A gunman clad in black SWAT gear came through an emergency door at a movie theater in Colorado early Friday, hurled two canisters of an unknown gas and opened fire on the stunned audience, killing at least 12 people and wounding 59 others who were watching the midnight premiere of a new Batman film.
Police identified the suspected gunman as 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes, a graduate student at the University of Colorado who was in the process of withdrawing from his academic program.
Officers arrived at the theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora within 90 seconds of receiving the first 911 call at 12:39 a.m., and almost immediately arrested Holmes, who was next to his white Hyundai outside a rear entrance to the theater, police said.
Authorities recovered two Glock pistols, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun and a Smith & Wesson AR-15 assault rifle. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said there was “pretty significant evidence” that the shotgun, the assault rifle and at least one of the pistols were used in the attack. He said he did not know what the “legal status” of the weapons was, a matter he said is under investigation.
Federal law enforcement sources said later the gunman bought all four guns legally over the last two months from the local branches of two national chains: Gander Mountain Guns and Bass Pro Shop.
Investigators believe the shooter acted alone and not as part of a terrorist group.
“We are not looking for any other suspects,” Oates told reporters. “We are confident that he acted alone, but we will do a thorough investigation to make sure that is the case.”
Witnesses told police the gunman fired a handgun in the air, then began shooting at adults and children in the darkened theater — many of whom initially thought his entrance was a promotional gimmick for the movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
The gunman looked calm and said nothing as he walked up an aisle, firing as he went, witnesses said. As shrieking movie-goers realized the attack was real, they dove to the floor or scrambled to flee the Century 16 theater.
“There were many, many shots fired,” Oates said at a midday news conference. “There are many critical patients, and I am not in any position to give you updates on the 59 who were injured.”
The bodies of 10 victims remained at the theater more than 12 hours later, Oates said, along with numerous shell casings. Oates said police are trying their best to remove the bodies, identify them and notify next of kin as soon as possible.
The gunman “was aiming anywhere,” survivor Chris Ramos told CNN. “He was not aiming for a specific person. He was aiming for everyone.” Ramos said he believes the man in the seat next to him, the father of two daughters, was killed.
Oates said the assailant was dressed all in black, wearing a “ballistic helmet,” a bulletproof vest, leggings, a throat protector, a groin protector, a gas mask and protective gloves. He declined to speculate on a motive for the massacre or say whether Holmes was answering questions from police.
Law enforcement sources said the shooter’s hair was died orange-red, like the Joker character in the Batman movies. When he was arrested, he was wearing all of his black gear.
The Pentagon said three military personnel were injured in the shooting and that another service member at the theater remained unaccounted for.
Two of the injured are members of the Air Force, while the third serves in the Navy, the Defense Department announced Friday afternoon. The unaccounted-for service member is also a sailor. The Pentagon did not identify any of the individuals or their units, or provide details of their medical condition.
The department said Holmes “is not a past or current member of any branch or component of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Among those killed was Jessica Ghawi, according to her brother, Jordan Ghawi. She was an aspiring sports journalist who had recently survived another shooting at a mall in Toronto. Ghawi was the first confirmed fatality in the Colorado shootings. She had tweeted from the theater shortly before the rampage that she was excited to see the movie.
Salina Jordan was in the next theater, also watching “The Dark Knight Rises,’’ when she heard a series of pops. “It was so in synch we thought it was part of the movie,’’ said Jordan, 19. “We thought it was a special effect because they were trying to do it up big for opening night.’’
Then bullets began piercing the wall of the second theater. A teenager to Jordan’s right was shot in the jaw. The fire alarm went off.
In the lobby, by the concession stands, SWAT teams trained their guns at Theater 9. They directed frightened patrons to remain in place — or run for the exits — as gunfire started and stopped. Jordan said she watched a police officer carry out the inert body of a little girl, who appeared to be about 9.