James Eagan Holmes Psychiatrist, Not Politicians, Could Have Prevented Aurora Tragedy


According to his attorneys, accused Colorado massacre suspect James Holmes was receiving mental health treatment at the University of Colorado. Holmes was one of a small number of graduate students who were patients of the medical director of student mental health services, Dr. Lynne Fenton. If the Colorado case follows the pattern of other recent university-associated shootings, Fenton may have had plenty of evidence to notify authorities, which would have had at least some time to assess the potential threat and act to stop it.

Any law enforcement entering James Holmes' apartment in the weeks prior to the massacre could have seen that "something was wrong," and that wrong thing, which included guns, large stashes of ammunition, incendiary devices and flammable liquids, would have had nothing to do with society-wide gun control or the Tea Party. It would have everything to do with the responsibility of those in authority to take action to protect innocent life from someone who's got the materials, means, and motive to do something very bad.

Facts about the Aurora massacre appear similar to other cases of university-associated mass murder, from the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 to Dr. Amy Bishop's biology department rampage at the University of Alabama in 2010. In each of these cases, major warning signs, including written evidence, were overlooked. Investigations after the crimes uncovered a long series of missed opportunities to prevent violence.

Ironically, the University of Colorado established a task force to assess student risk factors for violence in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. James Holmes was not referred to this task force, which is reported to be effective in preventing student suicide. It is not yet known whether Holmes told Fenton or others that he was thinking about harming others. However, he did feel enough attachment to Fenton that eight days before the massacre, he mailed her a notebook containing stick-figure illustrations of the planned crime. The package remained in the university mailroom, undelivered and unopened, until it was too late.

One of the enduring myths about the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School was that there was little warning about killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who thought to be victims of bullying who retaliated by killing popular students. Diaries and writings of the pair revealed that rather than being bullied themselves, Klebold and Harris enjoyed picking on younger students and persecuting "fags" and people of color. For at least two years, parents had made written complaints about Harris' bomb and gun threats against other students. School administrators, law enforcement, and Harris and Klebold’s parents ignored these.

2011 Tucson, Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner had been reported to campus police at Pima Community College for threatening behavior at least 18 times prior the rampage that grievously injured former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and took the lives of six others. It took a 51-page mountain of written reports and evidence for Loughner to be banned from campus. For a full year before the killings, Virginia Tech shooter Cho reportedly attended no classes, socialized with no one, and lived in an on-campus dorm, planning his crime in uninterrupted solitude. Written complaints about Cho fill a dozen evidence boxes.

James Holmes did not become violent overnight. He bought weapons, a lot of ammunition, and tactical armor over at least a two-month period, and some of this material was delivered to the University of Colorado. Holmes would not have been receiving care from the head of the psychiatric medical department for minor reasons.

Considering the facts of all of these cases, it's ironic that the companies which sold Holmes his weapons, ammunition and tactical gear, legislators, and totally unrelated gun owners from different states, are blamed more than people who were responsible to take reasonable action in the face of evidence that Holmes could harm others and himself, and what's more -- wasn't just talking, was doing, planning and assembling. At a remote distance, federal, state, or local law enforcement can't stop someone they don't know about, no matter what laws are passed. 

School administrators, psychiatrists, and others in leadership roles have too often acted less like leaders, and more like members of Tony Soprano's "family" covering up for enforcement actions in the alley back of the Bada Bing club. Thirteen people might still be alive, and 59 others might be healthy and uninjured, if Dr. Lynne Fenton had made a few phone calls, raised her voice, and insisted that James Holmes receive a law enforcement visit -- or even contacted her school's own violence prevention task force. Possibly, she did take these actions, and the oversight is someone else's responsibility, but if Holmes' crime follows the pattern of the others, chances are, she pretended James Holmes was not any kind of threat.