By Mary Slosson
(Reuters) - The suspect in the Colorado movie house massacre that claimed 12 lives was once a gifted honors student who sought to "positively contribute to the world," according to newly released reference letters accompanying his application to an Illinois graduate program.
Materials submitted in 2010 by James Holmes, 24, in seeking admission to a neuroscience doctoral program at the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus were furnished to Reuters by the school on Friday under a state Freedom of Information Act request.
The package of academic records, along with his own application essay and glowing recommendations from several references, paint a picture of Holmes as a dedicated, if not eccentric, young scholar.
Holmes was admitted to the highly competitive program and was offered an annual $22,660 stipend, plus the waiver of all tuition and fees after he impressed University of Illinois faculty with his "truly outstanding" personal and professional qualities, according to a copy of his acceptance letter.
The only overtly bizarre element of the package was a photo submitted with his application that shows Holmes, wearing dark sunglasses and a black T-shirt, smiling slightly as he stands beside a live llama while holding out a piece of straw.
Members of the admission board jokingly referred to him as "llama" after seeing the picture, according email correspondence released by the university.
Illinois application: http://r.reuters.com/zad99s
Acceptance letter: http://r.reuters.com/xad99s
Still, the materials give no hint of the man in body armor and bright orange-dyed hair who authorities say referred to himself as "the Joker" when arrested as a suspect in the July 20 shooting rampage at a multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, near Denver.
Holmes, who ended up briefly pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Colorado rather than Illinois, is accused of opening fire at a midnight screening of the new "Batman" film "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.
He has been charged with 24 counts of first-degree murder and 116 counts of attempted murder.
Holmes' University of Illinois application, in which he describes himself as an "aspiring scientist," also shows that the San Diego native was ranked among the top 1 percent of undergraduate honors students at the University of California at Riverside, where he earned a 3.94 grade-point-average, out of a 4.0 scale, and a bachelor's degree in neuroscience.
"James is an extraordinarily gifted student who is very dedicated to his academic pursuits," one individual, whose name has been redacted, wrote in one of three reference letters obtained by Reuters. "He is passionate about a career in science and seeks out opportunities to learn as much as possible about his chosen field of interest, and how he can positively contribute to the world."
In his own personal essay, Holmes wrote: "Rational people act based on incentives for self-fulfillment, including fulfilling needs of self-development and needs of feeling useful and helpful to others."
He continued: "I have always been fascinated by the complexities of a long lost thought seemingly arising out of nowhere into a stream of awareness. These fascinations likely stemmed from my interest in puzzles and paradoxes as an adolescent."
Some of the application materials were first published by the Illinois newspaper the News-Gazette, which obtained them under an earlier freedom of information request and posted them online.
While accepted to the Illinois program, Holmes opted to pursue a neuroscience graduate degree at the University of Colorado. He dropped out of that program one year later, weeks before he is accused of unleashing the mass shooting and booby-trapping his apartment with explosives.
Holmes' defense lawyer said on Thursday during a court appearance that his client suffers from a mental illness and tried to get help before the shooting.
Court papers filed by defense attorneys two weeks ago said Holmes had been a patient of the medical director for student mental health services on campus before he filed paperwork to drop out of the competitive graduate program in Aurora, Colorado.
That psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, reported Holmes to a campus threat assessment team and a campus police officer over concerns about her patient, according to media reports
Lawyers for Fenton and the campus police officer have declined to comment to Reuters on those reports. The university also has declined to comment on the reports but said it had hired a former federal prosecutor to probe its dealings with Holmes.
As in many states, mental health care providers in Colorado must warn authorities of potential violent behavior only when a patient has communicated a serious threat of imminent physical violence against a specific target.
Holmes is being held without bond and in solitary confinement at the Arapahoe County jail near Denver.
(Additional reporting by Hyungwon Kang in Toronto and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)