LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Police on Saturday thanked the many people providing tips about John Russell Houser as they work to reconstruct his movements before he killed two people, wounded nine and then killed himself in a movie theater.
By interviewing victims and witnesses and studying his cell phone records, internet postings and other contacts, they hope to figure out what prompted the right-wing extremist with a history of erratic behavior and violent threats to open fire.
“Our intelligence section is still analyzing a lot of that,” Lafayette Police Col. Paul Mouton said, adding that many people “feel they have had some sort of contact or run-in with this individual.”
An initial report about Houser will likely be released next week, the police spokesman said. By Monday, they expect to remove police tape and return some measure of normalcy to the theater where a romantic comedy exploded into violence.
Houser, 59, said not a word as he aimed at the audience, witnesses said. He left a horrific scene of blood, bullet holes and spent shell casings, and purses, wallets and shoes.
Emily Mann, 21, escaped with her friend by crawling out on her hands and knees while he picked off his victims one by one.
Mann said they arrived late for Thursday’s “Trainwreck” feature and quietly found seats near the back of the small theater. They didn’t notice the man in their row until he started firing, about 20 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,” Mann said.
Houser was a deeply troubled man with a reputation of angry behavior in the communities where he lived in Georgia and Alabama. Years ago, he had a regular seat on local television and radio shows and at board meetings, providing a provocative and conspiratorial counterpoint to more mainstream political voices, according to many accounts.
He flew a large Confederate flag outside his home and a Nazi swastika outside a bar he owned, and put “doomsday” fliers in his neighbors’ mailboxes, urging them to pool resources for the coming global economic collapse, his former neighbor Rick Chancey said.
Houser’s own family said he had a history of “manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder” as they persuaded a judge that he needed mental health treatment in 2008. In 1989, another judge had ordered a psychiatric evaluation for Houser after he was arrested for allegedly trying to kill a lawyer by hiring an arsonist to torch his office, according to court records.
Houser became estranged from his family, lost his businesses, his home was foreclosed on, and when he was finally evicted, he ruined the property by pouring concrete into the plumbing and glue into the fixtures, police said.
Filing for divorce in March, his estranged wife, Kellie Houser, said he lashed out at her, saying “I’d better watch out because he always wins.”
Houser’s mother then called to say her son had “threatened to commit suicide in front of the retirement community where he believes her to be living if she didn’t give him money,” the divorce papers allege.
Kellie Houser said she urged his mother not to pay, and to send him instead to a psychiatric facility.
Instead, police said, Houser’s mother sent him $5,000.
Given his background, authorities are being asked how he was allowed to buy a semi-automatic handgun from a pawnshop in Phenix City, Alabama, where the sheriff said Houser’s concealed weapons permit was denied.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Friday that “now is not the time” to discuss gun control, a position backed by rock musician and gun enthusiast Ted Nugent, who was in Lafayette for a sportsmen’s exposition.
Nugent came to the theater with Saturday with retired Col. Allen West, a FOX news commentator, to lay flowers and show their respect for the victims, and was asked whether the gun buy should have been blocked.
“I think it’s inappropriate to even approach that subject. I think it’s all about prayers for the victims and the families And showing support for the community,” Nugent said.
On right-wing extremist message boards, Houser praised Adolf Hitler as well as “the power of the lone wolf,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose hate-group watchdogs began tracking Houser in 2005, when he registered to meet with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“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.”
Authorities in Louisiana and Alabama bemoaned the underfunding of mental health services in America as they were asked about the case.
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said his office, which oversees Phenix City, denied Houser’s request for a concealed weapons permit in 2006 because of the arson arrest and a domestic violence complaint that his wife ultimately dropped.
Pressed to explain why Houser wasn’t convicted of anything, Sheriff Taylor pointed instead to cuts in the safety net.
“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,” the sheriff said.
What prompted Houser to kill people Thursday night remains unknown. Police said it appears that suicide was not his first option.
Inside the Motel 6 room he rented in Lafayette, 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.
He wore no disguises however as he entered The Grand 16 theater, one of 25 people who bought tickets to the film starring feminist comedian Amy Schumer as a boozing, promiscuous reporter.
Mann said after hearing the first shot, she looked to her left and saw Houser fire at least four more times in a semi-circle in front of him. The situation was so difficult to comprehend that people didn’t scream.
“It was a strange. You go to the movies to escape from problems and escape from thoughts and due dates,” she said. “You needed a second to think, ‘OK, this is real, this is happening.'”
The two women killed were 21-year-old Mayci Breaux, who was preparing to become a radiologist, and 33-year-old Jillian Johnson, who ran boutiques, played ukulele in a band and planted fruit trees for the homeless.
Among the wounded treated at Lafayette General Medical Center, all but two were discharged by Saturday, and they were listed in good condition, including the patient who had been in intensive care.
Across Lafayette, there’s been an outpouring of love for the victims with people leaving them flowers and holding vigils or moments of silence. “Stay strong Lafayette,” read a sign in front of a Walgreen’s.
“I will never know those women but I think there will always be a love for them,” Mann said, a senior at Louisiana State University who wants to become a doctor.
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