PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - An Oregon man with a history of mental distress was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of harassing family members of some of the 12 people slain by a gunman who opened fire on moviegoers inside a Colorado, theater last summer, police said.
Kevin Michael Purfield, 45, of Oregon, is accused of contacting relatives of the Aurora, Colorado, victims through telephone calls, email and social media networks, police in Portland and Aurora said.
Portland Police Bureau Sergeant Pete Simpson said he had little information about Purfield’s background aside from the fact that law enforcement had previous contact with the suspect, including at least one “mental health call.”
A spokesman for the Aurora police, Frank Fania, said Purfield’s contacts with victims’ families numbered in the dozens, and started with the suspect offering unfounded conspiracies about the massacre.
“In the beginning it was this conspiracy theory stuff,” Fania said, “then it went away from the conspiracy theory into personally attacking the families, calling them names and hoping bad things would happen to them.”
A Facebook page and blog identified as belonging to Purfield stated, for example, that some coffins of the Aurora victims were empty. There were also discussions of the September 11, 2001, attacks on America and the December 2012 mass shooting that left 20 children and six adults slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The suspect in the Aurora shooting rampage, James Holmes, 25, is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder, and prosecutors announced last week that they would seek the death penalty if he were convicted.
The July 20 shooting spree, unleashed during a midnight showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises,” also left 58 people wounded and ranks with the Sandy Hook killings as one of the deadliest bursts of U.S. gun violence ever.
Aurora police contacted the Portland Police Bureau in February, seeking assistance in an investigation into the harassment reported by victims’ families.
Purfield was arrested without incident and booked on five misdemeanor charges of telephonic harassment and one count of stalking, police said.
Prosecutors in the Holmes case recently raised the issue in connection with arguments over newly unsealed court records, citing “ongoing harassment” of victims and witnesses and “potential intimidation by individuals who have no relationship to the case.”
Victims’ identities were made public in some case documents, and the names of the dead, their families and survivors of the shooting have appeared in numerous media accounts of the tragedy and its aftermath.
Purfield was jailed in lieu of $10,000 bond and was slated to be arraigned in Multnomah County Court on April 11. The case would be tried in Portland.
Reporting by Teresa Carson; Additional reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Todd Eastham