Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes was seeing psychiatrist at university before massacre

The suspect in the Colorado theater rampage was seeing a University of Colorado psychiatrist who studies schizophrenia, according to court records released Friday, indicating for the first time that university officials were familiar with James Holmes’s mental state.

Holmes was a patient of Lynne Fenton, the medical director of student mental health services at the university, according to the suspect’s lawyers. Holmes withdrew from a PhD program in neuroscience after taking oral exams in early June.

Police say that Holmes carried out a methodically planned assault on moviegoers in a sold-out theater, employing legally purchased guns that he began acquiring in May. Twelve people died in the attack, and 58 were injured.

After the 2007 mass shooting that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado set up a special team to spot students who were suicidal or might pose a threat to others. There is no indication that the team — made up of mental-health professionals, campus police and others — had identified Holmes as a student in need of monitoring.

Campus police, whose officers participate in the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team, have said they had no contact with Holmes. Other team members reached in recent days declined to discuss Holmes.

University Chancellor Don Elliman told reporters this week that to his knowledge, “We did everything we should have done in this case.”

Michael Carrigan, chairman of the University of Colorado regents, said he couldn’t comment on Holmes in particular and said he didn’t know what might have brought him to the attention of the BETA team.

But Carrigan said the team has improved campus life. “It has brought to our attention, much sooner, kids who are at a threat for harming themselves,” such as students considering suicide, he said. “I think it is working in helping us identify those students.”

Holmes sent a notebook to Fenton sometime before the shooting rampage, his lawyers said in a motion filed Friday. The notebook included a journal of sorts and crude drawings depicting a mass gun attack, according to news reports.

But whether the package reached the university mailroom before or after the tragedy is in dispute. Police seized the package Monday, but Fenton had never opened it, according to court records.

Holmes’s lawyers at the public defender’s office have asked Colorado District Court Judge William Blair Sylvester to help them find out whether law enforcement officers or prosecutors leaked information to the media about the notebook and its contents this week. The lawyers argue that Holmes’s privacy and constitutional rights have been violated and that investigators are not necessarily entitled to see the troubled student’s communication with his psychiatrist.

“The government’s disclosure of this confidential and privileged information has placed Mr. Holmes’ constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial by an impartial jury in serious jeopardy,” the public defenders, Daniel King and Tamara Brady, wrote.

Sylvester has imposed a gag order on the lawyers and law enforcement agencies involved in the Holmes case, sealed court records and barred the university from releasing relevant public records to the media. The Washington Post and other news organizations are contesting his order.

University officials have declined to discuss the notebook but have acknowledged that a package mailed to a university staffer was seized by police Monday as evidence in the Holmes case.

Fenton, who has served as mental-health services medical director since 2009, has conducted numerous research projects in the area of schizophrenia. She did not respond to calls to her home and office.

Fenton’s clinical practice included treating “15 to 20 graduate students per week” with counseling and medication, according to her biography on the university Web site. Because of her senior role, Fenton also supervises psychiatric residents who treat students, the site says. She has lectured on bipolar disorders and borderline personalities.

Holmes’s lawyers also want to know whether the suspect alerted investigators to the existence of the notebook while under questioning, as detailed in media reports attributed to unidentified law enforcement sources. Investigators, joined by a bomb squad with bomb-sniffing dogs and robots, began searching at dawn Monday the university building where Fenton works, and later that day evacuated and searched the campus mailroom.

Holmes’s lawyers want access to officials involved in the search and in any testing of the package “for the presence of explosives and chemical/biological contaminants.”

Angie Ribera, director of the graduate program in neuroscience and one of several university administrators who spoke with The Post on Friday on the condition that they would not discuss Holmes specifically, said the program in recent years has received about 60 completed applications annually.

The program accepts six students each year, and in some cases they receive funding from the National Institutes of Health. Holmes was accepted into the program and received the funding.

“They need to be the top students that have been admitted,” said Diego Restrepo, co-director of the university’s Center for Neuro­Science, who oversees the NIH training grant.

By all accounts, the handful of students who do gain passage into the program each year find themselves in an engaging but demanding environment. The program’s first-year curriculum consists of a set of core class work, as well as three lab rotations intended to help them discover a long-term focus for their research.

“We expect our students to be passionate and to persevere. . . . We expect 150 percent of their intellectual and emotional commitment into that research project,” said Barry Shur, dean of the university’s graduate school. “It’s intense, but there should be passion driving that intensity.”

University officials estimated Friday that 10 percent of students drop out of the doctoral program, usually in their first year.

“There are some students that it’s just not a right fit,” Shur said. “And to force them to stay would be counterproductive.”

It remains unclear why Holmes had decided to leave the program in June. But university officials said it would not have been because he failed the hour-long oral exam that all first-year students must take, as some have suggested.

“We don’t really grade this exam pass-fail,” Ribera said. “Either we tell the student ‘No problem,’ or we say, ‘We notice that there were deficiencies in this area.’ Then the chair of the graduate training committee talks to the student and together they come up with a plan to address that deficiency.”

Despite the rigorous requirements and high expectations that the first-year neuroscience students face — challenges common to similar programs throughout the country — the officials insisted that the neuroscience doctoral candidates are a tight-knit, collegial group.

“They support each other,” Ribera said. “They are remarkably close and supportive.”

Leonnig and Johnson reported from Washington. Alice Crites, Sari Horwitz and Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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