Acclaimed Denver crime writer on twists in the Aurora theater shooting trial

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Photo: James Holmes sketch, facing right, Aurora theater shooting trial
A courtroom artist's sketch of James Holmes.

Until very recently, much of the case against James Holmes, the admitted Aurora theater shooter, was out of sight of the public, sealed by a judge's order. But from his opening remarks, lead prosecutor George Brauchler revealed details that hadn't previously come out, including those contained in a notebook Holmes sent just prior to the attack to his psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, where he had studied.

Best-selling crime writer Stephen Singular, of Denver, was among observers anxiously awaiting more news about that notebook. Together he and his wife, Joyce, attended nearly every pre-trial hearing in the Holmes case and finished a soon-to-be-released investigation, "The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth."

Stephen Singular talked with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read an excerpt

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen and Joyce Singular from The Spiral Notebook. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint. 

The dark figure had parked the white Hyundai hatchback behind Theater Nine and was casually leaning on the open door on the driver’s side. He was sweating heavily inside his SWAT gear: a bulky black coat, slick black pants made of windbreaker material, a gas mask, a ballistic helmet, an urban assault vest, shin guards, a throat guard, and a groin protector. An empty sling lay across the chest, made to hold a rifle. Beneath the outerwear was another layer of dark, bullet-proof leggings, like those worn by a cop on a dangerous mission or a soldier headed into combat. The person wrapped inside the gear was dressed for warfare, like an American superhero of the kind found in action films and comic books. 

With police lights spinning and sirens whining, Patrolman Jason Obiatt pulled in next to the white vehicle, studying the calm shape beside the Hyundai. It had to be another officer, Obiatt decided, one who’d received the same 911 call he did and arrived at the theater moments before him. At 12:38 a.m., a series of 911 bulletins had spread out across Aurora and greater Denver about a shooting at the Century 16 movie complex. 

From every direction, patrol cars and ambulances were racing to this location. Obiatt looked more closely at the figure, surprised at the posture and how the person inside the SWAT outfit showed no sense of urgency at this massive crime scene. His movements—if it was a he—weren’t rushed or anxious. He seemed completely at ease, and on closer inspection his uniform wasn’t exactly standard issue; the gas mask was different. 

Stepping out of his patrol car and approaching the Hyundai, Obiatt kept his eyes on the figure’s hands resting atop the vehicle. Near them was a pistol, probably a semiautomatic, 40-round Glock. Drawing his own firearm, Obiatt was only seven or eight steps away and advanced cautiously. 

“Get your hands down on the ground!” he ordered, looking in the car for others, seeing no one else. 

The figure remained still.

“Get down on the ground!”

The figure complied, but in the same unhurried manner, lowering himself to the pavement. As he lay facing the asphalt, a handgun magazine fell from his pocket. Then another tumbled out. The officer grabbed him and dragged him ten feet over to a Dumpster. He cuffed his wrists, frisked him for weapons. 

The figure was perfectly compliant. 

Obiatt couldn’t feel any weapons, but the individual had on so much body armor that he thought he might be missing something tucked around the waist or hidden in a pant leg. He kept searching and fumbling within all the protective gear, finding a knife inside a belt and one more in a secret compartment. 

“Get up!” he said. “You’re under arrest.”

The figure stood up.

Obiatt saw another officer, Aaron Blue, coming across the parking lot to assist him. The men conferred, and Blue pulled out a police knife and began to cut items of clothing from the suspect’s body. They smelled acrid, like tear gas. Blue snipped off as many layers as he could, but the material was difficult to slice through and still concealed several items, including an iPod Touch. The officer put away the knife and proceeded to undress the thin, pale young man, right down to his ripped white T-shirt, underwear, and socks. He emitted a harsh odor, but he didn’t appear or smell drunk. 

Obiatt rejoined Blue and observed the skinny figure. In his six years on the Aurora police force, Obiatt had made numerous arrests under all kinds of conditions. He knew that whenever you confronted or tried to move a suspect, you should anticipate resistance. When people resisted, you could feel muscular tension rippling through their bodies, but not this time. Obiatt had never seen anyone in this situation so relaxed or with so little verbal or emotional response. He seemed detached in every way. 

His arms, shoulders, and torso had gone slack, as if all of his energy and adrenalin had been spent and he was now at peace. The mission was over, the goal achieved. He could finally sit back and look at what he’d created, like a painter admiring his completed canvas or a film director watching the daily rushes of his latest picture or a soldier after conquering the enemy. 

Virtually undressed, he was lean and wiry, probably in his mid- twenties, although the officers hadn’t yet seen his face. They now re- moved his gas mask, revealing a shock of bright orange hair. 

“I’m The Joker,” he mumbled. 

The men exchanged glances, startled by the hair, by this remark, and by his huge pupils. 

They asked if he had any other firearms besides the Glock.

“Yes,” he replied evenly. “Four of them.”

Officer Blue reached inside the suspect’s pants pockets, locating a wallet and counting $280 in cash. He pulled out a University of Colorado ID card, a credit card, a health insurance card, and a driver’s license. The latter belonged to James Holmes of 1690 Paris Street, in Aurora, four miles north of the theater. 

Officer Blue came closer. “Are there any explosives?” 


“Where are they?”

“In my apartment.” 

 “Are they ready to go off?” 

“Yes. If you trip the wires.” 

“What are they?”


Improvised Explosive Devices, also known as “roadside bombs,” could be detonated by remote control. In recent years, they’d been widely employed as unconventional military weapons in terrorist actions against the United States. By the end of 2007, they were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the Coalition deaths in the war with Iraq. They’d caused roughly the same number of casualties in the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, including 3,200 casualties in 2011 alone. IEDs were most effective at maiming or removing people’s limbs. 

Blue walked away from the two men, passing along the name, address, and information about the explosives to his fellow officers. As he did so, more and more police vehicles, fire engines, and emergency medical personnel were arriving at the theater, its parking lot illuminated by splashes of red and yellow lights and echoing with sirens and horns. 

Because of all the patrol cars now on the scene, ambulances couldn’t get near the complex and had been directed to a staging area to await instructions. Fire trucks had jumped over cement curbs and medians, while black-and-white police cars had driven up a steep grassy slope. In the middle of this vast traffic jam, nearly a thou- sand moviegoers were fleeing from all the doors of Century 16, some bleeding, running toward the police, and screaming. 

At 12:38, Kevin Quinonez made the initial 911 call from inside the theater, and by 12:41 police cars had begun arriving at the complex. At 12:45, forty more such calls had gone out, and paramedics from Engine 8 were already triaging patients at the northwest corner of Century 16. 

At 12:46, a police officer called into dispatch and said, “Rescue inside the auditorium. 

Multiple victims.” 

At 12:47, another report said, “Seven down in Theater Nine.” 

A bomb squad had reached Holmes’s vehicle. They broke the Hyundai’s dark-tinted windows and looked inside, seeing a throat protector, a cell phone, and a hard plastic gun case. They deployed a two-foot-tall robot to go into the car and search for other weapons or explosives. Two hundred and twenty-three police officers from Denver and Aurora were descending on the complex.