Theater shooter's hatred for therapists kept them in dark
Jun. 15, 2015
CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — The person closest to the murderous thoughts of James Holmes before the neuroscience student unleashed an attack on a Colorado movie theater — someone Holmes tried very hard to keep in the dark — will take the witness stand Tuesday.
Dr. Lynne Fenton saw Holmes five times in 2012 and prescribed him drugs for anxiety and depression, concerned he had a social phobia after he confessed to thoughts of killing people, according to testimony in his death penalty trial.
Fenton will be called to testify Tuesday, District Attorney George Brauchler said Monday. Her testimony is highly anticipated because despite her tense relationship with Holmes, she was the mental health professional closest to him before the shooting.
Holmes said he pointedly kept Fenton uninformed as he plotted his attack. He never told her about the arsenal of weapons he was assembling. His elaborate schemes and to-do lists were kept in a journal that he didn't send to her until hours before his assault, and it lingered in a campus mailroom for days thereafter.
His list for their sessions included: "Prevent building false sense of rapport ... deflect incriminating questions ... can't tell the mind rapists plan."
Whether anyone could have stopped him from killing 12 people, wounding 58 with gunfire and leaving 12 others injured in the chaos is a question asked by many people watching his trial.
"I kind of regret that she didn't lock me up so that everything could have been avoided," Holmes said more than two years later in an interview with a doctor hired by the court to evaluate whether he was legally sane when he opened fire.
But in the same recorded interview, Holmes also said he kept the details to himself so that no one could thwart his plans.
Fenton has never spoken publicly about their sessions. She remains bound by the trial judge's gag order, and a civil suit claims she should have done more to stop Holmes. But Holmes waived his patient-client privilege when he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, making her testimony possible.
Clearly, their relationship was difficult.
"I think Mr. Holmes was very angry at Dr. Fenton," said Jeffrey Metzner, the first of two court-ordered doctors to evaluate Holmes ahead of the trial.
Holmes was a graduate student in neuroscience with a particular interest in the biological basis for psychiatric disorders. But his journal entries show contempt and distrust for the psychiatrists who treated him.
Meanwhile, he was self-diagnosing the symptoms: He felt catatonic, he was tired, he pulled his hair, he was manic, he obsessed about his looks, and, since childhood, he had an obsession to kill.
In page after page of angry scrawls, he described a litany of mental illnesses he felt no one else had managed to observe: dysphoric mania, schizophrenia, Asperger's syndrome, trichotillomania, adjustment disorder, pain disorder.
Holmes later dismissed Fenton as more interested in drug effects than psychoanalysis. He told psychiatrist William Reid, the second court-ordered examiner, that he "knew it was an artificial relationship because she's being paid."
Fenton brought in a colleague for backup, prosecutors said.
"Oddly, they don't pursue or delve further into harmful omissions," he wrote in his journal.
Fenton did contact a campus-wide threat assessment team in June 2012, more than a month before the attack and told a campus police officer about her concerns after Holmes sent her a threatening email. But Fenton rejected the officer's offer to arrest Holmes and place him on a 72-hour psychiatric hold, according to the civil suit.
Holding people against their will back then was more complicated in Colorado, said Brian Stettin, policy director for Arlington, Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center.
State law required people to be "gravely disabled" or pose an "imminent danger" of harm to themselves or others — a standard left open for interpretation. After the theater attack, state lawmakers defined "imminent danger" as evidence of an overt action, attempt or threat, and clarified that "gravely disabled" includes people who are mentally deteriorating.
The last session Fenton had with Holmes was June 11, the day after he withdrew in shame from the university, having failed a key neuroscience exam. But Holmes didn't stop thinking about her. Hours before he left for the theater that July 19, he mailed her the journal — along with some burned $20 bills to show he couldn't afford therapy after dropping out.
Asked two years later to explain his motivations, Holmes said he mailed the notebook as a "useful diagnostic tool," to educate her so that "something like this wouldn't happen again."
Fenton "might have been surprised that there was all this stuff I didn't mention, that was in the notebook," Holmes said.
Prosecutors say that by withholding key details from Fenton, Holmes showed he knew what he was doing was wrong. Defense lawyers counter that his schizophrenia was spiraling beyond his control and that he carried out the attack in the grips of psychosis.
Even the lawyer suing Fenton says it's "really tough to say" whether she made any errors in judgment.
"Those questions have been pending for years. Until she sits in a deposition in the civil case and gets to lay down what happened, we don't yet know," Nicholus Palmer said.