Bomb Squad officers explain rush to search Aurora theater shooting suspect's car without warrant

Defense: Toss evidence from warrantless search

CENTENNIAL, Colo. - Two Arapahoe County bomb squad members testified Wednesday they had to immediately search the Aurora theater shooting suspect's car -- before obtaining a warrant -- because of concerns it was might be rigged with bombs.

Police called the bomb squad to the parking lot of the Century 16 Aurora theater because James Holmes had told officers after his arrest that he had booby-trapped his apartment with explosives.

"It's incumbent upon us to assume there are other explosive devices," Arapahoe County bomb squad Cmdr. Richard Anselmi testified during the hearing in Arapahoe County court.

No explosives were ultimately found in Holmes' Hyundai sedan.

Defense attorneys argue the warrantless search of the car for explosives was illegal, so police should not have been able to use it justify a search warrant for the contents after the vehicle was cleared for safety. The defense wants to any evidence seized from the car to be thrown out.

Yet prosecutors argue that police were legally justified in swiftly searching the car after the deadly shooting rampage under an exception that allows warrantless searches by law enforcement when there's a potential threat to public safety.

After the early morning shooting on July 20, 2012, bomb squad Investigator Craig Clark operated a remote- controlled bomb robot that he directed to break the car's passenger window and used the robot's camera to peer into the vehicle.

Clark said he saw dark-colored zippered bags and an open gun case.

"The bags gave us great concern. We couldn't see into them," Clark testified.

To search the car trunk, a bomb squad technician placed a key in the Hyundai's trunk lock and retreated to safety. Then the robot twisted the key to open the lid.

But the trunk lid only opened half-way, raising concerns that the lid was rigged to an explosive trip-wire.

Eventually, a bomb technician and an FBI agent donned protective suits to make sure the trunk wasn't booby-trapped.

Clark said the bomb squad also had to clear that theater for explosives before the bodies of those slain in the attack were removed.

"We had to check bodies to make sure there were no explosives planted on them or around them," he said. 

FBI Agent Toni Payne testified that she took daylight photographs of the car's interior from outside the vehicle after the attack. Then the FBI secured the car with crime-scene tape around it, evidenced seals on the doors and plastic wrap over the broken window.

Payne said police called her back to the crime-scene that afternoon.

Attorneys asked why she was asked to come back.

The FBI agent replied that police wanted her to break the FBI evidence seal on the car to retrieve an iPhone visible in the center console.

Police later used information and evidence gathered during the bomb squad search of the car to obtain two warrants for investigators to search it. The initial search warrant, issued on the day of the shooting, expired because crime-scene investigators were overwhelmed with gathering a massive amount of evidence in the days after the shooting.

So police obtained a second warrant on Aug. 2 and searched car after it had been towed to an Aurora police impound lot.

While executing the second warrant, investigators found black gloves, a ski mask, the butt plate for a firearm magazine, some metal spikes and a doorstop, said Aurora police detective Tom Sobieski. Investigators also found other items, like duffel bags, rifle cases and a handgun in the car during previous searches, according to other testimony in the case.

Sobieski's testimony appeared to bolster prosecutors' claims that authorities didn't have time to ask for a search warrant before looking in the car after the shooting.

Wednesday's hearing is one of several taking place this month on issues in the case not related to the death penalty. In addition to the search of Holmes' car, Wednesday's hearing also focused on the search of several pieces of computer equipment found in his apartment.