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‘Slow and methodical’: Officials describe deadly La. theater shooting

Here’s a look at what police know about what happened inside a Louisiana theater after a man allegedly opened fire. (Video: The Washington Post)
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LAFAYETTE, La. — A lone gunman, described by police as an out-of-state “drifter” and by a family friend as a troubled man suffering from worsening mental illness, silently stood up in a darkened movie theater here and opened fire Thursday night, killing at least two people and injuring nine others before killing himself, authorities said.

Police identified the shooter Friday as 59-year-old John Russell Houser from Phenix City, Ala., but were struggling to determine whether and why he came to town to kill.

“Why did he come here? Why did he do that?” Col. Michael D. Edmonson, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said at a news conference. “We don’t know that.”

Edmonson added later that “we may not find a motive.”

By Friday evening, police had completed processing the crime scene, which Edmonson described as “horrific,” with pools of blood splattered on the floor.

[Records: Gunman fought depression, bipolar disorder]

Houser seemed to be sitting alone in Grand Theatre 16 during an evening screening of the romantic comedy “Trainwreck” when he began firing a semi-automatic handgun, police said. The first two people hit were the audience members sitting directly in front of him.

“He simply stood up and started firing,” Edmonson said on CNN.

Two women were killed — one, 21-year-old college student Mayci Breaux, died at the theater, where she’d been watching the movie with her boyfriend; another, 33-year-old musician and graphic designer Jillian Johnson, died at a local hospital.

[‘I wanted to be Jillian when I grew up’: Friends, family remember Jillian Johnson    |   ‘This is going to affect the community for a long time’: Town mourns Mayci Breaux]

Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said nine others suffered injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening and were transported to local hospitals. One person was admitted into the intensive care unit at Lafayette General Hospital; hospital officials said Friday afternoon that the patient was in stable condition.

As of early Friday evening, four of the victims had been released from the hospital, police officials said.

“This wasn’t a sudden burst,” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said at a Friday evening news conference. “It appears this was slow and methodical. This gunman took his time after he fired the first couple of shots.”

Fifteen shell casings were found in the theater. After Houser fired his .40-caliber handgun numerous times through the crowd, he left through an emergency exit to where his car was parked, Craft said. Two police officers on patrol had pulled into the parking lot and Houser went back into the theater, reloaded, fired three more rounds and then shot himself, Craft said.

“We think possibily one victim was hit in the second burst of gunfire,” Craft said.

Jindal said Houser sat at the top of the theater, suggesting it was to have a vantage point of the audience. “It seemed he had planned this,” Jindal said.

[‘People just started to rampage out of the building, like a stampede’: An eyewitness account]

Houser suffered from mental illness that appeared to grow worse in recent years, and his family had struggled to get him to stay on his medications, according to a friend of his daughter, Kirbey Houser. The Associated Press reported Friday that court documents from 2008 say Houser’s own family petitioned to have him involuntarily committed “because he was a danger to himself and others.”

Houser was involuntarily committed by a judge and taken temporarily to a hospital in Columbus, Ga.

Edmonson said, “Here’s a guy who was a drifter…who just happened to be in this theater and took two beautiful lives.”

Craft said police received reports of a shooting at the theater at around 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Within minutes of the first gunshots, two officers who were already on the property entered the theater, according to Craft.

“As they made their way into the crowd, they heard a shot, and upon entering the theater, the suspect was found deceased from a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Craft said at the news conference.

Houser’s car — a blue 1995 Lincoln Continental — was positioned near a theater exit, Craft said, and he attempted to leave the multiplex after the shooting. “It was apparent that he was intent on shooting and then escaping,” the chief said. But Houser saw police, went back into the theater and killed himself, Craft said.

Officials credited the two officers’ presence with saving more lives. They arrived with first responder kits intended to help wounded officers, which they used to stop victims’ bleeding and stabilize those who had been shot, Craft said.

“There’s no good reason why this act of evil should intrude on the lives of families,” Jindal said. He added: “This is an awful night for Lafayette, this is an awful night for Louisiana, this is an awful night for the United States.”

Houser was staying at a local motel, where law enforcement agents found wigs, glasses and disguises during a predawn search on Friday, police said. Additionally, the Lincoln Continental he was driving “had a switched license tag,” Craft said.

The police chief later told CNN that Houser “was maybe trying to disguise his appearance, although we’re told that when he purchased his ticket, he was not wearing any type of disguise.”

It remains unclear why Houser went to the multiplex for the evening screening then started shooting.

“Why this city, why this movie, why those people?” Craft said.

[EssayGoing to the movies is a break from reality. Until reality starts shooting.]

Police said they have no reason to believe Houser targeted any locations other than the movie theater, or that there might be another active shooter. Investigators don’t believe Houser knew anybody who was inside the theater when he began shooting.

“It does not look like he went there to target somebody specifically,” Jindal said on CNN.

Houser appeared to post regularly on Internet message boards, often ranting against the government and the mainstream media — writings that investigators are reading closely for clues, said Edmonson, the state police superintendent.

Edmonson added on CNN that Houser was “really not in close communication with his family,” except to ask his mother for money, and he didn’t have any apparent connections to Lafayette beyond an uncle who lived in the city three decades ago.

