By Trevor Hughes and Carolyn Pesce
AURORA, Colo. - A gunman wearing a gas mask, helmet and full body armor opened fire early Friday in a crowded suburban Denver theater at the opening of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and injuring at least 59.
Federal law enforcement officials identified the suspect as James Holmes, 24, who lives about four miles away from the theater in Aurora. He is in custody.
At a news conference, officials said they don't have a motive for the shooting.
"From our first call to his apprehension was about a minute or a minute and a half," said Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates.
He said the suspect was armed with one AR-15, a Remington 870 shotgun and two 40-caliber Glock handguns.
This photo from the University of Colorado, Denver, shows James Holmes.
At the suspect's home, Oates said investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives were attempting to disarm what appeared to be sophisticated incendiary devices.
"We are not sure what we are dealing with in the home," Oates said. "There are incendiary devices ... chemicals and wires, something I am not familiar with."
Officials said the suspect purchased a ticket for the show and once inside the theater propped open an emergency exit door, which he later entered after retrieving four weapons and a tear gas canister.
Dressed in dark clothing, he stood at the front of the theater and hurled the canister as he fired into the crowd at around 12:30 a.m. MT at the multiplex theater in a mall in Aurora, police said.
"There were bullet (casings) just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead," Jennifer Seeger said, adding that the gunman, dressed like a SWAT team member, fired steadily except when he stopped to reload.
"Every few seconds, it was just boom, boom, boom," she said. "He would reload and shoot, and anyone who would try to leave would just get killed."
"It almost seemed like fun to him," she told CNN.
Police, ambulances and emergency crews swarmed to the scene after frantic calls flooded the 911 switchboard.
A police officer could be heard over a police scanner yelling, "Get us some damn gas masks for Theater 9; we can't get in."
Officers came running in and told people to leave the theater, Salina Jordan told The Denver Post. She said some police were carrying and dragging bodies.
Moviegoers were confused at first because there was an on-screen gun battle happening at the time the shooting started.
"We all thought it was a joke," said Joseph Soto, 18, who was in an adjacent theater when shots rang out. "We found out it wasn't a joke."
Rounds from Theater 9, where the shooting occurred, came through the wall into Theater 8 where he was sitting, Soto said. He said theater staff ushered patrons out a side door, warning them not to go out the main entrance.
"It was relatively calm for what was happening," he said.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at a news conference Friday said the shooter had dyed his hair red and called himself "The Joker," Batman's arch-villain.
"We have some information, most of it is public," he said. "It clearly looks like a deranged individual. He had his hair painted red, he said he was 'The Joker,' obviously the 'enemy' of Batman."
The Dark Knight Rises director Christopher Nolan said the shooting strikes a chord in anyone who has gone to the movies.
"They were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime," Nolan said. "The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me."
Heavily armed police and FBI agents in gas masks surrounded the suspect's apartment building after the shooting. Five buildings in the area were evacuated.
Aurora Deputy Fire Chief Chris Henderson said the suspect's third-floor apartment was "extensively" booby-trapped, with numerous liter bottles connected with wires or cord arranged in the front room, along with other unknown devices or items.
A Colorado law enforcement official said the suspect invoked his right to counsel shortly after his arrest. And it was immediately unclear how much information he had provided to them about the traps he had allegedly planted at his apartment.
The state official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, said authorities believe the suspect had been allegedly plotting an attack for some time, given the elaborate steps taken to arm the apartment.
"The place was rigged to blow,'' the state official said.
Henderson said the bomb squad was sending in a robot to check the suspect's apartment.
"It's definitely intentionally booby-trapped," Henderson says. "We assume it's the worst-case scenario."
FBI agents and police used a hook-and-ladder fire truck and put a camera at the end of 12-foot pole inside the apartment.
"The cops said there has been a bomb found, and there's lots of booby-traps," said Shawn Swagerty, 29, whose mother lives in the complex and who said she had seen the suspect's white car.
Police said the suspect offered no resistance when he was arrested at the rear of the theater. Oates said 10 victims died at the theater and two died at area hospitals.
FBI spokesman Jason Pack said there's no indication of any connection to terrorism. At least 100 federal agents are involved in the investigation.
Investigators attempted to trace the source of the weapons and tracked telephone calls and possible e-mail communications before the attack.
Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops where the suspect purchased two of the weapons, said the incident represented "an unspeakable tragedy."
"Based on the records we have reviewed, personnel in our Denver store correctly and fully followed all federal requirements with respect to the sale of one shotgun and one handgun to the individual identified in this incident,"' Whitely said. "Background checks, as required by federal law, were properly conducted, and he was approved."
Jess Myers, a spokesman for Gander Mountain stores where the two other firearms were bought, said the company "fully cooperates with law enforcement in criminal investigations like the one regarding the tragic events in Colorado."
"We operate in strict compliance with all local, state and federal laws regarding firearms ownership and are fully cooperating with this on-going investigation,"' Myers said. "As longtime business owners in Aurora, this community is our home and the home to many of our associates and customers. We send our thoughts and prayers out to those affected. In respect for the victims of this tragic crime and their families, we will have no further comment in this matter."
On a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Fla., President Obama called the shooting evil and senseless.
"They (the victims) had hopes for the future and dreams not yet fulfilled. If there's anything to take away from this tragedy, it's that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and precious," Obama said. "What matters here today are not small, trivial things, but how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another."
Holmes' family released a statement: "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. Our family is cooperating with authorities in both San Diego, Calif., and Aurora, Colo. We are still trying to process this information, and we appreciate that people will respect our privacy."
