Testimony: ‘Pandemonium’ in Aurora theater after shooting; movie kept playing

April 29, 2015

One of the first officers on the scene of the Aurora theater shooting three years ago was Aurora Police Sgt. Gerald Jonsgaard, and he told jurors on Wednesday the scene he witnessed was "pandemonium." 

Jonsgaard's testimony came on the third day of the trial of James Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting deaths of 12 people at a midnight movie premiere in 2012. District Attorney George Brauchler is arguing Holmes deserves the death penalty.

After he knew the admitted shooter was secured, Jonsgaard said he made his way into the theater through an exit door. People were screaming he remembered. The movie they'd come to see, "The Dark Knight Rises," was still playing, and the air was noxious.

"There was gas in the air, tear gas, you might call it, hit you immediately. Teared up, mucus formed, burned your face, burned your skin," said the officer, who's been in law enforcement for 36 years. Several times his voice broke with emotion during testimony, once when explaining how he handled the lifeless body of a 6-year old girl, and then again when asked why he had the bodies checked for a pulse three different times.

Annette Brook, another Aurora police officer, told the jury she donned a gas mask and ran straight into the theater through the front entrance. She said there was so many wounded and dead that officers had to triage victims.

"We had some very badly injured people that we had to get out and get to help. So I believe the phrase was, 'If it's got a pulse, get them out of here," Brook testified.

One of those with a pulse was Josh Nowlan. The day before the shooting, he was so excited about seeing the finale of the Batman trilogy that he re-watched the other two movies. 

On Wednesday, Nowlan walked into court limping with a cane.  

He testified that once bullets started flying in the theater, he and a friend used their bodies to shield his friend's wife.

"I felt a sudden burning sensation in my leg," Nowlan said. Then he realized he was also shot in the arm while still shielding his friend.

"I noticed my right arm had a similar big gaping hole as well, almost believed that my arm was completely blown off," he said.

His friends were OK. Nowlan, however, needed 6 surgeries to fix the damage to his arm and leg. And despite skin grafts, his arm is still disfigured.  

Nowlan wrapped up his testimony with a rare bit of levity. After he got out of the theater, he and another injured person were put in a police car, to get to a hospital. But before they could take off, Nowlan paused. 

"I said, 'Hold up,' and I turned and literally tried to grab the seat belt to buckle myself in, and the officer looks like, 'I'm not going to give you a ticket,'" he testified. 

Holmes' attorneys are not cross examining witnesses. They admit he was the gunman but say he was insane at the time. The trial is expected to run until September.

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