LAFAYETTE, La. — For three straight nights, Jonah Slason had gone to sleep with a Bible in his bed.
Ever since a man sitting just rows behind him unleashed a barrage of gunfire on him and others at the Grand 16 Theater, Slason, 25, has found himself riffling through his dark-burgundy Bible late into the night looking for answers.
While he hasn’t found answers for why John Russell Houser opened fire that night — killing two and injuring nine others, Slason, a school choir teacher, said he has found love. “I’ve been hearing from everyone I ever knew, even back to high school, reaching out,” he said. “I’ve seen how this whole community has come together and just supported each other.”
In the wake of last week’s movie-theater shooting, Lafayette has been a city in mourning. Marquee messages at stores have been replaced with prayers and remembrances. Hugs from friends have lingered a little longer. And messages of “#LafayetteStrong” have sprung up everywhere: at the farmers market, on houses and cars, handwritten by waitresses on restaurant receipts.
Those searching for answers have found little to satisfy.
Investigations of Houser, who took his own life in the shooting, have yielded details about his life in Alabama and Georgia. Family members in Georgia described Houser as mentally ill and said he had been estranged from them for years. And questions linger about how he obtained a gun at an Alabama pawnshop in February 2014.
In Lafayette, the police investigation has produced new tidbits about his final three weeks in the region. Renting a motel just off Interstate 10, Houser roamed widely along the sprawling highway, which cuts across the length of southern Louisiana.
Officials revealed Sunday that they think Houser had visited other cinema complexes in the days leading up to Thursday’s shooting.
“We do have reports from people of him going into other theaters,” Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel said in a phone interview. In recent days, for example, at one theater, a couple reported seeing a man looking like Houser who had dressed up to look like a woman, Durel said.
The man behaved so erratically that the couple soon got up and left the movie.
After the shooting, authorities found wigs, glasses and other disguises in Houser’s motel, alongside journals.
Louisiana state police also said Sunday that Houser had written in a journal found in his motel room the theater, date and screening time for the showing of the movie “Trainwreck” at which he carried out the shooting.
Police said they would probably release more information later this week from their investigation into Houser. But authorities acknowledged the limits of the data they were collecting.
“We may never know exactly why he chose Lafayette, why he chose Thursday night,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” noting that the theater would have had security guards on a Friday or Saturday night. “We may never have answers to all those questions.”
More than an hour’s drive away in Lake Charles, at a church visited by Houser a week before the shooting, Pastor Tony Bourque has been wrestling with those questions as well. Houser had visited the church’s food pantry and sat sobbing for an hour and talking about his severe depression.
Bourque said he had been wrestling with what to tell his congregation on Sunday about the man who had asked them to pray for his life days before ravaging the lives of so many others.
“People are asking why it happened,” he said. “It’s puzzling and it’s difficult. The world is a deeply broken place, filled with broken people.”
Ultimately, Bourque said, he decided he would focus Sunday’s message on the power of compassion for people like Houser and for all who are hurting. And like many churches throughout the region Sunday, Bourque also set aside time to pray for the victims and their families.
Meanwhile, relatives are preparing to hold funerals Monday for the two women Houser killed — Mayci Breaux, 21, a radiology student, and Jillian Johnson, 33, who was an active part of Lafayette’s art and business scene.
Over the weekend, the funerals became the focus of intense community angst as word spread that the controversial Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church planned to protest at them. Westboro has become infamous for staging protests wherever they can to attract media attention, but its intentions especially struck a nerve in Lafayette because Houser had voiced support for Westboro in online postings.
Over the weekend, much of the pent-up grief and anger in Lafayette were directed at Westboro. Thousands joined a Facebook page aimed at stopping the church’s protests, with plans of forming a human chain to keep them away from the services.
Jindal, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, issued an executive order Saturday directing police to enforce state laws against disturbing the peace at funerals.
Emotions throughout the city remain raw, said Durel, the city-parish president.
With time, Lafayette will emerge from this just fine, he said, noting a study last year by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research that ranked Lafayette the happiest city in the country.
“It won’t be long before we’re the happiest city again,” he said. “This is a very strong community. But we can’t forget the fact that there are some among us who are not fine, families who may never be fine again. Those are the people we’re coming together to support right now.”