Fraying family ties cut to heart of gunman's defense

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CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) -- They show up in court every day, a visible reminder to jurors that even a killer has parents who love him and who don't want him to die.

But more than two months into his mass-murder trial, James Holmes has yet to turn around in his seat and acknowledge them.

They called him Jimbo. He called them Goober and Bobbo. But the relationship Arlene and Robert Holmes had with their son had been strained since he was a young boy. After he left for graduate school, their communication was mostly confined to terse emails.

Holmes told a psychiatrist years after his gunshots killed 12 people and injured 70 in a crowded Colorado movie theater that he doesn't like to talk with people - even his mother and father.

Holmes' remoteness from his parents cuts to the heart of his insanity defense.

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James Holmes 'Dark Knight' Colo. theater shooting trial, Aurora, Colorado
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Fraying family ties cut to heart of gunman's defense
James Holmes appears in court for the sentencing phase in his trial, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, at Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Victims and their families were given the opportunity to speak about the shooting and its effects on their lives. Holmes was convicted Aug. 7 of murdering 12 people when he opened fire on a crowded movie theater in 2012. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP, Pool)
James Holmes, right, with defense attorney Katherine Spengler, appears in court for the sentencing phase in his trial, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, at Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Victims and their families were given the opportunity to speak about the shooting and its effects on their lives. Holmes was convicted Aug. 7 of murdering 12 people when he opened fire on a crowded movie theater in 2012. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP, Pool)
In an image made from video, Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, far left, sits at the defense table during a statement reading by Kathleen Pourciau, far right, the mother of surviving theater shooting victim Bonnie Kate Pourciau-Zoghbi, during the final sentencing phase of the Holmes trial in Centennial, Colo., Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Holmes was convicted Aug. 7 of murdering 12 people when he opened fire on a crowded movie theater in 2012. (Colorado Judicial Department via AP, Pool)
Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. sits on the bench during the sentencing phase in the trial of James Holmes, at Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo., Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Victims and their families were given the opportunity to speak about the shooting and its effects on their lives. Holmes was convicted Aug. 7 of murdering 12 people when he opened fire on a crowded movie theater in 2012. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP, Pool)
Lasamoa Cross, left, wipes tears from her face as she leaves the Arapahoe County Courthouse with Theresa Hoover, the mother of her boyfriend, Alexander J. Boik, who was killed in the theatre massacre, Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. James Holmes will be sentenced to life in prison without parole after a jury failed to agree on whether he should get the death penalty. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Terry Sullivan, right, whose son Alex was killed on his birthday in the 2012 Aurora movie theatre attack, embraces Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was also killed, after a jury failed to agree on whether theater shooter James Holmes should get the death penalty Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Tom Sullivan, right, who lost his son in the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July 2012, heads into the Arapahoe County Courthouse to hear the verdict reached in the penalty phase of the trial of convicted shooter James Holmes Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Jurors have reached a decision on whether to sentence Holmes to life in prison or the death penalty. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Josh Nowlan, who was shot during the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July 2012, is hugged by an unidentified woman as they head into the Arapahoe County Courthouse to hear the verdict reached in the penalty phase of the trial of convicted shooter James Holmes Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Jurors have reached a decision on whether to sentence Holmes to life in prison or the death penalty. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Ian Sullivan, who lost his 6-year-old daughter in the massacre at a theater in Aurora, Colo., heads into the Arapahoe County Courthouse to hear the verdict reached in the penalty phase of the trial of convicted shooter James Holmes Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Jurors have reached a decision on whether to sentence Holmes to life in prison or the death penalty. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Terry Sullivan, second from left, whose son Alex was killed on his birthday in the 2012 Aurora movie theatre attack, embraces Bryan Beard, Alex's best friend, as Alex's father Tom looks on at right, after a jury failed to agree on whether theater shooter James Holmes should get the death penalty Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this image taken from video, accused Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, on the far left, listens to testimony during his trial, in Centennial, Colo., Thursday, June 25, 2015. Holmes arrived at court minus his normal full beard. (Colorado Judicial Department via AP, Pool)
