The gunman who opened fire Thursday in a Louisiana movie theater was a onetime entrepreneur who inveighed against women’s rights, liberals and minorities and had been involuntarily committed for mental illness, according to court documents and interviews.
John Russell Houser, 59, was one of about two dozen people who bought a ticket to an evening showing of “Trainwreck” at a multiplex in Lafayette, officials said. About 20 minutes into the movie, he stood up and began firing a semiautomatic handgun “methodically,” authorities said, killing two and injuring nine before turning the gun on himself.
Mayci Breaux, 21, a radiology student who had recently toured the hospital to which she was rushed, and Jillian Johnson, 33, an artistic force and businesswoman in the city, were sitting in the row in front of Houser. Both died.
Houser, who had an accounting degree and a law degree and once owned bars, was sliding into erratic, threatening behavior by 2008, family members said in court documents filed in Georgia that accused him of stalking his own daughter. Houser wound up estranged from his daughter, he lost his house in foreclosure and he was separated from his wife.
More than a decade earlier, Houser became known in his Georgia community as an argumentative guest on television talk shows who was fiercely anti-tax. The former pub owner known as “Rusty” also ran for several local offices, political bids that went nowhere, people who knew him recalled.
“Rusty had an issue with feminine rights. He was opposed to women having a say in anything,’’ said Calvin Floyd, former host of the talk show “Rise and Shine” on station WLTZ NBC 38 in Columbus, Ga. “You could talk with him a few minutes, and you would know he had a high IQ, but there was a lot missing with him.”
As Houser lost his businesses and his family life disintegrated, he appears to have taken a darker turn, according to investigators, anti-hate groups and a review of his social media postings. He posted regularly on Internet message boards, often ranting against the government and the mainstream media — writings that investigators are reading closely for clues, said Col. Michael D. Edmonson, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police.
The postings regularly praised Adolf Hitler, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. The center said Houser registered to attend a 2005 conference held by an organization headed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Local media in Georgia, where Houser owned a bar more than decade ago, reported that he once hung a large swastika banner outside after the city pulled his liquor license for repeatedly serving minors.
Authorities said Friday that Houser had lived in Alabama from 2005 until 2014 and had a residence in Columbus, Ga. After that, he appeared to move from place to place, they said. It is unclear why he went to Lafayette, some 500 miles away; he had no apparent connections there except for an uncle, now deceased, who lived in the city three decades ago.
The gun used in the shootings — a .40-caliber, semiautomatic handgun — was legally purchased in February 2014 at a Phenix City, Ala., pawn shop, police said. A legal purchase would mean a background check was done, and experts said Houser’s earlier involuntary commitment for mental illness most likely should have prevented him from making the purchase. It is unclear why he was allowed to buy the weapon.
In 2006, when Houser applied for a concealed-carry permit in Russell County, Ala., the sheriff’s department denied the permit because of a prior arrest for arson and a domestic violence complaint on his record, Sheriff Heath Taylor said at a news conference Friday. In both cases, Houser was never prosecuted; records do not indicate why.
His unraveling seemed to accelerate in April 2008, when he became violently opposed to his daughter Kirbey’s upcoming marriage, according to documents filed in Superior Court in Carroll County, Ga. He complained that the couple were too young and became furious with his wife, Kellie, for failing to halt the wedding, the court filings say.
Houser made such “ominous” threats that Kellie Houser said she removed all the guns and weapons from the couple’s home, according to the filings.
Two weeks before the wedding, the documents said, Houser drove 100 miles from his home in Phenix City to Carroll County and showed up at his daughter’s workplace at the local public defender’s office. He declared that the upcoming marriage “will not take place,” the filings said.
Soon after, Houser visited the home of another relative, who called police to complain that he was threatening her. The county issued an involuntary commitment order for Houser after the family said they feared he was “a danger to himself and others,” the documents said. The court also issued a protective order in 2008 requiring that he not stalk, harass or try to contact his wife, his daughter, her fiance or the fiance’s family.
Houser’s family said that he suffered from mental illness and had daily medication for it but that he became erratic when he forgot or refused to take the medication, according to a court filing.
