Fighting back tears, cops detail horror of Aurora theater shooting


CENTENNIAL | When police arrived at the Century Aurora 16 cinema minutes after a gunman there opened fire July 20, the horror was in the theater, not up on the screen.

Ten people were dead inside, dozens more wounded, and blood puddled on the floor.

Aurora police Officer Justin Grizzle, one of the first officers on the scene that night, said during a Monday preliminary hearing that when he ran into the theater, he almost slipped on a massive pool of blood near the door.

“There were several people, several bodies throughout the theater laying motionless,” Grizzle said, pausing during his testimony to hold back tears. Seconds after he ran in, Grizzle grabbed some of the wounded and rushed them to a nearby hospital in his patrol car.

“I didn’t want anyone else to die,” he said.

In all, Aurora police used their police cruisers as makeshift ambulances to rush at least eight people — and likely several more — to area hospitals that night, according to testimony against accused shooter James Holmes.

The hearing is scheduled to last until Friday and after it, a judge will rule whether there is enough evidence for Holmes to stand trial on 166 charges, including a dozen counts of first-degree murder. Testimony Tuesday will likely include more details about specific injuries to the 70 surviving victims. Prosecutors only discussed the 12 killed and a dozen of the wounded victims Monday, and they will likely have to present evidence about all 70 victims before the hearing concludes Friday.

Holmes appeared to be listening more intently Monday than he had in previous hearings. Wearing a red jail jumpsuit with his hands shackled, he listened to witnesses and looked at the exhibits throughout the hearing. Still, he didn’t appear to say anything to his lawyers during the several hours of testimony and didn’t take notes like many defendants in similar hearings do.

Grizzle himself rushed a total of six victims to the hospital that night over the course of four trips.

Before becoming a police officer 13 years ago Grizzle worked as a paramedic, but he said it didn’t take an expert to realize that the wounded needed immediate help.

“Anybody could realize that we need to go now,” he said.

The first victims Grizzle rushed to the hospital were Ashley Moser-Sullivan and her husband. Moser-Sullivan, who was wounded in the head and torso, sat in the back seat with another officer while her husband, who had a head wound, sat in the front seat.

“He kept saying, ‘Is my wife going to live? Is my wife going to be OK?’” Grizzle said.

Moser-Sullivan’s 6-year-old daughter, Veronica, was killed inside the theater and Grizzle said her husband asked repeatedly where his daughter was. At one point, as Grizzle sped to the hospital, the man opened the passenger door and tried to jump out so he could go back for his daughter.

Grizzle grabbed the man by his shoulder and pulled him back in while holding the steering wheel with his other hand.

Later, Grizzle took Caleb Medley to University of Colorado Hospital, imploring him along the way to keep breathing.

“I said ‘Don’t f–king die on me, don’t f–king die on me,’” he said.

Grizzle’s cruiser was covered in blood by the end of the night, he said, and he could hear blood sloshing around his bare car floor as he drove.

Another officer, Kristopher McDowell, sat in the backseat of a police cruiser with one of the wounded, Farrah Soudini. During the ride, McDowell clutched the wounded woman’s side, she told police, holding her organs inside her body.

Officer Aaron Blue rode in the back of a police cruiser with another victim, Jessica Ghawi, to UCH. Ghawi had been shot in the head and leg, Blue said, and he held her head in the backseat of his car while another officer drove. Despite the officers’ efforts, Ghawi later died.

Sgt. Gerald Jonsgaard, one of the supervisors on scene that night, also took the stand Monday.

Jonsgaard, a stern police veteran who spent time in the military, spoke in a very matter-of-fact way about the weapons police found in the theater. But when he spoke about Veronica Moser, Jonsgaard paused to retain his composure.

When he tried to find a pulse on the six-year-old’s neck, Jonsgaard said he couldn’t feel one. But another officer thought he might have felt a pulse and they sent the girl to a makeshift triage area officers had set up outside the theater. The girl was later rushed to a hospital where she was pronounced dead.