Defendant James Holmes appears in a video presented to a darkened courtroom in Centennial, Colo., Thursday, June 4, 2015. Holmes, also seated at defense table below screen, spoke in the video to a psychiatrist who evaluated him for the trial on charges that he killed 12 people and wounded 70 others during the midnight premiere of a Batman film. (Colorado Judicial Department via AP, Pool)
In this image taken from video, Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes, second from left, stands along with defense and prosecution teams, as the jury exits the courtroom for a break in the Holmes trial, in Centennial, Colo., Friday, June 19, 2015. The prosecution, led by District Attorney George Brauchler, second from left, rested its case Friday. (Colorado Judicial Department via AP, Pool)
FILE - This Jan. 15, 2015, file photo shows a view of the jury box, right, inside Courtroom 201, where jury selection in the trial of Aurora movie theater shootings defendant James Holmes was set to begin at the Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Three jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial were dismissed Tuesday, June 9, 2015, amid concern they had been exposed to media coverage of the case and were discussing it among themselves. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, Pool, File)
File - In this April 27, 2015, file sketch by courtroom artist Jeff Kandyba, prosecutor George Brauchler makes a point during the opening day of the trial for Aurora, Colo., theatre shooting suspect James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes is charged with killing 12 people and wounding 70 more in a July 2012 attack on a suburban Denver movie theater. His attorneys argue he suffers from schizophrenia and was in the grips of a psychotic episode when he opened fire on the packed auditorium during a midnight premier of a Batman movie. Experts say prosecutors are using a an approach to craft a memorable narrative that will hold jurors’ attention as the trial continues over more than four months, with scores of witnesses taking the stand.(AP Photo/Jeff Kandyba, file) KCNC-TV, KMGH-TV, KDVR-TV AND KUSA-TV OUT.
In this Monday, April 27, 2015 sketch by courtroom artist Jeff Kandyba, Aurora theater shooting defendant James Holmes, center left, and defense attorney Daniel King sit in court at the Arapahoe County Justice Center on the first day of Holmes' trial, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes acknowledges killing 12 people and wounding 70 more inside a packed movie theater in July 2012, but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (AP Photo/Jeff Kandyba)
In this Monday, April 27, 2015, sketch by courtroom artist Jeff Kandyba, Caleb Medley, who was shot in the head during the massacre at the theatre in Aurora, Colo., is shown during the opening day of the trial for Aurora, Colo., theatre shooting suspect James Holmes in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
In this Monday, April 27, 2015, sketch by courtroom artist Jeff Kandyba, Judge Carlos A. Samour, Jr., makes a point during the opening day of the trial for Aurora, Colo., theatre shooting suspect James Holmes Monday, April 27, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/Jeff Kandyba)
In this Monday, April 27, 2015 sketch by courtroom artist Jeff Kandyba, public defender Daniel King makes a point during the opening day of the trial for Aurora, Colo., theatre shooting suspect James Holmes Monday, April 27, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/Jeff Kandyba)
In this Monday, April 27, 2015 sketch by courtroom artist Jeff Kandyba, Aurora theater shooting defendant James Holmes is depicted as he sits in court at the Arapahoe County Justice Center on the first day of the Holmes trial, in Centennial, Colo. As the trial begins, the question isn't whether Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 70, but whether he was sane at the time of the killings. (AP Photo/Jeff Kandyba)
Aurora, Colo. Fire Department Lt. Bernd Hoefler, left, talks to a Arapahoe County Sheriff's Deputy after testifying during the third day in the trial of James Holmes, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder for a 2012 attack that killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
File - In this April 27, 2015 file photo, Joshua Nowlan, right, one of the victims in the massacre at the Aurora, Colo., theatre, is escorted from court by a law enforcement officer on the opening day of the trial for theatre shooting suspect James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)
FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2013 file photo, Aurora Police Officer Justin Grizzle leaves court after testifying at a preliminary hearing for Aurora theater shooter James Holmes at the courthouse in Centennial, Colo. In testimony last week, Grizzle told of carrying victims Caleb Medley in the back of his patrol car and begging him not to die as he sped to a hospital. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
Tom Sullivan, front, who lost his 27-year-old son Alex in the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., leaves the courthouse after the second day in the death penalty trial of theater shooter James Holmes Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Witnesses were called to the stand to recall the night of the incident, in which 12 people died and 70 others were injured. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Marcus Weaver, left, a victim of the 2012 shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, is embraced after Weaver testified during the third day in the trial of James Holmes, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in an attack that killed 12 people and injured 70. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Law enforcement officers keep watch from the roof of the Arapahoe County Justice Center on the second day of the trial of Aurora movie theater massacre defendant James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Tuesday, April 28, 2015. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, left rear in light-colored shirt, watches during testimony by witness Derick Spruel, upper right, on the second day of his trial in Centennial, Colo., Monday, April 27, 2015. Standing at left is prosecutor Lisa Teesch-Maguire. (Colorado Judicial Department via AP, Pool)
