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Lafayette movie theater shooter 'had hate in his heart'

John Russell Houser hated taxes, liberals, newspapers, gays and the United States, according to the broad trail he left in court documents and on the Internet. Nor was he overly fond of his family, which feared him so much that relatives sought a restraining order and once had him involuntarily committed on the grounds that he was mentally ill.

Houser’s wife told police in 2008 that she had removed all the guns from their home because she was afraid of him, according to a Carrollton, Ga., police report that was part of a petition for a restraining order.

On Thursday night, about 20 minutes into the movie “Trainwreck,” Houser stood up in a theater in Lafayette, La., and began firing with a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun, killing two moviegoers and injuring nine, according to police. He then tried to escape by following the fleeing crowd. When he saw authorities, he dashed back inside and killed himself, police said.

Investigators were looking for a motive and were tracing the movements of the 59-year-old described by police as a drifter with a criminal past. In blog posts, Houser had expressed interest in white power groups and neo-Nazis, and he had espoused anti-Semitic and anti-gay views, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which said that “a picture is emerging online of a man caught up with a number of far right-wing ideas and fascinated about ‘the power of the lone wolf.’”

“We’re trying to put the pieces together to figure out why,” the Louisiana State Police superintendent, Col. Michael D. Edmonson, said during a televised news conference. He said police were looking at the crime scene as well as Houser’s mental health history, blogs and social media activities.

But it could be a long time, if ever, before the puzzle is solved, he said. “We may not find a motive,” Edmonson said. But it is clear, officials said, that he had planned to survive and escape.

Houser had been living in a Lafayette motel this month after arriving from Alabama. Police said they found disguises, including glasses and wigs, in a search of his room.

“It is apparent that he was intent on shooting and then escaping,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said, adding that authorities were still trying to determine the timeline.

“We know that he’s probably been to this location more than once,” Craft said. “So maybe he was testing, maybe he was checking, maybe he was determining if there was anything that could be a soft target for him.”

The theater does have at least one video camera in the lobby, and police said they would check footage from previous weeks. They were also checking to see whether Housoer visited other theaters.

The latest attack comes as the nation is still mourning two recent mass shootings. This month, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, 24, described by authorities as a home-grown violent extremist, killed five military service members in Chattanooga, Tenn. In June, nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., were gunned down during a Bible study class. Dylann Roof, 21, has been charged with murder in the attack and faces federal hate crime charges linked to his purported white supremacist views.

The Louisiana incident began at the 7:10 p.m. showing of the movie at the 16-screen Grand Theatre multiplex in Lafayette, about 60 miles west of Baton Rouge, the capital.

Houser parked his 1995 blue Lincoln Continental near the theater’s emergency exit, apparently to make an escape easier, Craft said. Houser entered the theater alone and took a seat; about 25 patrons were in attendance, according to authorities. After the film began, he rose and began firing, reloading at least once, authorities said, adding that 15 shell casings were found in the theater.

Katie Domingue, 27, said she and her fiance were sitting on the right side of the second row when the shots were fired.

“When I heard the first pop, I was thinking it was probably some silly teenager doing a firecracker,” Domingue said. “But my fiance, he’s a good Southern boy and he knows what a gun sounds like, had already grabbed the back of my neck and pushed me down and out of the theater.”

Domingue said that there was a pause and she looked toward the top-left corner of the theater and the gunman. “He didn’t say anything when he was shooting,” she said. “It was freaky, he was just so calm.”

Domingue, a nurse in an intensive care unit at a local hospital, said that she left her shoes, purse and cellphone in the theater when she fled.

“It’s funny how when it’s life or death you don’t really care,” she said.

A woman in the theater jumped in front of a fellow teacher, taking a bullet for her, officials said. The second teacher then managed to pull a fire alarm to alert other moviegoers, Craft said. He said the woman who set off the fire alarm was a heroine because it forced people to move. That saved lives, as did the quick response by law enforcement, the chief said.

The dead were identified as 33-year-old Jillian Johnson, who ran two clothing and art boutiques, and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux, a popular student studying to be a radiology technician.

In a post on the Facebook page of Johnson’s shops, her family said their hearts were shattered.

