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AURORA, Colo. -- A little more than a week before the shootings at a crowded movie theater, it appears suspect James Holmes was already looking to beat a retreat from the small apartment where he lived, one that would soon be turned into an explosives-laced deathtrap.
Half a block from his building - now surrounded by yellow police tape, with broken shards of glass dangling where windows used to be - Holmes had stopped to chat with neighbors, telling them he was looking for a new apartment. He wondered whether anything was available in their building.
“I told him we didn’t have any vacancy,” recalled Carl Allen, who said he talked with Holmes for several minutes. “The thing that puzzled me,” Allen said, “he got an apartment over there. Why he want one here?”
Police have only begun to unravel the meticulously constructed horror story that seems to have become Holmes’ life. It’s a tale of a shy and intelligent young graduate student who spun his own violent Batman screenplay until, authorities say, he shot 70 people in a darkened theater, killing 12 of them.
Holmes had been a first-year graduate student in neurosciences at the University of Colorado at Denver, enrolled on a competitive National Institutes of Health scholarship. On Monday, officials at the medical school campus said that, in June, Holmes had suddenly begun the process of dropping out.
They left unanswered the question of why - it’s not clear they even know.
Yet it has become increasingly apparent that the 24-year-old began building a secret life during his final months at the university. He quietly ordered packages that police say contained the building blocks for makeshift explosives, he festooned his apartment with Batman memorabilia, and he set up a profile on an adult website - if indeed it was him - advertising a propensity for “shenanigans” and asking, “Will you visit me in prison?”
At Westview High School in San Diego, where his family lived in an upscale neighborhood, Holmes was known as a diligent student and competent athlete who played soccer and had a close group of friends - some of whom he met in Los Angeles in December to see the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie. He worked as a counselor at a camp for underprivileged kids in Los Angeles in 2008; photos from there show him grinning impishly.
The Holmes who left the University of California, Riverside in 2010 was a friendly if introverted young man who went on snowboarding trips with friends, went to the movies with fellow students and joined a circle of youths who got together once a week to play fantasy role-playing games such as “World of Warcraft.”
“Overall, he was a pretty healthy guy. He was a bit independent and introverted. He had his quirks. He’d laugh at his own corny jokes,” said his former roommate at UC Riverside. He lived with Holmes for two years and, when contacted Monday, didn’t want to be identified.
Holmes had a crush on a girl in an adjacent dorm and had a poster in his room of a sexy woman lying on top of a car, the former roommate said, but seemed too introspective to be a ladies’ man. Holmes would spend hours at a time on his bed looking at the ceiling, the friend said.
“He liked to do his own thing. He was very independent,” the man said. “He went to the gym by himself most of the time.”
Getting admitted to the graduate program in neurosciences at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus was a big deal: Students come in with grade point averages above 3.6 and with top Graduate Record Examination scores, said Barry Shur, dean of the graduate school.
“Better than I would have done,” he said.
As one of only six first-year students admitted to the program last year, Holmes received a stipend of $26,000 from the university’s National Institutes of Health grant, plus funds for his tuition and fees.
Holmes’ life straddled a deep social fault line between the gleaming medical school campus - the research building where he worked is an 11-story tower of tan brick and glass surrounded by manicured lawns - and the run-down neighborhood across the street, full of cheap taco stands, pawnshops and no-tell motels.
Holmes lived in a small apartment on the third floor of a nondescript brick building, where few of his neighbors appeared to know him except in passing.
He would stop in every once in a while at the local bar, several residents said, though if he talked much it was only chitchat. “He was laid back, kept to himself, never really talked to anybody,” Melvin Evans, who saw him occasionally, told reporters. “He’s somebody you wouldn’t even look at twice walking down the street.”
At the 7-Eleven around the corner from his house, he’d stop in for snacks. “He seemed like, I don’t know, a nice guy,” said a woman who works there, who asked not to be identified. “He didn’t seem crazy to me, but what do you think? Somebody who kills all those people? Those children? What’s in here?” she said, pointing at her head.
Physiology of the brain was Holmes’ chosen course of study. For a class called Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders, he was scheduled in May to make a presentation on micro-RNA biomarkers, a presentation that probably would have explored the genetic basis of mental illness, often discussed in the context of schizophrenia. It is not known whether he actually made the presentation.
What is known is that the oral exams each graduate student is required to pass came not long after; perhaps three days later, on June 10, Holmes filed notice of his intention to withdraw from the program. Students who were told by school officials of his imminent departure were not given a reason, said one student who spoke on condition of anonymity and who refused to elaborate.
University officials refused to discuss Holmes at all, saying they had been asked by the police to refrain in order to protect the investigation.
“To the best of our knowledge at this point, we did everything that we should have done,” Chancellor Don Elliman told reporters.
Shur said faculty closely monitor graduate students and that students undergo background checks before they are admitted. But in response to questions from reporters, he said that the process did not include a mental health evaluation.
“No program that I’m familiar with in the United States requires a psychiatric evaluation for their students,” he said.
As recently as the day Holmes went by Allen’s house, less than two weeks ago, he gave no overt signs to strangers that anything was wrong.
His hair wasn’t dyed the orange-red it was on the night of his arrest, Allen said. His eyes did not have the detached, vacant gaze he exhibited during his initial court appearance on Monday.
“I have to say, he seemed a little strange. But not as strange as he was on TV today,” Allen said. “If today was a 10, last week he was a three.”