Araphaoe County, colo., Sheriffs Department deputies, at back, escort attendees out of the courthouse at the conclusion of the opening day of the trial for Aurora, Colo., theatre shooting suspect James Holmes Monday, April 27, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Surrounded by television photographers and reporters, Marcus Weaver, front, a victim of the shooting massacre at an Aurora, Colo., theatre, talks at the conclusion of the opening day of the trial for theatre shooting suspect James Holmes Monday, April 27, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Television journalists are directed by an official to return to a nearby area reserved for media, outside the Arapahoe County Justice Center, on the first day of the trial of James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Monday, April 27, 2015. Holmes acknowledges killing 12 people and wounding 70 more inside a packed movie theater on July 20, 2012, but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
People enter the Arapahoe County Justice Center on the first day of the trial of defendant James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Monday, April 27, 2015. Holmes acknowledges killing 12 people and wounding 70 more inside a packed movie theater on July 20, 2012, but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Television satellite trucks and production tents are positioned in the parking lot of the Arapahoe County Justice Center, on the first day of the trial of James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Monday, April 27, 2015. Holmes acknowledges killing 12 people and wounding 70 more inside a packed movie theater on July 20, 2012, but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theatre shooting, prepare to enter the Arapahoe County Justice Center, on the first day of the trial of defendant James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Monday, April 27, 2015. Holmes acknowledges killing 12 people and wounding 70 more inside the packed theater, but has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
CENTENNIAL, CO - APRIL 27: Family members of Aurora Theater shooting victim Veronica Moser walk into the Arapahoe County Justice Center as opening arguments for the trial of Aurora Theater Shooting defendant James Holmes opened at the courthouse April 27, 2015 in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes faces multiple murder charges stemming from a mass shooting in July 2012 theater shooting that killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
A law enforcement officer adjusts a barrier for media in front of the Arapahoe County District Court, on the first day of the trial of the Aurora movie theater shootings defendant James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Monday April 27, 2015. As the trial begins, the question isn't whether Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 70, but whether he was sane at the time of the killings. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
CENTENNIAL, CO - APRIL 27: Members of the media film people walking into the Arapahoe County Justice Center as opening arguments for the trial of Aurora Theater Shooting defendant James Holmes opened at the courthouse April 27, 2015 in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes faces multiple murder charges stemming from a mass shooting in July 2012 theater shooting that killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., top right, presides over the opening of the trial of Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, far left, in Centennial, Colo., Monday, April 27, 2015. The trial will determine if he'll be executed, spend his life in prison, or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (Colorado Judicial Department via AP, Pool)
Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, far left, sits at the defense table at the opening of his trial in Centennial, Colo., Monday, April 27, 2015. The trial will determine if he'll be executed, spend his life in prison, or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (Colorado Judicial Department via AP, Pool)
CENTENNIAL, CO - APRIL 27: Producers at Denver Post TV listen and take notes from the courtroom live feed of proceedings as opening arguments for the trial of Aurora Theater Shooting defendant James Holmes opened at the Arapahoe County Justice Center April 27, 2015 in Centennial, Colorado. Holmes faces multiple murder charges stemming from a mass shooting in July 2012 theater shooting that killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others. Holmes is seated at the very far left of the television screen. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
Surrounded by television photographers and reporters, Marcus Weaver, front, a victim of the shooting massacre at an Aurora, Colo., theatre, talks at the conclusion of the opening day of the trial for theatre shooting suspect James Holmes Monday, April 27, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Marcus Weaver, center back, who was shot in the massacre at the theatre in Aurora, Colo., is flanked by an unidentified man while leaving the Arapahoe County, Colo., courthouse at the conclusion of the opening day of the trial for theatre shooting suspect James Holmes Monday, April 27, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Marcus Weaver, front right, who was wounded in the Aurora, Colo., theatre shooting, emerges at the conclusion of the opening day of the trial for theatre shooting suspect James Holmes, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution as criminally insane. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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Prosecutors say he held them at bay in a calculated effort to conceal his murderous plans, even from those who raised and loved him. Defense attorneys say their fraying family ties reveal a man so delusional that he couldn't bear revealing his struggle, even to those who could have helped.

