James Holmes spent a year in a small neuroscience doctoral program, surrounded by scientists and roughly three dozen classmates delving into the inner workings of the brain.
The University of Colorado, Denver, is not saying if they had any warning signs about the man accused in the deadly shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.
Experts say, however, the intimacy of the program and its focus on the brain may not have been enough for staff and students to detect that Holmes was on a course that police say ended with the deadly rampage at a midnight showing of the new Batman movie.
Supported by a prestigious federal grant, Holmes, 24, was in the first year of a program at the Anschutz Medical Campus dedicated to neuroscience, studying such topics as how the brain works or malfunctions or helping develop drugs to treat epilepsy and other disorders — but it is not behavioral science or psychology, experts say.
David Eagleman, who runs the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor University, said some neuroscientists are experts in mental illnesses and aberrant behavior, but others spend most of their time studying molecular chemistry.
“It’s really only a fraction of professors” who could identify a simmering mental disorder, Eagleman said. “Many people in neuroscience are not specialized in the issue of picking up mental illness ... There are plenty of people who just study mice and cats and stuff like that.”
Holmes is accused of methodically stockpiling weapons and explosives at work and at home that police say he used to kill 12 people and injure 58 more at a movie theater on Friday in nearby Aurora. Police say he also booby-trapped his apartment with the intent to kill police officers.
Holmes’ arraignment hearing is on Monday.
Attention continued to focus on victims of the attack and their grieving families, many of whom turned on Tuesday to the grim task of preparing for funerals. Batman star Christian Bale visited survivors of the shooting and stopped by a makeshift memorial to victims near the movie theater where they were shot.
“He had, as is now common knowledge, excellent academic credentials,” said Barry Shur, dean of the university’s graduate program.
Shur said the graduate program is “like a family” in which faculty carefully monitor students’ progress.
“It would be a logical step to assume there were people in that program who worked closely with him and would have the expertise to assess his behavior,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler and the author of the book Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us.
“But being able to recognize concerning, troubling behavior does not mean you can prevent a mass homicide,” O’Toole said.
Meanwhile, the number of people in Colorado applying for background checks to purchase firearms has surged in the aftermath of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, law enforcement officials said on Tuesday.
In the three days after the rampage, 2,887 people were approved for gun buys, compared with 2,012 the weekend before, a 43.5 percent increase, according to data supplied by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
The bureau has an online background check system that tracks and processes gun permit applications. The system does not show how many guns were actually sold.
Brandon Baker, owner of Rocky Mountain Guns and Ammo in Parker, Colorado, about 24km from Aurora, said business had been brisk since the shooting.