published Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Defense: Shooting suspect made call before attack

James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people in a shooting rampage in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, appears July 23, 2012, in Arapahoe County District Court with defense attorney Tamara Brady in Centennial, Colo.
James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people in a shooting rampage in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, appears July 23, 2012, in Arapahoe County District Court with defense attorney Tamara Brady in Centennial, Colo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

DENVER — The suspect in the Colorado shooting rampage tried unsuccessfully to call his university psychiatrist 9 minutes before he opened fire during a Batman movie premiere, defense attorneys revealed in court Thursday.

James Holmes placed the call to an after-hours number at a hospital at the University of Colorado, Anschutz campus, where psychiatrist Lynne Fenton could be reached, defense attorney Tamara Brady said.

It wasn’t clear why he called Fenton, and she wasn’t immediately available to talk to him. Holmes, 24, is accused of opening fire during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.

The detail about the call came out during a hearing about his relationship with Fenton, to whom he mailed a package containing a notebook that reportedly contained violent descriptions of an attack.

Prosecutors asked the judge to let them review the notebook as part of their investigation, while defense attorneys argued it was inadmissible because it was protected by doctor-patient privacy laws.

Judge William B. Sylvester ruled that an ongoing doctor-patient relationship did exist between Fenton and Holmes, but he scheduled a Sept. 20 to revisit the notebook issue.

Thursday’s three-and-a-half hearing was the longest yet that Holmes has attended. He appeared to pay close attention to the proceedings and smiled at least once as he leaned over to his attorney. Holmes had a light moustache but was otherwise clean-shaven, and his hair was blond and orange.

Fenton testified that she believed her privileged relationship with Holmes ended the last time she met with him, June 11.

But Brady brought up the call placed by Holmes in an effort to illustrate that the relationship was ongoing. With Fenton on the witness stand, Brady asked: “Do you know that Mr. Holmes called that number 9 minutes before the shooting started?”

Fenton responded, “I did not.”

Prosecutors noted Holmes also had Fenton’s office phone number. He apparently did not try to reach her there.

Meanwhile, the University of Iowa released records showing it rejected Holmes from a graduate neuroscience program last year after he visited campus for an interview and left the program director bluntly warning colleagues: “Do NOT offer admission under any circumstances.”

It was unclear why Holmes’ application was denied, and university officials wouldn’t elaborate. But the application response was yet another window into a complex young man who was viewed as both brilliant and deeply troubled before the July shooting.

Holmes applied to the Iowa program in late 2010 and was given an interview Jan. 28, 2011, according to records released by the university. In his application, he painted himself as a bright student interested in improving himself and helping the world with a career in scientific research.

But two days after Holmes’ interview, neuroscience program director Daniel Tranel wrote a strongly worded email urging the admissions committee not to accept him to the school.

“James Holmes: Do NOT offer admission under any circumstances,” wrote Tranel, a professor of neurology.

Psychology professor Mark Blumberg followed up with a separate email two days later to say he agreed with Tranel about Holmes, one of three students Blumberg interviewed. “Don’t admit,” he wrote. He recommended admission for the other two.

The emails are among 12 pages of records the university released about Holmes in response to public records requests filed by The Associated Press and other news outlets.

None of the documents further explain why Holmes’ application was denied. University spokesman Tom Moore said Thursday that Holmes was academically qualified but officials did not see him as a “good personal fit for our program.” He declined to elaborate.

Blumberg said in an email Thursday that he has no specific recollection of Holmes, noting officials interview many applicants each year. Tranel was not granting interview requests Thursday, a spokesman said.

Francesca Reed, marketing and social media chair of the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals, reviewed the university’s emails for the AP and said it was clear that Holmes left school officials with a very negative impression during the interview. But she noted that could have been the result of anything from his demeanor to his research interests.

“People are going to look at this and start to say, ‘He must have displayed some behavior that was a red flag,” she said of Tranel’s admonition to colleagues about Holmes. “But if this shooting incident didn’t happen, people would look at it differently. Without being on that committee, it’s hard to pass judgment.”

Admissions officials have no obligation to report potentially disturbed behavior from prospective students unless it amounts to a direct threat, said Reed, director of graduate admissions at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.,

Holmes later enrolled as a first-year Ph.D. student in a neuroscience program at the University of Colorado, Denver. He withdrew about six weeks before the attack in Aurora.

His rejection from the Iowa school stands in contrast to his previously released application to a similar program at the University of Illinois, where he was offered admission with free tuition and $22,000 per year but declined to enroll.

Holmes said on his Iowa application that he also was applying to Texas A&M, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama and Colorado. He wrote that he had a thirst for knowledge and wanted to study the “science of learning, cognition and memory.”

“I have always been fascinated by the complexities of a long lost thought seemingly arising out of nowhere into a stream of awareness,” he wrote. “These fascinations likely stemmed from my interest in puzzles and paradoxes as an adolescent and continued through my curiosity in academic research.”

Holmes wrote that he was passionate about neuroscience and would bring “my strong moral upbringing” to the program.

He recalled his childhood in California, where everyone at his school wore white uniforms to curb gang activity.

“Looking back, my life could have gone in a completely different direction had I not possessed the foresight to choose the path of knowledge,” he said.

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