Just before the trial, Holmes' parents begged for a plea deal that would spare his life.

"He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness," they said in a statement in December, as thousands of jury summonses were mailed. "We have always loved him, and we do not want him to be executed."

Now, the San Diego couple sits two rows behind him, scribbling into tiny notepads. They have heard scores of victims describe the slaughter their son inflicted in July 2012 and watched psychiatrists pick apart his addled mind.

It's hard to tell how all this affects them. They have made very few public statements in the nearly three years since the attack. They don't cry or hang their heads. Arlene occasionally reaches for her husband's hand during particularly heart-wrenching moments, and he wraps his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close.

They have declined to comment during the trial, and court orders prevent reporters from approaching them. They may be called to testify as the defense continues presenting its case, or more likely, at sentencing if he is convicted.

"We are mourners - just like everyone else in the courtroom and nothing like anyone else in the courtroom because we are the parents," Arlene wrote in a book of prayers and reflections published earlier this year that sheds some light on her experience. "We are like no one else in the world."

Holmes' attorneys have referenced a family history of disorders, including an aunt with schizophrenia and a grandfather who was institutionalized. Holmes' parents and younger sister joined him in family therapy when he was in eighth grade. Arlene Holmes was hoping the family could become closer, and she may have been struggling with depression herself, Holmes said.

Family therapy didn't help in any case, because he never opened up for fear of seeming weak, Holmes told a psychiatrist conducting a sanity evaluation two years after the attack.

Holmes told that doctor that he was closer to his mother but more like his dad: "fastidious and detail oriented."

The distance between them grew when he returned home from undergraduate school without a job. When it came time to leave for his competitive neuroscience program at the University of Colorado, Denver, he turned down his father's offer to drive with him.

After that, his emails home were brief: "Goober, all is well here," one said.

At Thanksgiving, he emailed again to say he would be spending the holiday in Colorado "with a bunch of my peeps and my gal."

Their tone hardly changed, even as his life unraveled. In February 2012, he wrote to say he planned to cook his girlfriend a candlelight dinner. After she broke up with him days later, he wrote: "It hasn't exactly been the best of times."

They showed concern but didn't rush to Colorado, even after Holmes abruptly dropped out of school and his mother got a call from his therapist.

Dr. Lynne Fenton asked if it was unusual for their son to seem so emotionless and withdrawn. Arlene Holmes responded that her son had always been socially awkward.

"She was always worried about him and wanted to help him, but she wasn't sure how to do that," Fenton testified.

They offered to let him move home. He said he preferred to stay and live off unemployment.

"Please let me know how you are doing and if we can help in any way," Robert emailed him later. "This has been a trying time for you, and I want you to know we are with you."

By then, Holmes had already assembled an arsenal of weapons. He had already researched movie showings, and picked the auditorium where he could kill the most people. He had already decided to launch his attack at the midnight Batman premiere on July 20, 2012.

Eight days before the shooting, Robert asked if they could come visit in August.

"I don't have any plans for that weekend," he wrote back.

Holmes knew he had his parents' support. In his halting responses to the court-ordered examiner, he described them as "warm and loving - talk to each other - hugs - I was the only shy one in the family."

But when a police officer asked Holmes for an emergency contact after his arrest, he at first listed Fenton, not his parents.

Two years later, Holmes said he didn't care if he got the death penalty but would probably fight it for his parents' sake.

"They would miss me," he said.

Holmes said his parents regularly send him letters in jail. Arlene mentioned them in her book.

"I tell Jim I love him and pray he feels loved," Arlene wrote. "I hope his brain is not too disordered to remember what love feels like. A mother's letters to her son should be personal, but I forfeit that right because the unthinkable happened."

Holmes' mother also wrote of praying for the victims each night and waking up worrying their son has died behind bars. She mentioned her own feelings of guilt, too.

"I can never forgive myself for not knowing that this would happen," she wrote.

From where they sit, Holmes' parents are separated from their son's victims by reporters, sheriff's deputies and an aisle. While therapy dogs and victim advocates offer comfort to the survivors, they sit alone, a box of tissues at their feet.


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