[TV hosts remember alleged Lafayette gunman as anti-tax, anti-feminist ‘gadfly’]

The shooting comes as jurors weigh a death sentence for James Holmes, the gunman found guilty of killing 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012. Monday was the third anniversary of that attack.

The guilty verdict was delivered in Colorado on July 16, the same day a lone gunman opened fire at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., a rampage that left four Marines and one Navy petty officer dead.

Before Thursday’s shooting in Lafayette, the BBC aired an interview with President Obama in which he said that gun safety was “the one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied.”

“The United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws,” the president said. “Even in the face of repeated mass killings.”

[Another day, another mass shooting: Americans are caught in a crossfire]

On Friday, Jindal told CNN: “This is a time for healing. There will be a time for those debates.”

“Two innocent people are dead, several more are injured and hundreds were terrorized all while taking part in one of our country’s most beloved pastimes — a night at the movies,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement. “Investigators have already made it clear that the shooter has a criminal history. As we await further details from the investigation, it will be important to learn whether he legally had any business owning a firearm and, if not, finding out how he got one. As we wait, our hearts, prayers and thoughts go out to everyone impacted by this terrible tragedy.”

In a statement from Air Force One while en route to Kenya, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president had been briefed on the shootings and the status of those injured.

“The thoughts and prayers of everyone at the White House, including the president and first lady, are with the community of Lafayette, Louisiana, especially the families of those who were killed,” the statement read.

Lafayette is a city of about 120,000 in southwestern Louisiana, roughly 60 miles west of Baton Rouge.

“It’s so terrible; it’s devastating to be on center stage,” Lafayette City Councilman Keith Patin told CNN. Through tears, Patin added: “We’re used to dealing with natural types of catastrophes, hurricanes, stuff like that. But nothing like this.”

In a statement, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell (R) noted that the state had become “the latest in a terribly long line of states where an obviously unstable individual saw fit to strike out at innocent citizens, killing and wounding many and destroying the lives of their families.

“These acts are unspeakable tragedies for so many. We must reach out to the survivors and the families of all victims with prayers and assistance, and offer prayers for the souls of those departed. We must also increase our efforts to establish additional mental health alternatives, which can identify and control unstable and violent persons.”

[11 essential facts about guns and mass shootings in America]

The Grand Theatre 16 is one of two Grand multiplexes in the city. The other was shut down after the shooting “out of an abundance of caution,” said Craft, the police chief.

About 300 people were at the theater when the shooting occurred, police said. Twenty-five tickets had been sold for the “Trainwreck” screening.

On Friday, police said a quick law-enforcement response — in which officers rushed into an active-shooter scene because “they were worried about individuals in there” — probably prevented more deaths.

“He could have come out and done additional harm,” Edmonson, the state police superintendent, said of Houser.

Speaking at a news conference, Jindal told stories of the heroism of those in the theater. He said one teacher jumped on top of a fellow teacher to protect her from the bullets. Both were wounded, but the second woman said that her friend’s act had probably saved her life.

The second teacher then dragged herself to a fire alarm and pulled it, probably saving still more lives.

“A lot of folks in that situation would just be thinking about themselves,” the governor said. “She had the presence of mind to think, all right, even though she was shot in the leg, she saved other people.”

[Teachers, doing what they were trained to do, likely helped save lives during La. movie theater shooting]

Police said that dozens of belongings were left behind in the theater — shoes, bags, cellphones and keys. The parking lot outside the multiplex, filled with flickering blue light from police vehicles, was packed with abandoned cars. To the fleeing crowd, none of it was as important as getting away from the crime scene.

Jalen Fernell, a 20-year-old student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was in a different theater at the same multiplex, watching a screening of “Southpaw,” when the sound of gunshots interrupted the opening scene. He initially thought the noise was part of the movie, but then an alarm sounded.

“When those sirens went off, immediately my heart sank into my chest because I was like, ‘Wait, those gunshots came from inside the building,'” he told The Post.

The audience “rampaged” out of the theater, Fernell said, emerging to the sound of sirens and the sight of police and emergency vehicles swarming the area. Police shouted directions over a PA system, and Fernell said the scene outside was frenzied.

He said he saw a woman sitting on the curb, bleeding from the leg, and heard that she’d been shot inside the theater. Fernell said he heard “six down in Theater 14” over a police radio. Moments later, Fernell said he saw a slew of officers charge into the building. Over the police radio, he heard the words “suspect down.”

“I was terrified because I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said. “My main thing was I was trying not to get shot because we didn’t know what was going on. Everybody was running around, everybody was screaming. It was a stressful state.”

He added: “That’s the last thing that you’d think would happen at a movie theater, especially on a Thursday night.”

This post, originally published on July 23, has been updated multiple times. Kaplan, J. Freedom du Lac and Michael E. Miller, Abby Ohlheiser, Mark Berman, Teddy Amenabar, Ricardo Sanchez, Carol D. Leonnig and  Robert Gebelhoff  reported from Washington. A previous version of this post included an incorrect spelling of Mayci Breaux’s first name.