By Linda Cornett
It seemed like an elaborate surprise to commemorate the midnight opening show of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” A bizarre figure, dressed all in black, face covered by a gas mask, a bit of coarse orange hair peeking out, stepped through an emergency exit at an Aurora movie theater. He lofted something into the audience and smoke billowed.
But when the figure raised a gun and began firing into the crowded audience, it quickly became clear this was no theatrical display.
As terrified moviegoers screamed and scrambled toward exits, squirmed desperately beneath their seats or tried to stem the bleeding of those who had been shot, the gunman stalked up the aisle looking for more victims.
When he stopped firing, 10 people were dead and 60 injured. Two of the injured would later die at local hospitals. The shooter left the theater and waited in the parking lot to be arrested.
Within minutes, more than 200 police officers had arrived at the Century 16 Theater, 14300 E. Alameda Ave. Ambulances filled the parking lot as emergency rooms in six area hospitals prepared for the onslaught of victims.
As the chaos settled investigators pieced together a story of organized madness. James Eagan Holmes, 24, who had begun the process of withdrawing from doctoral studies in neurosciences at the University of Colorado, had spent the previous two months purchasing four guns from local stores and buying 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet. The evening of July 20, 2012 he packed the weapons and ammunition, tear gas grenades, body armor and a gas mask into two black bags, stowed them in his white Hyundai and drove to the nearby theater.
Joining the excited crowd for the midnight premiere of the movie, Holmes bought a ticket, entered and waited until the movie started. He left Theater 9 by the emergency exit, propping it open behind him. He returned in combat gear and carrying an AR-15 assault-style rifle with a 100-round drum of ammunition, a shotgun and a handgun. Another handgun was in his car.
Following the rampage, which lasted less than 10 minutes, Holmes surrendered quietly and warned police there may be explosives in his apartment. Officers found Holmes had booby-trapped the apartment with bombs fashioned from aerial shells and explosive chemicals. He’d left loud rock music playing over and over. Residents were evacuated from six buildings in the area and a robot sent in to disarm a trip wire at the door.
Warner Bros. studio canceled the red carpet premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Paris.
The families of those killed and victims who were injured in the shooting will receive shares of more than $5 million raised from donations. Five victims suffer permanent paralysis or brain damage from their injuries.
Prosecutors charged Holmes with 24 counts of first-degree murder and 116 of attempted murder. Holmes offered to plead guilty to the charges to avoid the death penalty, but prosecutors have called the offer a publicity stunt and turned it down. They have said they will seek the death penalty in a trial scheduled to begin on Aug. 5, 2013.
Across the street from the theater, a vacant lot became the scene of an unofficial memorial for the victims, piled with flowers, stuffed animals, white crosses and notes from friends and strangers like.
As summer came to an end, the city of Aurora invited family members to claim particularly meaningful items from the memorial before everything was packed up in 160 boxes for archival by the Aurora History Museum. By 2015, the museum plans to have an exhibit on the theater shooting.
The Aurora Century 16 theater remained closed for six months. In a renovation, Theater 9 was renamed Auditorium 1 with a new screen and extreme digital projection.
A memorial service tied to the reopening was attended by the governor, Aurora mayor and some of the survivors and families. Others boycotted the memorial, saying the theater should have remained permanently closed.