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James Holmes: Did he call CU hospital nine minutes before Aurora theater shooting?

Most of the lengthy hearing yesterday in the James Holmes case focused on whether the prosecution will have access to a package the suspect allegedly sent to psychiatrist Lynne Fenton before the July 20th shooting at an Aurora movie theater. But one quick exchange between Fenton and the defense raised an intriguing question: Did Holmes call the University of Colorado Hospital nine minutes before he opened fire?

It was a bit of a tangent from the main substance of the hearing, which focused on doctor-patient privilege and whether this package should be kept from prosecutors, who seem to believe its contents might establish a motive -- undermining a possible insanity defense.

Photo of sketches of Lynne Fenton from the hearing yesterday.
Photo of sketches of Lynne Fenton from the hearing yesterday.
Sam Levin

The question of a possible phone call minutes before Holmes started shooting moviegoers in the Century 16 theater came up after a second recess in the nearly four-hour hearing yesterday afternoon. Tamara Brady, Holmes's public defender, asked Fenton if she recognized a specific phone number, which Brady read for her.

Fenton said she did: It was an operator switchboard number for the University of Colorado Hospital, where Fenton is the medical director of the Student Mental Health Center.

Brady then said: "Do you know whether James Holmes called that number nine minutes before the shooting started?"

Fenton responded that she did not.

Karen Pearson, a prosecutor, followed up by asking Fenton, who was brought in as a witness for the first time yesterday, if Holmes would have had a specific phone number for Fenton and her office that he could use if he wanted to reach her.

Fenton, who gave short, deliberate answers throughout the hearing, said yes.

Continue reading for more about James Holmes's possible phone call to the CU hospital nine minutes before the Aurora theater shooting.   Since the court adjourned late yesterday -- with no resolution -- the question of whether Holmes made some kind of call to the hospital has gotten a lot of attention from national and local news outlets.

Many have reported the call as a direct fact. However, it's worth noting -- and some other outlets are reporting it more cautiously -- that the subject emerged in a question posed by Brady rather than a definitive statement.

This detail about Holmes' actions immediately prior to the massacre taps into questions of motive and his relationship with Fenton at the time of the shooting, as well as on July 19, when Fenton the package, which may have contained a notebook with sketches and plans related to the massacre.

Throughout the hearing, prosecutors argued that because Fenton was not Holmes's psychiatrist on July 19 -- she said their doctor-patient relationship was terminated on June 11 -- they should have access to this package. The defense countered that the contents of the mail he sent to her remain privileged, since there is no way to know whether it constituted some kind of therapy-related communication.

Brady's short question about the phone call could imply that Holmes was trying to reach Fenton for help -- which could support the defense's argument that their relationship was still a psychiatric-patient one at that time. If so, that would support the privilege claim related to the package.

As for the follow-up by the prosecution, it suggested that if Holmes really wanted to reach Fenton, he had more direct and specific ways of doing so.

At that point, however, the hearing moved on to other subjects.

We called the number in question this morning, and it does seem to be a general switchboard for the hospital. Dan Weaver, a spokesman for the University of Colorado Hospital, tells us it is a general public number that operates 24-7. If someone called after normal business hours -- the shooting occurred at a midnight showing -- an operator could connect that person to on-call emergency doctors.

And if a caller asked to be connected to a specific psychiatrist, i.e. if Holmes called asking for Fenton?

Weaver says that the operator would likely connect the caller to the on-call psychiatrist at the time.

The unresolved and critical question of whether the package will remain privileged is to be raised again in the next hearing, scheduled for September 20.

More from the Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "James Holmes case: Prosecutors' case for motive, not insanity"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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