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Colorado shooting suspect was brilliant science student

July 20, 2012 at 2:20 a.m.
Updated July 21, 2012 at 2:21 a.m.

Agents from the FBI and ATF investigate the scene behind the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colo.,  following a shooting on Friday. A gunman wearing a gas mask set off an unknown gas and fired into the crowded movie theater.

AURORA, Colo. (AP) - As the new Batman movie played on the screen, a gunman dressed in black and wearing a helmet, body armor and a gas mask stepped through a side door. At first he was just a silhouette, taken by some in the audience for a stunt that was part of one of the summer's most highly anticipated films.

But then, authorities said, he threw gas canisters that filled the packed suburban Denver theater with smoke, and, in the confusing haze between Hollywood fantasy and terrifying reality, opened fire as people screamed and dove for cover.

The suspect in a shooting that killed or wounded 70 people early is not talking to investigators, a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the ongoing case. The person also said police found jars of chemicals in James Holmes' booby-trapped Aurora apartment with wires nearby.

Those who knew the 24-year-old describe him as a shy, intelligent person raised in California by parents who were active in their well-to-do suburban neighborhood.

Holmes, who was studying neuroscience in a Ph.D. program in Colorado, grew up in San Diego, where his parents still live on a quiet street of two-story homes with red tile roofs. He played soccer at Westview High School and ran cross country before going to college.

Neighbors say the family belonged to a Presbyterian church and hosted a Christmas party for residents. Many families choose the San Diego neighborhood because it is part of the well-regarded Poway Unified School District, one of the best in California.

On Friday morning, police escorted the suspect's father, a manager of a software company, from their San Diego home. The mother, a nurse, stayed inside, receiving family visitors who came to offer support. The suspect also has a younger sister.

San Diego police spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown, spoke to reporters in the driveway of the Holmes' home, on behalf of the family.

"As you can understand, the Holmes family is very upset about all of this," she said. "It's a tragic event and it's taken everyone by surprise. They are definitely trying to work through this."

The family in a written statement said "our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved. We ask that the media respect our privacy during this difficult time."

The suspect was in police custody in Colorado and the FBI said there was no indication the attack was tied to any terrorist groups.

There have been no indications so far that Holmes had any run-ins with the law before Friday. San Diego Superior Court spokeswoman Karen Dalton said there were no records found under his name, not even for a traffic ticket.

A furniture mover who lives several blocks from the suspect's Aurora apartment building said he shared a beer with him Tuesday at a neighborhood bar where they talked about Denver Bronco Peyton Manning.

Jackie Mitchell said he recognized Holmes' photo on television as the guy he met at the bar. He described him as smart with a "swagger."

"We just talked about football. He had a backpack and geeky classes and seemed like a real intelligent guy," he said.

There was no reference made to a planned shooting, Mitchell said.

Anthony Mai, a 16-year-old who grew up next door to Holmes, said Holmes largely kept to himself but his behavior was nothing out of the ordinary.

"He felt a little bit concealed, but it wasn't too much. It was alright" he said. "This is just a feeling in my gut, but I felt like he had something, like he was being picked on or something."

His father, Tom Mai, a retired electrical engineer, said he was a "shy guy" who came from a "very, very nice family."

Rose To said the Holmes family set up chairs in their garage for the Christmas party a few years ago, giving neighbors a chance to mingle.

"They were really nice people, good neighbors," she said.

Mai said the mother told him the suspect couldn't find a job after earning a master's degree from a University of California school and so went back for another degree.

Holmes graduated from University of California, Riverside, in the spring of 2010 with a bachelor of science degree in neuroscience, said university spokesman Sean Nealon. No other details were immediately available about his life on campus, Nealon said.

In 2011, Holmes enrolled in the Ph.D. neuroscience program at the University of Colorado-Denver but was in the process of withdrawing, said spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery. University officials earlier said he was a student at the university's medical school.

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