By DAN FROSCH, WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM, TIMOTHY WILLIAMS and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Published: July 20, 2012 386 Comments
AURORA, COLO. — A gunman armed with three weapons, including a rifle and shotgun, opened fire in a theater crowded with families and children at a midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in a Denver suburb early Friday morning, killing at least 12 people and wounding at least 38 others, the local police and federal officials said.
Just before he began shooting, the police said the man, identified as James Holmes, 24, had appeared in front of the packed theater in Aurora, Colo., and set off at least one smoke device before firing randomly at audience members, who had just settled into their seats.
Mr. Holmes was arrested in a parking lot behind the theater near his car without further incident, according to the Aurora Police. He had a gas mask and was armed with a rifle, a shotgun and a handgun. The authorities believe Mr. Holmes had acted alone, and that the death toll may increase because some of the wounded were seriously injured.
With the investigation in its earliest stages, the authorities on Friday morning said they were unsure what prompted the attack and whether Mr. Holmes had ties to any hate groups.
“No motivation yet,” one senior law enforcement official said, adding, “The kid’s not talking.”
After his arrest, Mr. Holmes told the police that he had explosives at an Aurora residence, and on Friday morning, F.B.I. agents, along with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local police had cordoned off a north Aurora neighborhood and focused attention on a third-floor apartment in a redbrick building.
Firefighters perched on a cherry picker were seen breaking the window with an ax.
John Priest, who lives in the neighborhood, said that his 21-year-old son had been in the movie theater with two friends during the shooting, but had been unharmed. The two friends, however, had each been wounded — one was hit by a bullet in the buttocks and grazed in the leg, and the other was shot in the leg. Neither injury is life threatening, he said.
“How could people do something like this?” he said. “I don’t understand this.”
The shooting erupted at the Century 16 Movie Theater, during the first showings of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Throngs had gathered, some dressed as characters from the highly anticipated Batman sequel.
Witnesses said the gunman appeared to have entered the theater through an exit door and described smelling either pepper spray or tear gas in the theater as the gunfire rang out.
Dan Oates, Aurora’s police chief, said that the smoke device had made “a hissing sound” before starting to emit smoke.
President Obama, who spent the night in southern Florida as part of a campaign swing, was notified of the shooting by his top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, at 5:26 a.m., according to the White House. He later released a statement saying that he and the first lady were “shocked and saddened by the horrific and tragic shooting in Colorado,” and vowed to bring those responsible to justice.
Mr. Obama was briefed Friday morning by Mr. Brennan, Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, and Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff. “We do not believe at this point there was an apparent nexus to terrorism,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One.
Mr. Obama will return to Washington on Friday afternoon, cutting short his Florida trip, his campaign said.
In a seven-minute speech in Fort Myers, Fla., Mr. Obama talked in highly personal ways about the tragedy. “My daughters go to the movies,” he said. “What if Malia and Sasha had been in the theater as so many of our kids do every day? Michele and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight.”
He reflected on the fragility of life and the triviality of so much of what passes for daily existence, calling on the country to remember what really matters. “The people we lost in Aurora loved and were loved,” he said. “They were mothers and fathers, they were husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled.”
He asked for a moment of silence and asked the crowd to “spend a little time thinking about the incredible blessings that God has given us.”
Both Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, said they planned to pull television campaign advertisements in Colorado.
The movie studio Warner Bros., which is owned by Time Warner, released a statement Friday morning, saying that the company and the filmmakers were “deeply saddened” and “extend our sincere sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims at this tragic time.”
On Friday morning, television images showed several ambulances moving about and dozens of police officers gathered at the Century 16 movie complex in the early morning darkness. A police robot could be seen inspecting a white compact sedan, its two doors and trunk wide open, in the parking lot of the movie complex, television images showed, though it was unclear whether the car belonged to the gunman.
“I saw a man walk in through the exit,” a witness told a reporter from 9NEWS in Colorado, saying he threw what appeared to be a pair of gas canisters to the ground. “He waited for both the bombs to explode before he did anything. Then, after both of them exploded, he began to shoot.”
Cellphone video appeared to show the traumatic scene outside of the large multiplex immediately after the shooting. Some people wandered away with bloodstained shirts as others could be heard screaming, “Get out of here!”
A witness told CNN affiliate KUSA that he was in one of the other theaters showing the movie. “It’s crazy to think I could have been in the other line,” he said.
“We were watching a scene of the movie — it was a shootout scene, there were guns firing,” he said. “Then loud bangs came from the right of the theater. Smoke took over the entire theater, and it was really thick and no one could really see anything. Me and my sister were sitting there wondering what was going on. Five people were limping, wounded, slightly bloody.”
“I saw a girl who was pretty much covered in blood. It made me think the worst,” the man said. “A cop came walking through the front door before everyone was cleared up and before everything was completely under control holding a little girl in his arms, and she wasn’t moving.”