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Saturday, July 28, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.
Colo. shooting suspect was seeing psychiatrist, defense says
By Brady Dennis
The Washington Post
AURORA, Colo. — 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' mental state.
Holmes was a patient of Dr. Lynne Fenton, medical director of student mental-health services, according to the suspect's lawyers. Holmes withdrew from a doctoral program in neuroscience after oral exams in early June.
Police say 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; 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 identify students who were suicidal or might pose a threat to others. There is no indication 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 (BETA) team, have said they had no contact with Holmes. Other team members have declined to discuss Holmes.
University Chancellor Don Elliman said this week that, to his knowledge, "We did everything we should have done in this case."
Holmes sent a notebook to Fenton 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 reports.
But the timing of the package's arrival in the university mailroom is in dispute. Police seized the package Monday, but Fenton never had opened it, according to court records.
Holmes' 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 Holmes' 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," wrote the public defenders, Daniel King and Tamara Brady.
Sylvester has imposed a gag order on 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 others news organizations are contesting his order.
University officials have declined to discuss the notebook but have acknowledged 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.
Her clinical practice included treating "15 to 20 graduate students per week" with counseling and medication, according to her biography on the university website. Fenton also supervises psychiatric residents who treat students, the site says. She has lectured on bipolar disorders and borderline personalities.
Fenton was disciplined by the Colorado Medical Board in 2004 for prescribing herself Xanax while her mother was dying, state records show. She also was disciplined for prescribing the sleep aid Ambien and the allergy medicine Claritin for her husband, and painkillers for an employee who suffered from chronic headaches.
Fenton worked for the Air Force in Texas as an acupuncturist before joining the University of Colorado in 2005. A 1998 Denver Post article quotes a Colorado acupuncturist named Lynne Fenton discussing how acupuncture could be used to enhance women's busts.
Holmes' lawyers also want to know whether the suspect alerted investigators to the existence of the notebook while under questioning, as detailed in reports attributed to unnamed 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 evacuated and searched the campus mailroom later that day.
Holmes' 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 a year.
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 funding.
By all accounts, students accepted into the program find themselves in a demanding environment.
University officials estimated Friday that 10 percent of students drop out, usually in their first year.
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 hourlong 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."
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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