When the call of shots fired at the theater went out over the police radios, Jonsgaard was just a few blocks away near East Alameda Avenue and South Potomac Street. He arrived at the theater in about 90 seconds and took a position south of the theater at the loading dock of a nearby business.

When he saw Holmes outside the theater wearing a tactical helmet and gas mask, Jonsgaard said he initially thought it was a SWAT officer.

“My first thought was, ‘How did this SWAT officer get here so quickly,” he said.

Only after he saw other officers arrest Holmes did Jonsgaard realize it was the shooter, he said.

Inside the theater, Jonsgaard said police found two weapons. Near the emergency exit for theater 9, which prosecutors have said Holmes used to get into and out of the theater, officers found an AR-15 assault rifle laying on the ground.

Jonsgaard said he initially thought the gun could belong to an Aurora police officer because the department issues similar weapons. But when he looked closer, the gun was outfitted with a laser sight different from the sights APD uses.

He also saw a Remington 870 shotgun with an extended magazine about 15 feet from the rifle.

On the ground, there were several .223 shell casings from the AR-15 as well as a handful of unspent ammunition. There were also green shotgun shells and spent casings from a .40 caliber handgun littering the floor.

Jonsgaard said he saw several high-capacity magazines full of ammunition, including 30- and 40-round clips for the AR-15, as well as a drum-style magazine that he called a “snail.”

In Holmes’ car outside the theater, Grizzle said he saw a semi-automatic pistol in the passenger door map pocket. On the roof of the car was another pistol, this one outfitted with a laser sight.

Much of Monday’s testimony focused on Holmes’ odd demeanor when police contacted him.

Officer Jason Oviatt said when he first saw Holmes standing behind theater 9, he thought the man wearing a ballistic helmet and gas mask was a police officer. But because Holmes was standing still, not in any hurry, Oviatt said he quickly determined he wasn’t an officer.

“The overall picture of him didn’t match with a police officer,” he said.

Then, Oviatt and another officer ordered Holmes to the ground and cuffed him. Oviatt said Holmes followed all of the officers’ commands and didn’t resist at all.

“He was completely compliant, there wasn’t even normal tension with him,” Oviatt said.

Oviatt was the first witness called to the stand during Monday’s hearing. He testified for almost an hour and said Holmes seemed detached when police contacted him.

The second witness to testify was Officer Blue, who helped Oviatt arrest Holmes.

Blue said Holmes volunteered information about explosives at his apartment without the officers having to ask. Holmes called the bombs “improvised explosive devices” and told police they would go off if officers tripped them.

Grizzle, who helped the other two officers arrest Holmes,  said he asked the suspect if he was alone, and Holmes didn’t respond.

“He just looked at me and smiled,” he said.

Jonsgaard said he was watching from a few hundred feet away when Officer Jason Oviatt took Holmes into custody. Holmes’ arms shot into the air when officers ordered him and he seemed to cooperate.

“It was instant and exaggerated,” he said.

According to testimony, Holmes bought his ticket to “The Dark Knight Rises” 12 days before police say he opened fire inside a midnight opening of the film.

Aurora police Detective Matthew Ingui testified that Holmes bought the ticket online July 8 for the July 20 showing.

During Ingui’s testimony, prosecutors showed surveillance video from inside the Century Aurora 16 theater that shows Holmes walking into the cinema and wandering around the concession stand before walking into theater 9.

Holmes was wearing a ski cap and a button-down shirt unbuttoned over a dark T-shirt in the video.

Monday marked the first time video from inside the cinema was shown to the public.

Ingui said there is not surveillance video from inside theater 9 or from outside the theater.

Ingui said when he went in the theater after the shooting, the scene appeared to be frozen in time, with blood splatter, popcorn, discarded shoes and human tissue scattered about.

“It was almost like a snapshot had been taken,” he said.

He also said witnesses told police the shooter calmly walked with purpose during the rampage.