Moviegoers spoke of their terror when the violence erupted and people around them fell victim.
Benjamin Fernandez, 30, told the Post he heard a series of explosions. He said people ran from the theater and there were gunshots as police shouted, "Get down!"
Fernandez said he saw people falling, including one young girl.
Jordan told the paper one girl was struck in the cheek, others in the stomach, including a girl who looked to be around 9 years old.
Jordan said it sounded like firecrackers until someone ran into Theater 8 yelling, "They're shooting out here!"
Hayden Miller told KUSA-TV that he heard several shots.
"Like little explosions going on and shortly after that, we heard people screaming," he told the station.
Hayden said at first he thought it was part of a louder movie next door. Then he saw "people hunched over, leaving the theater."
Some people in the audience thought the thick smoke and gunfire was a special effect accompanying the movie, police and witnesses said.
"We just heard a pop, pop, pop, pop," Quentin Caldwell, who was attending the Batman showing in an adjacent theater, told CNN.
Ryan Ruden of Pleasant Hill thought the movie theater was providing special effects when he started to hear firecrackers during the movie. Seconds later Ruden's friend, Gage Hankins, 18, of Ohio, yelled out and blood was running from his arm.
Ruden was in the adjacent Theater 8 with his sister Haley, 19, and his brother Pete, 14.
"We didn't think anything of it - we just thought he was bleeding," said Ruden, 22, who was attending a conference with the others. "(When we got out) everyone was freaking out and saying somebody had a gun. It seems unreal."
Ruden grabbed Pete and said he shielded him with his body. The theater was smoky and chaotic, but they were able to leave out the main exits.
Once outside they found an ambulance for Hankins, who had surgery on his arm.
Victims were transported to at least six area hospitals. Many were rushed immediately to hospitals in police cars by responding officers.
Dr. Guy Upshaw was on duty at 1:30 a.m. MT when the first patient arrived at Children's Hospital of Colorado.
He said he's never seen such a "massive" number of gunshot victims arrive in one night before.
KUSA reported that some hospitalized victims were being treated for chemical exposure, possibly related to a canister thrown by the gunman.
The youngest victim, a 3-month-old infant, was treated and released from the hospital, according to KUSA.
At Gateway High School, which officials used as a staging area to gather and interview witnesses, survivors were provided mental health counseling through the Red Crosswhile they waited to talk to investigators.
The Rev. Michael Borgstede of the nearby Mount Olive Lutheran Church said victims and witnesses need a "listening ear."
Borgstede said he walked over to the school to provide whatever counsel he could. "I'm just hoping to sit with them and pray," he said.
Eric Soto, 42, was at the school with his son Joseph. "He called me about 12:30 and said, 'Come pick me up, Dad, come pick me up.' I could tell he was nervous," Soto said.
"He said it sounded like firecrackers," Soto said, standing outside the school while his son was interviewed by investigators.
Aurora is on Denver's east side and is Colorado's third-largest city with 327,000 residents. It is home to a large Defense Department satellite intelligence operation atBuckley Air Force Base, as well as the Children's Hospital, the University of Colorado Hospital and a future Veterans Affairs hospital.
Officials in the area scrambled to use social media to get word out about the shooting.
"We certainly appreciate the nation's thoughts and prayers as our police department continues to investigate the terrible theater shooting tragedy that occurred today," said a statement posted on the city's Facebook. "Our condolences go out to the victims and their family members."
The Red Cross used Twitter to urge people who were in the theater to use social media to alert friends and family that they are safe. Spokesman Patricia Billinger recommended that area residents update their Facebook and other social media accounts to let their friends know they are safe.
Billinger said that during all the uncertainty about who was at what showing of the popular movie, taking that extra step will help reassure family and friends.
"People don't know how close you were, so help alleviate that anxiety," she said.
Chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, already in Colorado and New Mexico ministering to victims of the ravaging wildfires, redeployed to Aurora within hours of the shooting. The group's website included evangelical advice on "spiritual survival" in tragedy.
Radio stations were filled with calls from anguished listeners.
U.S. distributor Warner Bros. released a statement that said, "Warner Bros. is deeply saddened to learn about this shocking incident. We extend our sincere sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims at this tragic time."
The company canceled the Paris premiere of the movie, saying it would be inappropriate in light of the tragedy. It said had no plans to change or cancel domestic screenings.
New York Police Commissioner Kelly said the department plans to provide extra security at theaters in the five boroughs showing the new movie.
Gov. John Hickenlooper called the assault the "act of a very deranged mind."
"We can't allow people who are aberrations of nature to take away the joy of our society," a visibly shaken governor said at a press conference. "We will come back stronger than ever."
Jackie Mitchell, 45, said he shared a beer and a table at the nearby Zephyr Lounge with Holmes on Tuesday afternoon.
Mitchell, a furniture mover, said he had seen Holmes around a few times at the bar.
"He'd walk in, order a beer and go sit on the patio by himself," Mitchell said. "He seemed like a real educated dude."
Mitchell said he and Holmes chatted about football on the busy patio while Holmes drank a Bud Light. Mitchell said he was shocked when he heard Holmes was the shooting suspect.
"I don't got no hair, and what little I do stood up," Mitchell said. "That's some freaky (expletive), baby."
Contributing: Jefferson Graham in Aurora; Aamer Madhani and Kevin Johnson in Washington; KUSA-TV in Denver; Natalie DiBlasio, Yamiche Alcindor, Marisol Bello, Maria Romas in McLean, Va.; Jens Manuel Krogstad, The Des Moines Register; Associated PressBy Trevor Hughes and Carolyn Pesce, USA TODAY