Houser’s wife separated from him in December 2012 and officially petitioned in March to end their 31-year marriage. By that time, Houser had moved away, and she said she didn’t know where to serve the divorce papers.
Kirbey Houser told college friends that her dad had been a responsible father when she was growing up, Marcie Anderson, a sorority sister, said in an interview. Houser visited his daughter at the start of one school year to help paint their sorority house and seemed “really helpful,” Anderson said.
But his mental health deteriorated, and Kirbey, now married with a toddler, told friends she rarely saw him.
“She mentioned he needs to be on medication and it was hard to get him to take medication,” Anderson said. “I know the last conversation they had was about two years ago. She said he was very strange and didn’t sound like himself.”
John Houser’s last interaction with law enforcement in Russell County stemmed from an incident last year when he was evicted from his foreclosed house at 1101 32nd St. “He left the residence but went back and did some damage, some vandalism to the address,” Sheriff Taylor said, adding that the new owner declined to sign a warrant for Houser’s arrest.
The new owner’s son, Norman Bone, said in an interview that Houser did his best to leave the home uninhabitable. “Paint all over the walls. Cement down the toilet,” Bone said. “He just went crazy and really tried to trash the house.”
Police in Lafayette said that Houser had been staying at a Motel 6 in the city of about 100,000 since early July. In his room, officers found “wigs and glasses and disguises, basically,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said.
Years ago, Houser’s fierce, conservative opinions made him a frequent guest on local Georgia television talk shows. In an online profile, he boasted that he had made dozens of such appearances. The hosts of those shows say Houser overstated his role, but they remember him as an argument-provoking guest who was angry about high taxes and women’s rights.
“I had him on strictly because he was entertaining,” said Floyd, the former host. “He was radical, and when you’re looking for a person on a live show, taking calls, that’s what you want.”
Houser’s role was limited to call-ins and occasional debates on “15 or 20 episodes,” Floyd, who has retired from the station, said. Sometimes, Houser — “pretty much a radical Republican,” in Floyd’s view — would be pitted against a local Democrat to tear into the issues of the day.
“He was sort of a gadfly type, a frequent caller to the show,” recalled Doug Kellet, the host from 1991 to 2001 of the Columbus series “TalkLine.” He recalled that Houser ran unsuccessfully for city council. “He had lot of anti-tax issues, and apart from that campaign, he was one of the guys who’d show up to city meetings to complain,” Kellet said. “There were a lot of people going to city council to do that back then. And we had the show where you could really hammer local politicians.”
Both hosts recalled Houser’s political career as a strange, fringe affair. The shooting suspect’s father, Rembert Houser, had served as the Muscogee County tax commissioner. His son’s bid for that office was remembered for an incident involving the theft of some lawn signs.
“He got more erratic over time,” Floyd said. “I was not shocked at all when I got a call about this. It did not surprise me one bit. Something was amiss.”
Houser was unremarkable, not much different from the other guests lured by the Motel 6’s $252 weekly rate. Many guests couldn’t place him even after his photo was plastered across TV screens Friday.
One guest, Bob Fisher, 59, said he frequently saw Houser in the motel’s tiny, fenced-in pool. “He was polite, well spoken,” Fisher said. Houser occasionally bought alcohol at the Race Trac gas station across from the motel, Fisher and others said.
“To think he could have been just a few doors down. It’s crazy,” Fisher said. “It could have been us. Why go to the theater? He could have gone door to door shooting us. It makes no sense.”
Bonnie Barbier, a Louisiana woman, told CNN that several days before the shooting, Houser approached her and a friend at a bistro in Lafayette asking to pet her dog. He then brought up euthanizing animals.
Houser told Barbier he had killed his cat and that he thought people should have an easy way to kill animals by giving them a pill and “finishing them off with an ax,” she recalled.
“My mouth dropped and I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” Barbier said. “He pulled up a chair and just started ranting. . . . I felt from the get-go really uncomfortable.”
William Wan in Lafayette, La., and Sari Horwitz, Jennifer Jenkins, Julie Tate, Alice Crites and Elahe Izadi in Washington contributed to this report.