Arizona psychiatrist examines mass murderers

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by Patti Kirkpatrick

azfamily.com

Posted on August 16, 2012 at 10:30 PM

Updated Friday, Aug 17 at 10:19 AM

PHOENIX -- It was four weeks ago in Aurora, Colorado at the debut of the "The Dark Knight Rises," the movie event of the summer.  No one disputes that 24-year-old suspect James Holmes unleashed one of the worst mass murders in American history. 

Twelve people died that Friday night, 58 were injured in a nightmarish orgy of violence that stunned the country.  A PH.D. student at the University of Colorado only weeks before, Holmes sat dazed-looking in his first court appearance.

Valley forensic psychiatrist Dr. Steven Pitt is a nationally recognized expert in mental health and violence. He said based on what is known about Holmes at this point, "Minimally, this is someone who is mentally ill, and possibly seriously mentally ill."

Pitt has been involved in many high-profile national cases. He led the Columbine Psychiatric Autopsy Project, an exhaustive study to determine what brought high school killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to their murderous rampage in April, 1999.

Pitt said while he can't speculate on the specifics of the James Holmes case, "It will come out over time that lots and lots of people had different pieces of information and nobody connected the dots." He said that's the common thread that runs through all these types of cases.

It appears University of Colorado psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Fenton, who treated Holmes, may have come close to connecting the dots. She reportedly became concerned enough about his behavior to break confidentiality with her patient and contact a campus police officer as well as members of the university threat-assessment team.

But Holmes dropped out of school -- and apparently off their radar -- about six weeks before the shooting spree in Aurora.

Dr. Pitt said while it can be difficult to pinpoint who will turn violent and when, as a society we are getting better at recognizing warning signs, communicating with each other and preventing tragedies like the theater massacre.

"A lot of bad and dangerous things are prevented every day because law enforcement has intervened or because an observant school counselor or parent or a friend has seen something," he said.

The Michael Turney case is a dramatic local example of tragedy narrowly averted. In December 2008, in a collaboration with the Phoenix Police Department, Dr. Pitt and a colleague recommended a SWAT team be on hand when a search warrant was served at Turney's northeast Phoenix home.

Their concerns turned out to be well-founded. Inside, police found a huge cache of weapons and more than 30 improvised explosive devices. In the backyard, they found a bomb on wheels in a van.

Turney apparently planned an attack on a local union hall with whom he had a dispute. Pitt said Turney's writings and other information shared by police tipped them off to the possibility of violence.

"As it related to his suspiciousness, his litigiousness, his references to previous violence and so on that gave us concern," Pitt stated.

Pitt and a number of his colleagues around the country theorize that the Aurora massacre and others like it can also teach us that the frenzy of media coverage will likely ignite copycats of one kind or another -- usually within seven to 14 days after the first event.

"If you have someone who's been stewing for a while, who's disaffected, and that person sees the kind of attention that the previous person got, it's like, 'hey, I'm going out in a blaze of glory as well,'" Pitt said.

About two weeks after the Colorado shooting a gunman opened fire in a Milwaukee-area Sikh temple, killing six.

As to James Holmes' fate in court, Pitt said an insanity defense is rare, raised in only one percent of felony cases nationwide and successful in only 25 percent of those.

But given his years of experience working cases in Colorado, Pitt has no doubt in Holmes' case: "No brainer. It's a death penalty case and it's a mental defense case."

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