On the early morning of July 20, 2012, psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Fenton was sound asleep in her Denver, Colo., home when her cellphone woke her up. On the line was her supervisor Steve.
“Are you seeing this?” he asked. “It’s our guy, Lynne. He did it. He really did it. Jesus, I can’t believe it.”
Shocked, Fenton rolled out of bed and logged onto her computer. On the screen, she saw a news report about a movie theater shooting in nearby Aurora. Eighteen minutes into “The Dark Knight Rises,” James Holmes had started spraying the audience with bullets, slaying 12 people including a teenager and a 6-year-old girl. It was Colorado’s deadliest mass shooting in the decade since Columbine.
Fenton felt sick. She had been treating Holmes for mental-health issues just weeks before the shooting.
“This is every psychiatrist’s nightmare,” Fenton told The Post about her ordeal, which she details in her new book, “Aurora: The Psychiatrist Who Treated the Movie Theater Killer Tells Her Story” (Berkley).
Fenton immediately drove to the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus where she worked as the director of student mental health. There, in a cobbled-together command center, police officers and lawyers dominated the room.
Fenton identified herself as Holmes’ psychiatrist, and the barrage of questions began. Holmes had booby-trapped his apartment with explosives and authorities wanted to know if he had named any targets or mentioned any other places where could have planted bombs.
“He never said a word,” she told them.
Holmes was 24 and a first-year PhD candidate in the neuroscience department at the University of Colorado in Denver when he first came into Fenton’s orbit in 2012. His professors, concerned about his extreme anxiety, insisted he seek counseling. A campus social worker put Holmes in touch with Fenton.
Fenton saw Holmes a total of seven times over three months, twice in the presence of Steve. Their first session was on March 21, 2012, and she remembers him sitting upright on a chair in her office’s waiting room. As soon as Holmes saw her, he stood up quickly and ignored her hand when she held it out for a shake.
That response was so unsettling, “the hair on my forearms prickled against my sleeves,” Fenton writes.
Once inside her softly lit office decorated with plants, Holmes stared at Fenton in a manner so intense she had difficulty making eye contact. “Holmes had an odd, staring, bug-eyed look,” Fenton said.
“He said he had thoughts of killing people. He said it as a vague and bland statement. I asked if he had any particular targets, but he didn’t reveal any to me. I could not get him to say he was angry about a person or a group of people.”
Concerned, she persisted: “‘If you were to do this,’ I asked him, ‘do you have an idea as to how you would do it?’ He said he didn’t. That made it seem like he had no plan, like it was an antisocial fantasy. Getting him to talk about anything was like pulling teeth. The threats seemed vague enough to not warrant following up. I asked him if he had guns and weapons. He said no, and that turned out to be a lie.”
Over nearly three months of treatment, Holmes’ anxiety levels and disposition failed to improve. In fact, a few weeks into weekly therapy sessions, he was as on edge as ever.
After Fenton accidentally misspelled Holmes’ last name as “Hughes” on a prescription for anti-anxiety medicine, he responded with an odd email: “An inconvenience, Fenton.” The subject line contained a string of letters and symbols that Fenton could not decipher.
During their next session, she asked what it was about.
“It’s me, punching you in the eye,’” he said coldly.
Suddenly she wondered, “Am I one of the people he wants to kill?”
Fenton had been trained to keep things in perspective and not to take patient hostility too personally. Nevertheless, she said, “It was a little off the scale. I couldn’t imagine even a particularly angry patient responding this way. It was snarky and made me wonder about what was going on in his head. It wasn’t even the typical angry response. It was cryptic and creepy.”
Even so, Holmes did not qualify as the sort of patient a shrink would fire.
“Usually that gets done because the patient is noncompliant or they don’t show up for appointments,” said Fenton. “I couldn’t just abandon him, which would have been unethical. I would have had to find a new psychiatrist for him. Passing a difficult patient onto another psychiatrist did not seem right.”
And, under the standards of psychiatry, Holmes’ admissions of violence were not specific enough for Fenton to slap her patient with a mental-health hold, which would have forced him to be hospitalized for 72 hours of observation.
To initiate that, there must be a specific threat to a person, group or place. Alternately, the patient must be suicidal or, as Fenton puts it, “super psychotic” — meaning “that he is so gravely psychotic that he cannot take care of himself.”
“Holmes did not meet any of those criteria,” added Fenton. “Very few patients tell me they want to kill people, but he did not make specific threats. He said he would never kill himself and he was not psychotic. I contemplated a mental-health hold during every visit. But he did not qualify.”
