Shock, disgust and fear spread across the campus of the Colorado university — the man who shot up a midnight movie was identified as James Holmes, and faculty members suspected they knew him.
As professors and others questioned what to do and feared for their safety, some shared the tidbits they knew about Holmes via email. He briefly had a girlfriend, who was in India at the time of the attack. He had a few friends, though none in the neuroscience program he’d just left.
The new details are in thousands of emails the University of Colorado, Denver released Wednesday after news organizations, including The Associated Press, requested them to learn about Holmes’ year at the school.
Many of the emails are partially or completely blacked out, the university says to avoid violating privacy laws. The result is minimal information on Holmes’ struggles at the school or whether the institution recognized the danger he may have represented.
The emails do shed some light on how the university responded to news that one of its students was allegedly responsible for the attack that killed 12 people and wounded 58 on July 22.
Holmes’ name began to circulate in news reports a few hours after the early-morning shooting. At 6:47 a.m., Angie Ribera, director of the neuroscience program, noted that the shooter could be the 24-year-old of the same name who had just withdrawn from her department.
“Do you think we should meet with students in his class?” she asked colleagues. “If they had been close to him, this would definitely be something that I think we should do. But as they were not, I do not know.”
An hour later, officials confirmed James Holmes was the former graduate student, and Ribera grew more alarmed. At the time, police were trying to remove booby-traps he allegedly left at his nearby apartment before leaving for the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Ribera sent an email to another senior faculty member noting that Holmes was in custody. “However, he was friendly with 1-2 students in another program and I am worried about the safety of all (neuroscience) students and Faculty as well as the safety of all (medical) students.”
At 8:02 a.m., the administrator of the neuroscience program broke the news to students there and urged them not to post anything to Facebook or Twitter. Campus officials quickly sought to control the flow of information. As reporters began to bombard Holmes’ few acquaintance and professors with inquiries, administrators urged faculty and students to refer all media calls to a spokeswoman.
Faculty quickly began emailing with each other and friends about the news. Larry Hunter, who is listed as director of the Center for Computational Bioscience, was asked about the shooting by a friend. “Yeah, he was a grad student here, and, it turns out, had a brief romantic relationship with one of the grad students in my program last fall,” Hunter wrote. “She, fortunately, it turns out is in India right now.”
“She knows,” Hunter added, “and is pretty freaked out.”
Hunter said Wednesday he would not comment.
Holmes allegedly began stockpiling firearms and ammunition while taking classes in the spring. In June, prosecutors say, he made threats to a professor, and he filed withdrawal papers June 10 after failing a year-end exam. The next day he saw his school psychiatrist, who tried to report him to a campus security committee, according to Holmes’ lawyers.
Four days after the attack, campus police chief Doug Abraham said at a news conference that campus police had no information on Holmes. The school has since declined to answer detailed questions about Holmes’ behavior, citing a gag order that remains in effect and federal privacy laws that limit the amount of medical and academic information it can disclose.
Those laws also limited the number of documents released Wednesday. At the request of defense attorneys, about 100 emails between Holmes and his family and friends were withheld because they are not covered under Colorado’s Open Records Act.
The remaining documents were released only after a lengthy court battle.
In the days after the shooting, the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s office asked Judge William B. Sylvester to bar the university from releasing records requested by numerous media organizations. Prosecutors argued that the information could jeopardize Holmes’ right to a fair trial. Sylvester agreed, but amended his order last month to allow the release after media organizations objected in court.
Holmes is charged with multiple first-degree murder and attempted murder counts. He has not entered a plea and won’t do so until after a weeklong preliminary hearing in which prosecutors will present evidence supporting the charges. That hearing is scheduled to begin Jan. 7. A motions hearing in the case is set for Monday.
Holmes’ attorneys have said he suffers from a mental illness.