Police recount horror, sounds and smells from inside Aurora theater after shooting

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CENTENNIAL | Not long after the last surviving victims were pulled from the blood-soaked auditorium No. 9, the finally-quiet theater was again pierced with sound.

This time — an hour after shotgun and automatic rifle fire tore through the theater, killing 12 and wounding dozens more — ringing cell phones interrupted the quiet.

Aurora police Officer Tomas Campagna, one of two officers tasked with securing the scene, testified Wednesday that the phones rang nonstop as loved ones just hearing news about the shooting tried to reach the dead and maimed — 10 of whom remained in the theater into the next day while two were pronounced dead at local hospitals — or survivors who left heir phones behind in the rush to flee.

Trial observers exit the Arapahoe County Justice Center on the second day of the trial of Aurora movie theater massacre defendant James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Tuesday, April 28, 2015. The trial will determine if Holmes will be executed, spend his life in prison or be committed to an institution. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)Campagna was one of seven first responders who testified Wednesday during the third day of the Aurora theater shooting trial. The other three witnesses were wounded in the rampage and two of them lost close friends that night.

Campagna, who received the department’s life saving award and other commendations for his work that night, said the smell of blood and sweat and tear gas was overwhelming when he rushed into the theater.

The sidewalk just outside the door to theater No. 9 was slick with blood, he said.

“It looked like the sidewalk was painted red,” he said.

The officers who rushed to the scene testified about a hellish world of bloody victims, noxious smells and blaring sounds — a gloomy darkness pierced by bright flashes from a fire alarm.

“It was dim, the movie was still playing, the alarm was going off,” Aurora police Officer Annette Brook testified. “I began to notice the bodies, the live victims, the blood.”

Brook and the other officers’ descriptions of the chaos inside the suburban Denver theater intensified the already disturbing scene described a day earlier by moviegoers who were badly wounded or saw loved ones gunned down in the July 20, 2012, attack.

Twelve people died and 70 were hurt. Accused shooter James Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder.

He admits he was the shooter, his defense attorneys say, but schizophrenia had taken control of his mind and compelled him to kill. They are asking the jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity, which would send him to the state mental hospital indefinitely.

Prosecutors argue Holmes was sane and fully aware that what he was doing was wrong. They want the jury to convict him and sentence him to die.

In the opening days of the trial, prosecutors have appeared intent on planting a deeply upsetting image in the jurors’ minds.

More victims testified Wednesday, describing the booms and the brilliant flashes of light that burst from the muzzles of the weapons aimed at them and the hot pain of being shot. None said they saw Holmes’ face, but one of the police officers did.

Sgt. Gerald Jonsgaard testified he saw Holmes lying on the ground in the parking lot outside the theater as two officers arrested him.

Jonsgaard didn’t identify Holmes by name Wednesday but said he was sitting at the defense table.

Holmes’ lawyers have not cross-examined any prosecution witnesses. They will call their own witnesses after the prosecution rests.

Jurors also heard from Christina Blache who was wounded in both legs and later underwent five surgeries and hours of physical therapy.

Blache was part of a large group from a local Red Robin restaurant that went to the movie that night to celebrate the 27th birthday of a  coworker, Alex Sullivan. Sullivan, “Sully” to his close friends, was one of the 12 killed.

Blache said she didn’t plan on going to the movie that night but when she saw how excited Sullivan was for the show, she opted to join.

The group got to the theater that night around 5:30 p.m., more than six hours before showtime.

While much of Blache’s testimony had her friends and family in the gallery weeping, her talk about how excited they all were — and their willingness to get there that early — had many laughing between the tears.

Blache said the group had tickets in two separate auditoriums, but Sullivan and a few others switched to No. 9 so the group could be together.

When the trailer for “Superman” played, Sullivan pumped his fists and cheered. Blache said he was already making plans to see the midnight premier of that superhero film, too.

Shortly after the shooting started, Blache was hit in the leg and fell to the ground. She said she looked over and saw Sullivan on the ground next to her with a red spot on his head. She never saw him alive after the start of the movie.

Josh Nowlan, who was wounded in the arm and leg in the rampage, testified about watching the shooter stalk victims as Nowlan and his friends tried to hide behind theater seats. Prosecutors had him hold his cane like Holmes held his gun that night.

Nowlan said the wounds in his calf felt like a “rusty nail” jabbed into his leg and said he was scared to get up and run because he worried he would make an easy target if he did.

“I knew it was going to be a turkey shoot,” he said.

After an hour on the stand — the longest testimony from a witness yet — Nowlan returned to his seat and got a pat on the back from other victims.

Jurors paid close attention throughout Wednesday’s testimony, craning their necks to see the diagram of the theater and regularly submitting follow-up questions for witnesses.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story