Colorado movie theater shooting leaves at least 12 dead

Officials say that at least 12 people were killed and 58 were injured in the shooting. Photo: KUSA-TV

(AP/ ABC7) - A 24-year-old man is in custody hours after a gunman opened fire inside a Denver-area movie theater, killing at least 12 people, according to authorities.

The gunman that opened fire early Friday at a suburban Denver movie theater on the opening night of the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, has been identified as 24-year-old James Holmes.

Police believe that Holmes, donning a gas mask, barged into the crowded theater during a midnight premiere of the Batman movie on Friday, hurled a gas canister and then opened fire in one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history.

KMGH, the ABC affiliate in Denver, is reporting that 12 people have been killed and 58 were injured in the incident.

Holmes, who is in custody, stood at the front of the theater and fired into the crowd about 12:30 a.m. MDT at a multiplex theater in a mall in Aurora, a eastern suburb of the Denver metropolitan area, authorities say.

According to a report from KMGH, officials with the University of Colorado at Denver confirm that Holmes was a Ph.D. student at the school. He started studying at the school last fall, but withdrew from his neuroscience program last month.

Holmes' family in California says their hearts go out to those involved. Police in San Diego read a statement Friday morning from family members of Holmes, who graduated from high school in the San Diego area.

The family asked the media to respect their privacy. They say they're cooperating with authorities in San Diego and Aurora, Colo., and are trying to process everything.

San Diego police spokeswoman Andra Brown says there's nothing to suggest the family had any involvement.

A man who lives next door to Holmes' family says he was a loner.

Tom Mai, a retired electrical engineer who is neighbors with Holmes' family on a quiet, well-to-do San Diego street of two story homes with red tile roofs, says he said hello to Holmes once in a while but seemed to be shy.

Mai says the family lived there about 10 years. The mother is a nurse and the father is a manager at a software company. The suspect has a younger sister.

Mai says the mother told him Holmes couldn't find a job after earning a master's degree from the University of California, Riverside with a{ }BS in neuroscience.

WATCH: ABC7's Richard Reeve reports on reactions from movie goers in the D.C. area:

Apartment booby trapped

FBI agents and police used a hook-and-ladder fire truck to reach Holmes' apartment in Aurora. They put a camera at the end of a 12-foot pole inside the apartment and discovered the unit was booby-trapped.

Authorities evacuated five buildings as they tried to figure how to disarm the flammable and explosive material.

"It's something I've never seen before," Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said.

The apartment is about four miles from the theater where at least 12 people were killed and 59 were wounded.

Among the deadliest mass shootings

The shooting is among one of the deadliest mass incidents in recent memory and one of the worst in the United States. Friday's shooting happened about 20 miles away from one of the other most horrific mass shootings in history - the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School that killed 12 people and the two shooters.

MORE: Follow the latest #theatershooting tweets here.

Holmes is now being described as a "lone wolf" in the incident. When contacted by ABC News, a woman who identified herself as Holmes' mother said that police "had the right person."

FBI spokesman Jason Pack said there's no indication in the investigation so far of any connection to terror groups.

Horror inside theaters 8 and 9

Witnesses and people inside theater #9 of the facility say that some sort of gas was released inside the screening room before the shooting started.

"Witnesses tell us he released some sort of canister," Oates said. "They heard a hissing sound and some gas emerged and the gunman opened fire.

Witnesses and authorities also say that bullets may have gone through the walls and into a neighboring screening room, where more people were injured.

Police, ambulances and emergency crews swarmed on the scene after frantic calls started flooding the 911 switchboard, officials said.

When the gas began to spread, some moviegoers thought it was a stunt that was part of the The Dark Knight Rises, one of the most highly anticipated films of the summer. Then they saw a silhouette of a person in the smoke near the screen, first pointing a gun at the crowd and shooting.

"There were bullet (casings) just falling on my head. They were burning my forehead," Jennifer Seeger said, adding that the gunman, dressed like a SWAT team member, fired steadily except when he stopped to reload.

"Every few seconds it was just: Boom, boom, boom," she said. "He would reload and shoot and anyone who would try to leave would just get killed."

The gunman released a gas that smelled like pepper spray from a green canister with a tag on it, Seeger said.

"I thought it was showmanship. I didn't think it was real," she said.

