Accused Colorado killer no easy fit for mass murderer profile

NEW YORK Tue Jul 24, 2012 8:44pm EDT

Colorado shooting suspect James Eagan Holmes makes his first court appearance in Aurora, Colorado, July 23, 2012. REUTERS/RJ Sangosti/Pool

Colorado shooting suspect James Eagan Holmes makes his first court appearance in Aurora, Colorado, July 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/RJ Sangosti/Pool

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Unless James Holmes chooses to say why he went on the lethal shooting spree he is accused of in a Colorado movie theater last Friday, the analyses offered by forensic psychiatrists, based on their study of other mass murders, may be as close as we get.

From what is known of the attack and his life so far, experts say Holmes was probably not suffering from as serious a mental illness as Jared Loughner, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after killing six people in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011.

"People want to believe that someone who does something like this must be floridly psychotic," said Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has studied mass killers since the 1970s. "They think, ‘ah, he's mentally ill; now I understand.' It makes people feel they and people they know would never behave this way."

The scarier prospect is that Holmes's psychological illness was more common, less severe, and not easily detectable.

As experts in forensic psychiatry try to figure out from afar what is wrong with Holmes, they are focusing on three details of the shooting: The targets were strangers to the killer, not colleagues or acquaintances; the shooter did not commit suicide or invite his own death at the hands of police; and Holmes warned authorities about his booby-trapped apartment before the explosives he rigged killed anyone.

Murdering 12 strangers and shooting dozens more points to a generalized paranoia and rage against the world rather than a specific grudge, forensic psychiatrists say.

"Most mass murderers kill specific people for specific reasons," said criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, who with colleague Jack Levin has studied every mass murder in the United States since the early 1980s. "They kill the bosses who fired them, the professors who wronged them. These are revenge killings."

One of the many mass murderers who fit this profile is Nathan Dunlap, who killed four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora in December 1993, after he was fired and reportedly felt his boss had "made a fool" of him.

Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado's graduate program in neuroscience, which has prompted speculation that academic failure might have played into his motives. But he did not target either professors or fellow students.


That suggests his resentment was directed elsewhere than academia. It may put him closer to the second most common kind of mass murderer: one who targets people who represent what they consider the source of their woes, experts said.

"These killers don't know the victims personally, but they're getting back at a certain kind of individual," said Fox.

Marc Lepine, for instance, separated men from women in a classroom at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in December 1989 and shot nine women, six fatally. He killed eight more women as he rampaged through the corridors and cafeteria, claiming feminism had ruined his life.

Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech in April 2007, the deadliest murder by a single gunman in U.S. history. Cho called other students "hedonistic" and "brats" who had "raped" his soul and had "everything" they wanted, such as "Mercedes … , golden necklaces … , trust fund … , vodka and cognac."

If the victims did not represent a category of people Holmes specifically hated or resented, then he would fall into the category of mass murderers who target strangers indiscriminately, the least common profile.

In such cases, "the perpetrator has a grudge against the world and feels that if it were not for the system, things would have gone better for him," said Fox. "He doesn't care who he kills as long as he kills a lot of people."

About 16 percent of mass killings target complete strangers, said Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern. They are not necessarily more or less severely mentally ill than murderers who target acquaintances or people who belong to a group they resent, but their pathology takes a distinct form.

Wide-ranging suspicion that the world has treated you unfairly can be a sign of paranoid personality disorder. The American Psychiatric Association defines that condition as "a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent, beginning by early adulthood."

The condition has an estimated lifetime prevalence in the United States of 4.4 percent; schizophrenia affects 1.1 percent of U.S. adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.

There is no evidence Holmes felt paranoia, nor have any records emerged showing he was ever diagnosed with or treated for any form of mental illness. But the absence of such evidence does not rule out the disorder, experts said.

"Of all the psychoses, paranoia is the most difficult to detect," said John Jay's Schlesinger. "Unless you broach a particular subject - like work, if someone thinks his boss is out to get him - they might very well seem normal if you sat down and talked to them. In Holmes' case, it could have been an encapsulated paranoia, focused on one particular area of life where he thinks people are out to get him."

If so, Holmes would fit the profile of the mass murderer whose act has been triggered by a severe strain and led him to externalize blame, Levin and Fox's studies have shown.

"They blame everyone but themselves for their frustration and disappointment," said Levin. "Then there is some acute strain, which usually takes the form of a catastrophic loss - of a job, of money, of a child in a custody battle, or of academic standing. ... The catastrophic strain sets the stage for the planning phase of the mass murder."


Another clue to Holmes's mental state is that he clearly intended to survive the massacre, wearing body armor during the attack and then surrendering to authorities.

