James Eagen Holmes who was apprehended as a suspect on Friday for the shooting in Aurora, Colorado which left 12 dead and almost 60 injured, was an excellent student with no crime record. From the well-tended San Diego enclave of two-story homes, neighbours recall him as a clean-cut, studious young man of sparing words. The son of a nurse, Arlene, and a software company manager, Robert, James Holmes was a brilliant science scholar in college.

The biggest mystery surrounding the 24-year-old doctoral student was why he would have pulled on a gas mask and shot dozens of people early Friday in a suburban Denver movie theatre, as police allege.

Interestingly, in the age of widespread social media, no trace of Holmes could be found on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter or anywhere on the Web. Either he never engaged or he scrubbed his trail.

A longtime neighbour in San Diego, where Holmes grew up, remembers only a “shy guy ... a loner” from a churchgoing family. In addition to playing soccer at Westview High School, he ran cross country.

However, Holmes struggled to find work after graduating with highest honors in spring 2010 with a neuroscience degree from the University of California, Riverside, said the neighbor, retired electrical engineer Tom Mai.

In academic achievement, “he was at the top of the top,” recalled Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White.

From a distance, Holmes’ life appears unblemished, a young man with unlimited potential. There are no indications he had problems with police.

Somehow, the acclaimed student and quiet neighbour reached a point where he painted his hair red, called himself “The Joker,” the green-haired villain from the Batman movies, according to New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who said he had been briefed on the matter.

Authorities say Holmes arrived at the theatre dressed in black, outfitted in a gas mask, ballistic helmet, vest and leggings, black tactical gloves and protectors on his throat and groin. He was armed with an assault—style rifle, a shotgun and Glock handgun.

Police said he started his attack by tossing at least gas canisters into the theatre, where he had bought a ticket for the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the new Batman movie.

A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe into the rampage, said Holmes bought four guns from retailers in the last two months. A high-volume drum magazine was attached to the rifle, an assault weapon, the official said. Police Chief Dan Oates said that a 100-round drum magazine for the rifle was recovered from the scene.

“I’m told by experts that with that drum magazine, he could have gotten off 50 to 60 rounds, even if it was semiautomatic, within one minute,” Oates said at a news conference. “And as far as we know, it was a pretty rapid pace of fire in that theatre.”

When he surrendered meekly in the movie house parking lot, Holmes told authorities what he’d done at his residence in the Denver suburb of Aurora, the third most populous city in Colorado.

“Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved,” Holmes’ family said in a statement on Friday. “We ask that the media respect our privacy during this difficult time.”

San Diego Superior Court spokeswoman Karen Dalton said there were no records found under his name, not even for a traffic ticket. Riverside County prosecutors also have no criminal record for him, said John Hall, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office.

San Diego police spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown spoke to reporters on behalf of the family. “As you can understand, the Holmes family is very upset about all of this,” she said. “It’s a tragic event and it’s taken everyone by surprise.”

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