“She was a once-in-a-lifetime gal. A mother, daughter, sister and a truly exceptional wife,” her family wrote. “She was an artist, a musician, an entrepreneur and a true renaissance woman.”

In an interview with MSNBC on Friday, Ali Breaux, 16, spoke of her sister Mayci.

“She cared so much about our family,” Ali said. “She was my rock.”

The wounded ranged from their late teens to their late 60s, Craft said. By Friday evening, five people remained hospitalized -- four of them were listed in stable condition and one was still in critical condition, he said.

Craft said authorities didn’t know what drew the attacker to the town.

“We don't know why he decided to stop and stay in Lafayette,” Craft said. “It just seems like he was kind of drifting along.”

Houser graduated from Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga., in 1988 with an accounting degree, university officials said. His last known address with the university was in Phenix City, Ala.

Sheriff Heath Taylor of Russell County, Ala., said Houser had applied in 2006 for a permit to carry a concealed firearm. The application was denied because Houser had been accused by his wife the previous year of domestic violence and because he had been arrested in connection with an arson case in Columbus, Ga., Taylor said.

In 2008, Houser’s family members filed for a protective order against him for an “act of family violence.” Houser “has a history of mental health issues, i.e. manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder” and had “exhibited extreme erratic behavior,” family members said in court documents.

Mona Boutwell, assistant chief deputy clerk in Muscogee County in Georgia, said she had known Houser for nearly 25 years. She described him as “high-strung” and “hyper,” with a sometimes violent streak. But when she heard his name in connection with Thursday’s shooting, she could scarcely believe it.

“I think Rusty had serious issues. He had a lot of problems — money problems, family problems, home life problems.... But I don’t know anybody that would be capable of that horrific of a crime,” she said.

Houser’s wife filed the domestic violence complaint on Oct. 23, 2005, but it never was pursued because the complainant did not pursue prosecution, Taylor said at a televised news conference. The sheriff said Houser never had served jail time in Russell County nor been convicted of a crime there.

Police said the gun used in the shooting was purchased at a pawn shop in Phenix City in 2014. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told local officials the purchase was legal.

Houser was accused in 2014 of vandalizing a house in Phenix City from which he had been evicted. Taylor said the person who had bought the home after Houser lost it in a foreclosure discovered that someone had poured concrete down the plumbing pipes and tampered with gas pipes.

Taylor blamed budget cuts in part for the fact that people with histories of mental illness, like Houser, were out on the streets. “That’s what is so scary for us in law enforcement and should be scary for the community,” he said. He said budget cuts to mental health programs were “allowing a lot of these people who should not be walking around to be out in the community.”

“That’s a scary scenario we’re dealing with every day,” he said.

According to Houser’s page on LinkedIn, he attended the Jones School of Law at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., from fall 1994 to spring 1998, received a J.D. before the law school received accreditation, meaning if he had passed the bar he only would have been able to practice law in Georgia, according to school officials. He does not appear to be listed by the State Bar of Georgia.

A John Russell Houser did appear as a guest on a show called “Rise and Shine” on WLTZ-TV in Columbus, Ga., for a time in 1993, according to Fred Steppe, general sales manager for the station.

According to court documents filed in Carroll County, Ga., Houser’s wife filed for divorce in March this year after more than 31 years of marriage, saying their marriage was “irretrievably broken.” They separated in December 2012.

Greg Boutwell, who grew up with Houser, said that “he just had hate in his heart. I don’t know why.”

“He was spiteful and revengeful,” Boutwell said. “That’s the kind of person he was.”

christine.mai-duc@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

natalie.schashar@latimes.com

 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

7:48 p.m.: This story was updated with the number of victims still hospitalized and the sheriff's comments about the gunman looking for a possible "soft target."

6:25 p.m.: This story has been revised throughout for additional details and for clarity. 

1:00 p.m.: This story was corrected to show that nine parishioners were killed in South Carolina.

11:45 a.m.: This story was updated with the condition of the wounded.

10:21 a.m.: This story was updated with new details throughout about the shooting and the gunman's background.

8:50 a.m.: This story was updated with a revised spelling by authorities of the gunman's middle name.

This story was originally published at 7:08 a.m.

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