In new book “Aurora,” theater shooter’s psychiatrist tells her side of the story

Editor’s note: The Denver Post respects the wishes of Aurora theater shooting victims and their families that the assailant’s name not be repeated in news stories. In this article, his name is only mentioned in direct quotes by the author.

Ten years ago, Dr. Lynne Fenton felt villainized after she was identified as the psychiatrist who treated the Aurora theater shooter in the months leading up to his massacre during the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Now, Fenton is telling her story in “Aurora,” a book published July 19 by Berkley Books. She hopes it will help educate other psychiatrists and the public about the minds of mass shooters and what possibly can be done to prevent them.

“As these mass shootings have continued — and if anything they’re becoming more frequent — I realize how unusual the Holmes case is because we amassed so much information,” Fenton said last week in an interview with The Denver Post. “I realized I was in a unique position to pull this information together and take a close look at these mass shootings and consider whether there were things we could do to prevent them.”

But as much as Fenton wants to educate others, the book also is giving her a chance to explain her actions, a sort of self-vindication for what transpired when she met with the shooter six times before the shooting on July 20, 2012.

Fenton admits as much.

“After the shooting, I and everybody else involved in the case were under a gag order,” Fenton said during the interview. “It was very difficult to have folks saying things publicly, that I should have just locked him up or the blood’s on my hands and things like that. I couldn’t defend myself.”

Indeed, Fenton’s life was turned upside down after the shooting as the press quickly identified her after the shooter’s defense team filed a court document.

She recounts the hateful emails — including death threats — that flooded her inbox and cellphone, and writes about the reporters waiting outside her home.  She remembers earing a disguise and slumping in a friend’s car seat as she was whisked to an airport to leave town in the early days after the shooting, and getting outfitted for a bulletproof vest by University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus campus police.

Before the theater shooting, Fenton was a successful woman. She attended Chicago Medical School on an Air Force scholarship and then served as chief of medicine at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

After leaving the Air Force, Fenton came to the University of Colorado, where she completed a psychiatry residency and a research fellowship in brain imaging. At the time of the shooting, she was on the faculty of the CU School of Medicine and director of the student mental health center on the Anschutz campus.

Somewhere in there, Fenton also danced with a professional ballet company and created an English-style garden in her Colorado backyard.

“I felt shattered, angry, betrayed,” Fenton writes about the aftermath of the shooting. “My life had become unrecognizable. It was one thing to know a killer, or to study a killer’s history and be able to connect the dots (or not, as in Holmes’ case). It was quite another to have multiple hidden enemies forever, to know that, even when the trial ended, there would never be closure from me.”

Fenton repeatedly talks about how the shooter unnerved her from the very first session on March 23, 2012 — 119 days before the shooting. He rarely spoke but almost immediately revealed that he was having thoughts of killing people.

Fenton prescribed various medications, tried to pull more information from her patient and brought in a colleague to meet with the shooter to help her. When he dropped out of graduate school, Fenton and her colleague offered to continue seeing him for free.

He declined.

Fenton broke protocol to call the shooter’s mother to ask about his past behavior. And she called the campus police to ask if there were any warning signs of danger, based on a criminal record. He had none.

Still, the former patient’s discussions never rose to the level that would lead Fenton to seek a mental health hold. That’s because he never told her about a specific person he wanted to kill or indicated he had plans in the works, although he already was amassing a small arsenal of weapons, ammunition and explosives.

She hopes the book helps people understand how mental health holds work and the limits they have in being successful in stopping violence.

“To put someone on a mental health hold for so-called homicidal ideation, it can’t be this big statement of ‘I had thoughts of killing people,’ ” Fenton said in the interview. “They need to have specific targets. It needs to be imminent, not just ‘One day I’m going to shoot people.’ I never had that information with Holmes.”

As for explaining how to prevent future mass shootings, Fenton comes up short.

“Even if we had super easy access to mental health care, I think very few of them would come into treatment,” she said of mass killers. “Then, once they’re there, there’s a lot of things we can help with as psychiatrists, but we can’t treat hatred of mankind and a wish to kill people. That’s not treatable.”

She supports gun control, saying trying to fix people with a determination to kill through therapy doesn’t work.

“This book is not meant to be about gun control,” Fenton said. “But truly when you look at all the possible intervention points — red flag laws, mental health care — the only thing that really stands out as something that would immediately make a difference in the lethality of these events is gun safety and gun control measures.”

Today, Fenton works three days per week for the University of Colorado and lives in rural Colorado. She won’t say where because she still worries about her personal safety. And, yes, she worries that the book’s publication will reignite the attacks and heavy criticism that chased her away from her previous life.

Fenton’s book will be hard to read for many — especially those who’ve witnessed a mass shooting or lost someone to a mass shooter. She often recounts scenes from the theater shooting in graphic detail, citing police documents, court testimony and media reports.

Fenton and her co-author, Kerrie Droban, chose to use the shooter’s name throughout the book even though theater shooting families are adamant that a mass killer should not be glorified or publicized.

But Fenton said it became too awkward to write a nearly 300-page book without using his name. They agree that killers don’t deserve fame, but said everyone already knows the theater shooter’s name.

“Kerrie and I have nothing but respect and sympathy for the families,” Fenton said. “I hope they’ll see this book as an attempt to pull together all this information so as a country we can look at it and discuss these issues to prevent more of these mass shootings.”

As for the shooter, Fenton said he still haunts her thoughts, but she was reluctant to call him evil.

“I hate him for what he did,” Fenton said. “There’s no good explanation for why he did what he did.”

As for the guilt, Fenton says she has learned to live with what happened. She still sees a psychiatrist and leans on close friends and family for support. She also reminds herself that multiple professionals have reviewed the case and her work with the shooter and all have concluded that she did all she could.

“That thought pops into my head,” she said, “not as frequently as it used to, but I will wonder for a moment if there is more I could have done.”

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