DENVER — James Eagen Holmes came from a well-tended San Diego enclave of two-story homes with red-tiled roofs, where neighbors recall him as a clean-cut, studious young man of sparing words.
Tall and dark-haired, he stared clear-eyed at the camera in a 2004 high school yearbook snapshot, wearing a white junior varsity soccer uniform — No. 16. 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 theater, as police allege.
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 neighbor 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.
The bookish demeanor concealed an unspooling life. 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.
Holmes enrolled last year in a neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado-Denver but was in the process of withdrawing, said school officials, who didn't provide a reason. The school later said in a statement that he left the program in June 2012.
As part of the advanced program in Denver, a James Holmes had been listed as making a presentation in May about Micro DNA Biomarkers in a class named "Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders."
In academic achievement, "he was at the top of the top," recalled Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White.
Holmes concentrated his study on "how we all behave," White added. "It's ironic and sad."
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 neighbor 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.
Police asked Ben Lung, 27, who lives in the same apartment building as Holmes, whether he had seen anyone with "noticeably dyed hair." Lung said he had not.
Authorities say Holmes arrived at the theater 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 two gas canisters into the theater, 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 past two months.