Victims Upset University Didn’t Act on James Holmes’ Psychiatrist’s Concerns
(AURORA, Colo.) -- Attorneys for James Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado movie theater shooting, said Thursday in court that their client is mentally ill, but the biggest question for Holmes' victims is whether the massacre could have been prevented in the first place.
Jansen Young lost her boyfriend Jon Blunk in the July 20 shooting in Aurora, Colo. Blunk sacrificed his own life to shield her from the barrage of bullets. Young called him "a hero," and said he pushed her to the ground while covering her body with his own.
Now, three weeks after losing her boyfriend, Young is speaking out for the first time to Nightline about warning signs the University of Colorado may have missed. Reportedly, the psychiatrist who was treating Holmes expressed concerns about his behavior to others nearly six weeks before the shooting.
"I think if someone could have said six weeks beforehand, 'This man is a danger,' maybe me and a lot of others could still have our loved ones," Young said.
Holmes, 24, is a former Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado. Sources told ABC News that Dr. Lynne Fenton made contact with a university police officer in early June, during the time she grew concerned about his behavior. KMGH-TV previously reported Fenton reached out to other members of the school's threat assessment team to express concerns with Holmes. But it appears the university never acted on those concerns.
"I think that they messed up," said Jennifer Seeger, who came face-to-face with Holmes that night. "They could have stopped somebody. They could have had the possibility of saving lives."
The university has repeatedly declined to comment on who Fenton reached out to, citing a gag order issued by a court. However, university spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery confirmed to ABC News that the university has retained independent legal counsel to represent both Fenton and a university police officer.
Fenton would have had to have serious concerns to break confidentiality and reach out to the officer or others, sources said. Under Colorado law, a psychiatrist can legally breach a pledge of confidentiality with a patient if he or she becomes aware of a serious and imminent threat that their patient might cause harm to others. Psychiatrists can also breach confidentiality if a court has ordered them to do so.
Fenton was not just the suspect's psychiatrist. ABC News first discovered she was also one of the key authors of the university's policy on threat assessment.
On June 10, Holmes announced he intended to quit the prestigious Ph.D. program at the university. The university confirmed he was still enrolled when the shooting occurred a month and a half later. ABC affiliate KMGH-TV previously reported the university's threat assessment team never met to discuss Holmes and chose not to intervene while his paperwork for withdrawal was in motion.
"Under those circumstances, most well-trained threat assessment teams would have gone into action," said Barry Spodak, a threat assessment expert. "It's hard to imagine why they wouldn't go into action when they have received those kinds of reports."
Gerry Shargel, a renowned criminal defense attorney based in New York, said the University of Colorado could find itself in legal trouble for missing warning signs.
"Simply reporting it and wringing the hands and saying, 'Well there's nothing we can do about it because he is no longer a problem for the University of Colorado,' I think, will fall short when you look at the responsibility," he said.
If true, the University of Colorado will not be the first school to find itself in hot water for not doing enough to help troubled students.
Jared Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others in an Arizona parking lot, was a Pima Community College student. Loughner had several run-ins with faculty members and students. Campus officials even told him to get a mental health evaluation or not return.
Seung-Hui Cho, the student who murdered 32 people and wounded 25 others in a shooting at Virginia Tech, was also known to university authorities. Before Cho attacked the campus, multiple people reported his disturbing behavior to officials. The university has since settled several lawsuits with the victims' families.
Now, in Colorado, another set of young victims and families are left to pick up the pieces. Young said that all she thinks about is how much she misses her boyfriend, Blunk, and is having trouble understanding how the man charged with killing him was able to go so far.
"Even if it wasn't about [Holmes] being the university's problem, they should be involved because, you know, he was the entire city of Aurora's problem and now it's the world's problem," Young said.
She expressed hope that other colleges and universities around the nation will learn from her loss and take fast action when hearing about a troubled student in the future.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio