LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — A man who lost his family, home and businesses as he spent years angrily espousing right-wing extremism on television, the Internet and to anyone else who would listen did not say a word as he opened fire on strangers in a darkened movie theater, authorities said Friday.
John Russell Houser, 59, stood up about 20 minutes into Thursday night’s showing of “Trainwreck” and fired on the audience, killing two people and wounding nine with a semi-automatic handgun.
“That was a horrific scene in there — the blood on the floor, sticks in the seats (showing the trajectory of the bullets), the smell,” state police Col. Michael Edmonson said after top officials got an inside look at the theater.
“He took his time, methodically choosing his victims,” Gov. Bobby Jindal added. “One of the surviving wounded victims actually played dead to stay alive.”
Houser then tried to escape by blending into the fleeing crowd after one of his victims pulled a fire alarm and hundreds poured out of the theater complex. But he turned back as police officers approached, reloading and firing into the crowd before killing himself with a single shot inside the theater, police said.
“This is such a senseless, tragic action,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said. “Why would you come here and do something like this?”
Investigators recovered Houser’s journals, were studying his online postings and trying to reconstruct his movements to identify a motive and provide what Edmonson called “some closure” for the victims’ families.
Craft said Houser bought the weapon legally at a pawnshop in Phenix City, Alabama, last year, and that he had visited the theater more than once, perhaps to determine “whether there was anything that could be a soft target for him.”
He had only been in Louisiana since early July, staying in a Motel 6 room littered with wigs and disguises. His only known connection to the Lafayette was an uncle who died there three decades ago.
Details quickly emerged about Houser’s mental problems, prompting authorities in Louisiana and Alabama to bemoan the underfunding of mental health services in America.
Court records describe erratic behavior and threats of violence that led to a brief involuntary hospitalization in 2008 and a restraining order preventing Houser from approaching family members. Houser “has a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder,” his estranged wife told the judge.
Educated in accounting and law, he owned bars in Georgia — including one where he flew a Nazi banner out front as an anti-government statement. He tried real estate in Phenix City, Alabama. But Houser’s own resume, posted online, says what he really loved to do was make provocative statements at local board meetings and in the media.
On an NBC television affiliate’s call-in show in the 1990s, Houser encouraged violent responses to abortion and condemned working women, host Calvin Floyd recalled. He was an “angry man” who spoke opposite a Democrat and really lit up the phones, he added.
Houser wrote that he was a weekly guest for 60 episodes on “Rise and Shine WLTZ” in Columbus, Georgia, where he “invited political controversy on every one of them, and loved every minute of it.”
In recent years, Houser turned to right-wing extremist Internet message boards, where he praised Adolf Hitler, and advised people not to underestimate “the power of the lone wolf,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose hate-group watchdogs spotted Houser registering to meet with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in 2005.
What prompted Houser to kill people Thursday night remains unknown.
He seemed like just another patron as he entered The Grand 16 theater, one of 25 people who bought tickets to the romantic comedy starring feminist jokester Amy Schumer as a boozing, promiscuous reporter.
Police believe he hoped to escape his deadly ambush before police closed in. Inside a Motel 6 room he rented, they found wigs, glasses and other disguises. Houser also swapped the license plates on his 1995 Lincoln Continental before parking it by the theater’s exit door. He stashed the keys atop one of its wheels.
Once inside, he sat by himself and gave others in the theater no reason for concern before he began shooting, firing first at two women who were sitting in front of him, then wounding nine other people.
Twenty-one year old Emily Mann and a friend, who arrived a little bit late to the movie, were sitting in the same row as the gunman, and saw the flashes from his gun barrel.
“About twenty minutes into the movie, you hear one loud shot and you’re sure that’s not what it is because it would never be that. And then you hear another and another and another and you realize that those aren’t just lights and sounds. That this is a man,” Manning said.
As the chaos ensued she said she got down on her hands and knees and tried to make her way to the lobby.
“Lost a shoe, left my purse,” she said.
Once outside the theater she ran to the lobby where people were yelling there was a shooter. She later found her friend outside the theater and drove home.
Jeanerette High School English teacher Ali Martin and librarian Jena Meaux were credited with helping save lives amid the chaos. Meaux, who was shot in the leg, told her colleagues that Martin, who was shot in the kneecap, still managed to pull a fire alarm, their former principal Heath Hulin said.
The lights came as the siren sounded, with a message urging everyone to leave. Outside, a woman was laying down, shot in her leg, said Jacob Broussard, who heard the gunshots from another theater across the hall.
“She was bleeding on the grass, in the front of the theater,” Broussard said. “A man had actually dragged her out.”
Theatergoers didn’t panic, police said, but they left in a rush, leaving behind purses, keys and even shoes. Officers found 15 spent shell casings.
The two women killed were 21-year-old Mayci Breaux and 33-year-old Jillian Johnson. Breaux’s body was brought to the same hospital where she was preparing to become a radiology technician. Johnson ran clothing and art boutiques, played in a rootsy rock band and planted fruit trees for neighbors and the homeless.
The wounded ranged in age from teenagers to their late 60s, Craft said. Five were treated at Lafayette General Health Center. Three patients had been stabilized, including one who remained in intensive care. Two others were released Thursday night.
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said his office denied Houser’s request for a concealed weapons permit in 2006 because he had been treated for mental illness and arrested for arson in Georgia.
“He was pretty even-keeled until you disagreed with him or made him mad,” said Jeff Hardin, the former mayor of Phenix City, Alabama, just across the state line from Columbus. “Then he became your sworn enemy.”
Hardin said he once partnered with Houser on a real-estate project, but they had a falling out and hadn’t spoken since around 2007.
Houser was evicted from his home in Phenix City last year, then returned to throw paint, pour concrete down the plumbing and tamper with a gas line, Taylor said.
Houser’s wife filed for divorce in March, saying their differences were irreconcilable and his whereabouts were unknown. His mother recently lent him $5,000, but “It just seems like he was kind of drifting along,” Craft said.
Houser’s only known relative in Lafayette, an uncle, died 35 years ago.
After detailing each victim’s wounds, David Callecod, president of Lafayette General Health, pleaded Friday for society to provide as much funding for mental health services as it does for other medical problems.
Pressed to explain why Houser wasn’t arrested before, Sheriff Taylor also blamed cuts in the safety net.
“There’s cuts being made all over,” Taylor said. “What should be scary for the community is that the cuts being made in mental health around the state are allowing these people, who should not be walking around, to be out in the community.”