Batman Shooter Is Former Neuroscience Student

The University of Colorado graduate student who allegedly killed 12 and injured dozens more in a crowded movie theater last night seemed “normal” just a few months earlier, a fellow researcher recalls.

By | July 20, 2012

James Holmes Image courtesy of University of Colorado Denver

As authorities try to piece together the motivations of James Holmes, who allegedly went on a shooting spree at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colorado, a researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Neuroscience program—where Holmes was a PhD candidate before recently deciding to drop out—fails to recall anything suspicious about the 24-year-old man.

"He appeared to be a normal guy," said a member of neuroscientist Nancy Zahniser's lab. "I never heard him talk though," he added. "Pretty quiet."

The researcher, who declined to give his name, said that Holmes was a rotational student, doing stints in different labs before settling in one to complete his PhD research. He noted that in March Holmes did a rotation in the lab of Mark Dell'Aqua, who studies the role of kinase/phosphatase signaling complexes in channel and transcription factor regulation associated with learning, memory, and mental health disorders. Calls to Dell'Aqua went unanswered, and a member of his lab directed this reporter to University of Colorado spokesperson Jacque Montgomery, whose voicemail inbox was full as of Friday (July 20) morning.

On Friday, the website of the University of Colorado School of Medicine Neuroscience program—which contains contact information for students and faculty—went from being publicly accessible and searchable to being password protected and thus inaccessible by the general public. Numerous calls made to other principal investigators and laboratory personnel in the neuroscience program went unanswered.

Several news outlets reported Friday that Holmes was indeed a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "The University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus can confirm that Mr. James Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado Denver's graduate program in neurosciences," according to a university statement. "Mr. Holmes enrolled at the university in June 2011."

The Scientist is following this developing story and will post updates as new information comes to light.

UPDATE (July 20 @ 5:00 PM, EDT): The University of California Riverside, the college from which James Holmes earned his Bachelor's degree in neuroscience, released video of this news conference today. In it, Chancellor Timothy White, a physiologist by training, expresses his condolences for the victims and family members of the tragic shooting in Colorado.

Update (July 22 @ 2:00 PM EDT): The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus released more information about Holmes and his tenure at the school's graduate-level neuroscience program. Spokesperson Jacque Montgomery emailed the following facts to The Scientist:

  • Holmes decided to withdraw from the neuroscience program at the Graduate School at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado,in June 2012. He gave no reason for his withdrawal.
  • He had an appointment on a Neuroscience Training Grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant funds six pre-thesis PhD students in the Neuroscience Program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The focus of the program is on training outstanding neuroscientists and academicians who will make significant contributions to neurobiology. It’s called the NIH T32 grant HD041697 entitled "Neuroscience Training Grant."

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Avatar of: bd__sd


Posts: 2

July 20, 2012

Is this news? Is this information relevant to his actions? Is it worthy of us to discuss?

Avatar of: Bill


Posts: 1457

July 21, 2012

Given the point at which he "withdrew" from the University, I bet he failed his quals and couldn't deal with it.  So bd_sd, I do think the fact that he was a grad student is relevant.

July 22, 2012

I wonder why every time something like this happens media focuses only on schools and Universities. Wouldn't be more appropriate to ask directly the parents if they saw any change on his behavior? at the end of the day probably his family was the only one that really knew him. 

Avatar of: Padraig Hogan

Padraig Hogan

Posts: 5

July 23, 2012

Nobody seems to be reporting he failed...

Avatar of: Kathy Barker

Kathy Barker

Posts: 9

July 23, 2012

This might be chance for departments and programs and mentors all over to consider what safety nets they have in place to care for their own students and trainees. It is probably impossible to ever say whose fault this or any mental health issue is, but wouldn't we all like to be members of a community that believed it was its responsibility to look after all its members?

Avatar of: Armando


Posts: 1457

July 23, 2012

The fact that he was a graduate student is irrelevant. Every occupation has its own stresses and difficulties. Yes, it is very important to provide nurturing support to our sometimes taken-for-granted grad students. But the point here is very simple: Why do we continue allowing mentally incompetent people to purchase guns? And particularly assault rifles which had been banned until 2004?

Avatar of: Bill


Posts: 1457

July 24, 2012

It's not that simple to identify those that are "mentally incompetent" and thus not sell them guns.  If it were, things like this wouldn't happen.  It's not as if there are gun store owners and NRA members just DYING to put guns in the hands of mentally unstable people.

Avatar of: Bill


Posts: 1457

July 24, 2012

 They won't release that info citing "privacy concerns."

Avatar of: Jean Helgeson

Jean Helgeson

Posts: 1457

July 25, 2012

Sometimes people in a college/university environment reach a point of depression where it appears that there is no way out of a black hole and no possible good to come, despite family and friends who seem to see nothing wrong, or at least ignore what they might perceive as dangerous or strange behavior.  If colleagues in the workplace see any form of unusual behavior, it might be a good idea to talk to the person about it, or talk to a supervisor who can deal with it.  When I was in graduate school, a student in another program opened his wrist veins in the bathtub and bled to death; a former faculty member at my school who had moved to another school killed herself there, making it necessary for a friend of mine who had her as his graduate advisor to have to begin his research over again in a different lab; and one of my students committed suicide and the family asked what I could tell them about him, since they had no idea why, and all I could give them was the information card I had students fill out at the start of classes -- at least all of these individuals took out only themselves, not shooting up a whole movie theater full of people, but even the loss of that one life in each of these cases affected many people then and even now, years later.

People need to realize that guns and ammo are not controlled by gun laws if you can still order them by mail or get them at a gun show without meeting the standards for purchase (which are pretty low).  Then you can just go into the theater in broad daylight and open the "locked" exit door so you can move in your weapons through it.  What a great way to celebrate dropping out of school, taking off that great load of responsibility and expectation that everyone had placed on your shoulders when you got that federal grant in the Neurobiology Scientist Development Program -- you were going to be one of the great scientists of the future, maybe even a Nobel Prize winner, if you could just find the right topic to do your research on, and you couldn't find it, so you just turned around and around and brought the guns and ammo and went to the theater and shot the guns -- you could have shot lots more times if that gun hadn't misfired and stopped shooting -- there was certainly plenty of ammunition -- wasn't that funny -- you're the Joker!!

Avatar of: Peter kaczkowski

Peter kaczkowski

Posts: 1457

July 26, 2012

Your comment is purely speculative, but turns out to be correct: "One year later, he dropped out after taking a year-end oral exam" Seattle Times, July 26..  We need the UCAMC to confirm the conditions under which he left, but a judge has just ruled that the school not divulge. Grad school may be hard, but this guy clearly had issues that go way beyond that.

BTW, i totally support the staff's desire for privacy; it isn't their fault, and the media frenzy must be a terrible interruption in a schedule and career that does not allow for such distractions. The press releases ought to keep coming from the medical center's spokesman, and police; but the judge thought that this might impede the investigation... I hate that excuse, but he knows more than we do about the situation.

Avatar of: Bill


Posts: 1457

August 2, 2012

 Denver news is reporting he failed his quals.  Nailed it.  : )

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