overshadowed by a series of attacks capped by the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month of 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and six school employees. And Saturday morning, just 4 miles from the mall where the July shooting spree took place, four people were killed, including the suspected gunman, after a six-hour standoff at a townhome.
Monday’s proceedings are drawing intense interest. Court officials are bracing for an onslaught of onlookers, anti-gun activists and news media.
A court-imposed gag order has kept much of the case under wraps, preventing prosecutors, police and officials at the University of Colorado, where Holmes had been a student, from discussing it. Court filings made public last week suggest the case against Holmes will be mapped out through charts, myriad witnesses, video and other evidence. Holmes’ court-appointed attorneys have subpoenaed two unnamed witnesses who were not at the theater, according to court records. Presiding Judge William Sylvester is permitting prosecutors and the defense two “advisory witnesses,” according to court filings.
At a midnight showing of the Batman movie The Dark Knight, a gunman entered the packed theater, launched a smoke grenade and then began firing dozens of shots into the crowd. Holmes was arrested outside the theater by Aurora police, who found him in riot gear, armed with an assault-style rifle with a 100-round magazine, a pump-action shotgun and a semi-automatic pistol. A fourth gun was found in his car. In the weeks leading up to the shootings, police say, Holmes used the Internet to stockpile weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and acquire improvised explosive devices that he rigged to explode in his apartment.
Holmes’ lawyers have suggested in prior court hearings that their client, who dropped out of the University of Colorado’s neuroscience doctoral program after failing an oral exam in June, suffers from mental illness, a strategy that suggests an insanity defense. At earlier hearings, Lynne Fenton, a university psychiatrist, said she had treated Holmes more than a month before the shootings but had no contact with him after June 11, when she reported concerns to campus police.
Some family members of victims will attend the hearings, in the main courtroom or in a private room that normally holds juries. For others, the hearing — and other mass shootings — are too painful reminders of loved ones lost.
San Antonio resident Sandy Phillips’s 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was among those killed in the Aurora theater. On the morning of the Newtown massacre, Sandy and Jessica’s stepfather, Lonnie, were boarding a plane for Denver to accept an honorary degree on Jessica’s behalf from Metropolitan State University, where she had been studying to pursue a career as a sportscaster.
“We were shaking and sobbing and crying in the back of the plane,” Sandy Phillips says. “You go right back to the day you lost your loved one. It takes you back to your own grief and doubles it.”
She won’t be at this week’s hearing. “I’m not strong enough to go through this right now,” she says. “It’s much too hard.”
Jerri Jackson, whose 27-year-old son, Matt McQuinn, was killed as he shielded girlfriend Samantha Yowler, won’t attend, either. “I know it’s part of the process — but I can’t do it. I do think there is enough evidence to put him on trial.”