In contrast, say experts, most of the mass killers they call "pseudocommandos" - those who kill in public, plan meticulously, and are armed to the teeth - expect to die in their rampage, noted Dr James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, in a 2010 study. Virginia Tech's Cho killed himself, as did the two teenagers who fatally shot 13 people at Colorado's Columbine High School in April 1999.

"That (Holmes) didn't is an indication that he was different in psychological terms than the others we've studied," said Levin.

Holmes's warning to authorities that he had booby-trapped his apartment before the explosives could kill anyone suggests "he felt he had accomplished his mission," said Fox. "He showed the world how fearsome and powerful he was."

President Barack Obama did not say the name of the suspected killer in his remarks in Aurora last Sunday. Some reporters, notably CNN's Anderson Cooper, have suggested the press not use Holmes's name, denying him the infamy he may have sought.

Whether mass killers are motivated by a desire for notoriety "is hard to generalize," said Schlesinger. "Some are, some aren't. All we can say is that infamy is a motivation for some."

Were there warning signs that, if acted on, might have prevented the tragedy in Aurora?

Based on the scores of mass murderers he has studied, Northeastern's Fox says there is "a consistent profile in which someone has a history of frustration and failure despite promise and aptitude. But they also have a very weak support system: They don't have close friends or family nearby to turn to for help or to put their thoughts in perspective."

Holmes has been described by fellow students as quiet and reserved, though not an outright loner. Fox warns that not even more dramatic social isolation is a reliable warning sign.

"There are thousands and thousands of people who fit that pattern and do not kill anyone," Fox said. "You can't use it to predict who will become (a mass murderer). These are not red flags, but yellow ones. They become red only in retrospect, when the blood flows."

(Editing by Michele Gershberg and Prudence Crowther)

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Comments (24)
orion905 wrote:
Sometimes people just lose their minds. Being mentally ill usually keeps you outside of the profiles created.

I agree that we should ban guns as that means there will be no more gun crimes.
We have banned cocaine and there is no more cocaine in this country. Including meth, marijuana……
Drinking and driving is outlawed. I am glad I don’t see on the news of drunk driving murders anymore.
This Colorado maniac purchased 10 gallons of gasoline to be part of his bomb that was setup as a trap. That excess amount of gas should have been regulated. Who needs more than a gallon of gasoline from the pump!!! We need to ban such high amount of gasoline purchase right away.
We tell the people that guns are banned and I know those hardened criminals will understand and comply and register their weapons the same day the announcement is made. And we should proudly put signs on our windows and front lawn indicating that we are anti-gun and you may not bring guns into our homes as we don’t allow them here. The Cinemark theater where this attack happened had those signs and policies clearly posted. This one criminal must have been illiterate to have missed it. I know all criminals after seeing those signs would have known to leave their guns at home.
Sure federal buildings are well protected. But places like schools, churches and many other places where laws clearly state that guns are not allowed have never been targets of mass murders. If I was crazy and knew of places where guns are banned, that is the last place I would target knowing that my gun would cease to function as soon as I get there and wait for the police to come by after a few minutes.
Listen to people like Mayor Bloomberg. We should all become public officials and receive around the clock protection and have enough money to hire our own protection while taking guns out of only the law abiding citizens. His home address is proudly listed and people know that there are no guns there because he is against all guns.
Look to the rest of the world like peaceful UK with very strict gun laws. Your family is sitting peacefully at home and some thug comes in to rob you with a big knife. They know you don’t have a gun. What is there to worry about?

Jul 24, 2012 9:16pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Why does James E Holmes need to fit a previous mass murderer?
Maybe he isn’t psychotic or insane, but one with a warped “mission”.

His profile is apparently unprecedented, so forensics should base their analysis on the key facts and observations to find his deliberate motive.
1. Why the Batman movie and not other movies?
2. Why did the orange hair of “Joker” character?
3. Why the costume of black ballistic gear, but then surrender to police immediately?
4. Why booby-trap his apartment with lethal, destructive force, but then warn the police?
Of course, since he was smart enough and sane enough to lawyer-up, we won’t know much more until after a trial.

Jul 24, 2012 10:01pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
SeniorMoment wrote:
My guess is that he targeted people for the express purpose of getting back at the State of Colorado in general and those who support the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Aurora, but time may tell otherwise. As an out-of-state student in Colorado he never would have become eligible for in-state tuition. He may have also discovered that there is no demand in Colorado for his chosen profession, since there is a surplus of specialists who want to live in Colorado for its sunshine and recreational opportunities, even though there is greater demand for them elsewhere in the Mountain States. He could have even just been disappointed with the research he was working on and saw in the results another failure. High performing students can be quite demanding with themselves. If he wasn’t able to pay his rent, and faced repayment of the loan with unemployment as well because of withdrawing, he would have seen life as very grim and not much worth living, especially if simply going home to his parents was not an option for real or imagined reasons.

Jul 24, 2012 11:29pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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