AURORA | The community and the world are reeling after a gunman wearing a gas mask and body armor opened fire in a crowded Aurora movie theater with an assault rifle, shotgun and pistol during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” movie early Friday, killing at least 12 people and injuring 59 more.
The suspect, James Holmes, 24, a local graduate student, was arrested after the shooting in the parking lot of the Century 16 Theater at East Alameda Avenue and South Sable Boulevard.
Police on Friday night began contacting families of known dead victims.
The deceased victims included 23-year-old Micayla Medek, said Anita Busch, the cousin of Medek’s father. The family took the news hard, but knowing her fate after waiting without word brought them some peace, Busch said.
“I hope this evil act, that this evil man doesn’t shake people’s faith in God,” she said.
Besides Medek, relatives confirmed that Alex Sullivan and Jessica Ghawi were among those killed, Sullivan on his 27th birthday.
According to Aurora police, at 12:39 a.m. numerous people called 911 to report a shooting at the theater near Town center at Aurora Mall. Witnesses said the suspect was wearing a gas mask and threw some type of gas or explosive device and started shooting.
In an afternoon press conference, Aurora police Chief Dan Oates said the suspect was wearing a ballistic vest, leg guards, neck guard, groin guard, helmet and gloves during the shooting.
When the smoke began to spread in the theater, some moviegoers thought it was a stunt that was part of the “The Dark Knight Rises,” one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer. They saw a silhouette of a person in the haze near the screen, pointing a gun at the crowd and then shooting.
“There were bullet (casings) just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead,” Jennifer Seeger said, adding that the gunman, dressed like a SWAT team member, fired steadily, stopping only to reload.
“Every few seconds it was just: Boom, boom, boom,” she said. “He would reload and shoot and anyone who would try to leave would just get killed.”
Oates said the suspect surrendered without a fight after police confronted behind the theater a short time after the shooting.
Exactly how long the shooting lasted is unclear. Oates said officers were on-scene in less than 90 seconds after the shots were first reported.
Oates said the shooter used an AR-15 assault rifle, 12-gauge shotgun and at least one .40-caliber pistol. Police found two .40 caliber pistols, but investigators aren’t yet sure if the shooter used just one or both during the rampage.
Holmes was studying neuroscience in a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado-Denver, university spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery said. Holmes enrolled a year ago and was in the process of withdrawing at the time of the shootings, Montgomery said.
At least 24 people were being treated at Aurora-area hospitals, some of them for chemical exposure apparently related to canisters thrown by the gunman. Some of those hurt were children, including a 4-month-old baby, who was treated a hospital and released.
Police released a statement from Holmes’ family: “Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved.”
Darius Harvey, 18, was watching the movie with several friends from nearby Gateway High School when the shooting happened.
Harvey said he saw the gas canister and heard the noises, but wasn’t sure what to make of it at first.
“I thought it was just a stink bomb and someone was playing games,” he said. “Then the chaos started happening and I realized the seriousness.”
Harvey said theater, No. 9, where the shooting happened as well as two nearby screens showing the blockbuster superhero flick, were packed with young people, many from Gateway.
One of his friends was struck in the leg, Harvey said, but is expected to survived. Another friend in an adjacent theater was struck in the neck with shrapnel that came through the wall, Harvey said.
Authorities gave no motive for the attack. The FBI said there was no indication of ties to any terrorist groups.
Holmes had an assault rifle, a shotgun and two pistols, a federal law enforcement official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was still unfolding.
FBI agents and police used a hook and ladder fire truck to reach Holmes’ apartment in Aurora, Oates said. They put a camera at the end of a 12-foot pole inside the apartment and discovered the unit was booby-trapped. Authorities evacuated five buildings as they tried to figure how to disarm the flammable and explosive material.
Investigators believe the apartment at 1690 Paris St., unit No. 10, is booby-trapped with incendiary and chemical devices, Oates said, but investigators aren’t exactly sure what the devices are.
“We are not sure what we are dealing with in the home,” Oates said.
The three-story apartment building is on the southwest corner of Paris Street and East 18th Avenue, just across the street from Paris elementary School.
Neighbors who live near the suspect’s apartment woke up Friday to bomb squads, SWAT Teams and firefighters in the area.
Hannah Helland, 30, lives across the street from the suspect’s apartment and said when she headed to work around 3:45 a.m. several police officers and K-9 units were in the area. Helland said he wasn’t sure why police were there and didn’t connect it to the theater shootings until she returned several hours later.
“This isn’t the best neighborhood, so when I saw police I didn’t think about it,” she said
By the time she returned home around 6 a.m., bomb squads from Denver and Arapahoe County were in the area and several blocks were cordoned off with police tape.
Helland said she had never heard of James Holmes, the man police say opened fire at the movie theater. But she said she was interested to see if she recognized him once his picture is released.
“I’m curious to see if it is someone I saw around the neighborhood,” she said.
The movie opened across the world Friday with midnight showings in the U.S. The shooting prompted officials to cancel the red-carpet premiere in Paris, with workers pulling down the display at a theater on the Champs-Elysees. Around the U.S., police and some movie theaters stepped up security for daytime showings of the movie, though many fans waiting in line said they were not worried about their safety.
President Barack Obama said he was saddened by the “horrific and tragic shooting,” pledging that his administration was “committed to bringing whoever was responsible to justice, ensuring the safety of our people, and caring for those who have been wounded.”
It was the worst mass shooting in the U.S. since the Nov. 5, 2009, attack at Fort Hood, Texas. An Army psychiatrist was charged with killing 13 soldiers and civilians and wounding more than two dozen others.
In Colorado, it was the deadliest since the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, when two students opened fire in the Denver suburb of Littleton, killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves. Columbine High is about 12 miles from the theater.
Friday’s attack began shortly after midnight at the multiplex theater.
The film has several scenes of public mayhem — a hallmark of superhero movies. In one scene, the main villain Bane leads an attack on the stock exchange and, in another, leads a shooting and bombing rampage on a packed football stadium.
The gunman released a gas that smelled like pepper spray from a green canister, Seeger said. “I thought it was showmanship. I didn’t think it was real,” she said.
Seeger said she was in the second row, about four feet from the gunman, when he pointed a gun at her face. At first, “I was just a deer in headlights. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. Then she ducked to the ground as the gunman shot people seated behind her.
She said she began crawling toward an exit when she saw a girl of about 14 “lying lifeless on the stairs.” She saw a man with a bullet wound in his back and tried to check his pulse, but “I had to go. I was going to get shot.”
Witness Shayla Roeder said she saw a teenage girl on the ground bleeding outside the theater. “She just had this horrible look in her eyes. …. We made eye contact and I could tell she was not all right,” Roeder said.
Police, ambulances and emergency crews swarmed on the scene after frantic calls started flooding the 911 switchboard. Officers came running in and telling people to leave the theater, Salina Jordan told the Denver Post. She said some police were carrying and dragging bodies.
Hayden Miller told KUSA-TV that he heard several shots. “Like little explosions going on and shortly after that we heard people screaming,” he told the station. Hayden said at first he thought it was part of a louder movie next door. But then he saw “people hunched over leaving theater.”
Police are asking anyone with information about the shooting to call 303-739-1862 or email [email protected].