AURORA, Colo./SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Soda bottles littered his apartment, the top floor unit of a three-story red brick building in a run-down neighborhood, what seemed typical quarters for a 24-year-old doctoral student with one critical exception: Police now believe it to be booby-trapped.
Just four miles away from his Aurora, Colorado, apartment, James Eagan Holmes became a national figure on Friday, identified by police as the gunman who opened fire in a movie theater, killing 12 people and wounding dozens more while dressed in body armor, black gloves and a gas mask.
A picture of Holmes released after police took him into custody reveals nothing unusual: Instead of a bulletproof vest, he is photographed wearing a burnt-orange crewneck T-shirt. A handsome young man with dark hair, sloping and uneven eyebrows and long sideburns. There is a slight smile across his face; stubble covers his chin.
Among those who recognized the picture was Jackie Mitchell, a 45-year-old furniture mover who lives about a block away and said he met Holmes at the Zephyr Lounge, a bar a few blocks away, on Tuesday afternoon.
“I was like, man, I know that dude!” he said, recalling his reaction to the picture.
Mitchell said they drank a couple of beers together — there was a two for $2 special that afternoon — and talked about the Denver Broncos NFL team. Holmes wore jeans, sunglasses were propped backward on his head and he brought along a backpack.
The young man came off as smart, Mitchell said, and carried himself with a swagger.
Indeed, Holmes, appears to be intelligent and studious, with a clean record except for a traffic violation.
Born December 13, 1987, Holmes spent at least part of his childhood in San Diego, where he attended Westview High School. A yearbook showed he played soccer on the junior varsity team, wearing number 16 for the Wolverines.
His parents still live in the area in a white two-story house on a quiet suburban street. A white Mitsubishi SUV was parked in front of the home on Friday.
Plastered across the back window was a sticker that said, “To Write Love On Her Arms,” the name of a nonprofit group that, according to its website, is dedicated to helping people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.
In a statement, the Holmes family said they were cooperating with authorities. “Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved,” the family said.
After high school, Holmes received a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of California, Riverside, but could not find a job after returning to San Diego several years ago. For a year or so, he worked part-time at a McDonald’s, according to Tom Mai, who lives near the Holmes family in San Diego.
One Christmas, Mai said, Holmes served him soft drinks at a Christmas party. “He was very kind to my children,” Mai said.
By June 2011, Holmes was in Colorado, where he enrolled in a doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus. The school said on Friday he had been in the process of withdrawing.
When not in school, Holmes would sometimes hang out on the stoop of his building, located in a part of Aurora where drugs and gunshots were not uncommon, according to one neighbor.
Police arrived at the apartment on Friday to find it booby-trapped with sophisticated explosives, creating a hazard for law-enforcement and bomb squad officers who swarmed to the building.
Near the scene, another neighbor, Rachel Reed, 25, recalled seeing Holmes a number of times on the stoop, with his backpack. A couple of months ago she ran into him at the Zephyr, where she had put a Lil Wayne rap song on the jukebox.
Holmes disapproved, she said, preferring rock ‘n’ roll music. He came over and “made some racially charged comments about rap,” she said.
“He seemed like he was a normal dude,” she said. “He was a little buzzed.”
Additional reporting by Lisa Schwartz, Edith Honan, Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb; writing by Paul Thomasch; editing by Eric Beech and Mohammad Zargham