About seven weeks into treatment, Holmes ceased making eye contact and all emotion had evaporated from his voice. Even so, he had just taken a final exam, and Fenton was hoping for the best.
On June 11, Holmes told her he had failed his exam and would be dropping out of college and giving up on therapy.
“That last day I saw Holmes was frightening,” Fenton said. “He told me he hadn’t studied — he was playing ‘Diablo III’ [a violent, role-playing computer game] and failed his exam. I felt a pit in my stomach and asked if he felt unmoored. He said no and was weirdly blasé. Most people would be devastated to have failed.
“Then,” Fenton recalled, “he stood up like a soldier, looked at the exit door and left with a stiff gait. I had a bad feeling about him, a concern that something would go wrong.”
She was so worried she felt justified in breaking HIPAA (the federal law that restricts the sharing of sensitive patient information with third parties).
“I spoke with his mom and she led me to believe that [his awkwardness at the time] was nothing drastically different than it usually was. Though it didn’t sound like a psychotic break, I was still worried about him.”
After their sessions ended, Fenton spoke with “the campus police officer assigned to the threat assessment team at the university. The police officer did a background check on Holmes and said there were no warrants or legal infractions or past run-ins with the law. She said that she would make sure his campus access was deactivated after he left the university.”
And, Fenton added, “as time went on, I felt less concerned.”
Just a few weeks later came the massacre. In addition to the dozen slain, 58 people were wounded, and Holmes’ mental illness was pegged as the motive for the crime. Fenton was devastated. “I hadn’t stopped him, and no matter my reasons or the legal restrictions, I had to live with that knowledge.”
Shockingly, on July 19, just hours before the shooting, Holmes had mailed a notebook to Fenton, detailing his thoughts and plans during the weeks leading up to the crime. But the notebook was never delivered, and found later in the mail room at the Anshutz Medical Campus.
“I was totally shocked to learn that,” Fenton said. “Of course, he never meant it to get to me before the crime, just to supposedly explain it after the fact.”
Mass killings do not typically come out of nowhere and without warning, Fenton said.
“These people leak their plans, to some degree, ahead of time,” she said. She later discovered that Holmes had sent messages to friends and girlfriends saying he had thoughts of killing people.
“We can no longer assume that people who say those things are kidding . . . We need to take vague threats more seriously. There needs to be more scrutiny of social media. If we see concerning behavior, we have to go to the police.”
Her sessions with Holmes also took place before any Red Flag Laws, otherwise known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders, were put into place. They now exist in 19 states, plus Washington, DC, and allow law enforcement officers — and, in some instances, health care professionals and family members — to petition courts to keep potentially dangerous individuals away from guns. (New York adopted the Red Flag Law in August 2019.)
“Red Flag Laws are a good idea,” Fenton said. And she “probably would have” initiated one if it had been an option at the time. “In the case of Holmes, they might have helped.”
One week following the Aurora tragedy, Fenton was outed by the media as Holmes’ psychiatrist when his attorneys failed to redact her name from court documents.
Almost immediately afterward, her cellphone rang with an unrecognized number. She answered, assuming it was a friend. Instead, an angry voice shouted, “F–king murderer!” Fenton let about 20 more nasty calls go straight to voicemail. By mid-August, she was fitted for a bulletproof Kevlar vest, which she wore during her increasingly rare public outings over the next few years.
The last time she saw Holmes in person was when she testified at his trial in 2015.
“In the courtroom, I looked at him very briefly,” she said. “I wore my Kevlar vest and walked into the courtroom. I felt every single person staring at me. As I got to the witness stand, I looked at Holmes and it was kind of shocking. Last time I saw him, he was a student, and now he was in prison scrubs with orange hair. He was being tried for murder and there were snipers on nearby rooftops. He stared straight ahead.”
During her testimony, Fenton made it clear that nothing in Holmes’ behavior hinted at the murderous intent that lingered inside his mind. But she said she was concerned about his “psychotic-level thinking” and believed he may have had schizoid personality disorder.
Holmes was found guilty on all counts including first-degree murder, and he received 12 life sentences plus 3,318 years with no parole. He is currently serving his time at United States Penitentiary, Allenwood, having narrowly avoided the death penalty thanks to one “steadfast” holdout juror.
Fenton, 61, has since moved out of the city to a rural area of Colorado and cut back on her full-time job to three days a week. But the fact that Holmes, now 34, is still alive continues to haunt her.
“I wish he received the death sentence,” she said. “He deserved it.”