James Eagan Holmes Could Have Been Stopped: Here is What Went Wrong


Are professionals scared to ‘cry wolf’ if they report threatening information about an individual? It is difficult not to question the flaws in our warning system if two shooters, Cho Seung-Hui from the Virginia Tech and James Eagan Holmes from the Aurora theater killings, were both under a mental health professional’s supervision. Both these men’s psychiatrists recognized early warnings signs of their behavior and reported their concerns. Yet, no one took preventive measures to address these concerns. This issue is less about the fear of ‘crying wolf,’ but instead about the lack of ethics and responsibility from a number of departments. 

New twists continue to complicate the Aurora shooting investigation after reports indicate Holmes’ psychiatrist shared her concerns with University of Colorado police. Dr. Lynne Fenton treated James Holmes as a patient at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus. It is unclear how often Dr. Fenton interacted with Holmes and how involved her sessions were in addition to administering drugs to him. However, at some point in their interaction Holmes triggered a significant concern for Fenton. The concern was worrisome enough for her to breach her confidentiality pledge to Holmes as a patient by reaching out to authorities.

Under Colorado law a psychiatrist can legally break their confidentiality with a patient if he or she is aware of a serious and imminent threat. University police inherited the professional responsibility to address Fenton’s concerns about Holmes the moment she contacted them. Obviously, there was a lack of follow up from either party. It is tempting to point fingers to blame one or the other for the failure to take preventive measures, but who or what is truly to blame?

Although Fenton shared the responsibility to take action regarding Holmes with authorities, she did not shed the responsibility and ethics to follow up on her end. I have witnessed a number of my family members who are doctors diligently ensure other parties take the appropriate measures to address any concerns they had regarding a patient.

As a professional, Fenton could have done more, but it seems like she might have washed her hands after informing authorities. Fenton failed the community by no ensuring her concerns were followed by immediate actions from some higher authority. Hoping university authorities took action in the matters was not enough. Demanding answers and an action plan from those she spoke to was the least Fenton could have done.

University police inaction is both unsettling and ridiculous. There must be a standard protocol that the officer Fenton spoke with could have followed. Whether that protocol was followed is also unclear. One would think the proper steps for university police to take included getting Aurora police involved in the matter. This is where being safe rather than sorry applies perfectly. Had university officials begun an investigation and contacted Holmes directly they might have become aware of the number of dangerous weapons he was obtaining. Unfortunately, university police did not prioritize Holmes to follow up in a faster and more efficient matter. A new sense of urgency needs to be established in any police of safety department regarding a reported concern.

In the following weeks reports might shed more light into the University’s handling of Holmes. Former U.S. Attorney, Robert Miller began an independent review of the case. Miller, hired by the University of Colorado, is adept at discovering specific failures within the university’s handling of Holmes. Miller’s findings should serve as a platform not only for the University of Colorado, but all institutions on how to improve responses and protocol on potential threats as Holmes represented