Seeger said she was in the second row, about four feet from the gunman, when he pointed a gun at her face. At first, "I was just a deer in headlights. I didn't know what to do," she said. Then she ducked to the ground as the gunman shot people seated behind her.

Officers came running in and telling people to leave the theater, eyewitness Salina Jordan told the Denver Post. She said some police were carrying and dragging bodies.

The Pentagon says that some members of the military were either killed or wounded in the shooting as well. Pentagon press secretary George Little says that it's not yet clear how many military casualties there were, or specifically whether they were killed or injured.

Local response includes increased security

Police departments from Alexandria to Montgomery County to D.C. promised to step up patrols at theaters showing The Dark Knight Rises throughout the weekend.

“There is always a concern that a copycat crime can be committed, however we just want to assure these movie theaters are safe,” says MPD Assistant Chief Lamar Greene.

In Montgomery County, police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks says that his department's officers will have a heightened state of awareness and a bigger presence at theaters.

Arthur Summerville didn't think twice about bringing his sons to the Georgetown theater.

“It shocked me this morning to see it on t-v but overall it's an isolated incident,” he says.

Examining the suspects car and apartment

Officers later found the suspected gunman's near a car behind the theater. A bomb-examining robot was seen going into the car to examine it.

"A gas mask, rifle, handgun at least one additional weapon (were) found inside," he said.

Oates said there's no evidence of any other attackers. There was also no immediate word of any motive. The suspect spoke of possible explosives in his residence, and Oates said that they are dealing with that threat.

Police were at the Denver-area apartment and had evacuated other residents of the building. Oates did not say whether any explosives had been found.

He said police also checked for explosives in the parking lot and at the Century 16 theater and secured those areas.

The White House on Friday morning said that President Obama was notified of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado by his Homeland Security Advisor, John Brennan at 5:26 a.m.

Obama's, Romney "shocked and saddened"

President Barack Obama says the shooting is a reminder that life is fragile, adding that the event "reminds us of all the ways that we are united as one American family."

In Florida for a campaign swing, Obama asked for a moment of silence Friday and focused his shortened remarks exclusively on the tragedy. The White House also said that flags will be flown at half-staff through July 25 to memorialize the victims.

Obama and challenger Mitt Romney both moved to pull down negative advertising.

Obama said the shooting underscores how "our time here is limited and it is precious." He said Friday should be devoted to prayer and reflection.

Romney embraced the same sentiment of unity in Bow, N.H., where he had been scheduled to campaign.

"We'll all spend a little less time thinking about the worries of our day and more time wondering about how to help those who are in need of compassion most," he said in brief remarks to a subdued audience. "The answer is that we can come together. We will show our fellow citizens the good heart of the America we know and love."

Eyewitnesses recount horror

Moviegoers spoke of their terror as violence erupted and people around them fell victim.

Bejamin Fernandez, 30, told the Denver Post that he heard a series of explosions. He said that people ran from the theater and there were gunshots as police shouted "get down!"

Fernandez said he saw people falling, including one young girl.

Jordan told the paper that one girl was struck in cheek, others in stomach including a girl who looked to be around 9-years-old.

Jordan said it sounded like firecrackers until someone ran into Theater 8 yelling "they're shooting out here!"

Hayden Miller told KUSA-TV that he heard several shots.

"Like little explosions going on and shortly after that we heard people screaming," he told the station.

Hayden said at first he thought it was part of a louder movie next door. But then he saw "people hunched over leaving theater."

The police chief said 10 victims died at the theater and four at area hospitals.

Youngest victim may have been 4-months-old

Some of the victims were treated for chemical exposure apparently related to canisters thrown by the gunman. Those hurt included a 4-month-old baby, who was treated at a hospital and released.

Aurora is on Denver's east side and is Colorado's third-largest city with 327,000 residents. It is home to a large Defense Department satellite intelligence operation at Buckley Air Force Base, as well as The Children's Hospital, the University of Colorado Hospital and a future Veterans Affairs hospital.

Video believed to be released from the Aurora movie theater shooting shows the panic following the incidents. Note: The video shows disturbing images.

The movie opened across the world Friday, with midnight showings in the U.S. The shooting prompted officials to cancel the Paris premiere, with workers pulling down the red carpet display at a theater on the famed Champs-Elysees Avenue.

ABC 7's Yasmeen Alamiri contributed to this report.