LAFAYETTE, La. (Reuters) - A 59-year-old man who had been committed to a hospital for psychiatric care was identified by authorities on Friday as the gunman who fatally shot two people in a rampage at a crowded movie theater in central Louisiana before turning the gun on himself as police closed in.
The suspected gunman, John R. Houser, who had a history of mental illness and railed against the U.S. government online, opened fire with a .40 caliber handgun about 20 minutes into the comedy film “Trainwreck,” sending panicked theatergoers ducking behind seats and running for the exits. One woman pulled the fire alarm.
“This is a normal movie theater in a normal part of a normal town. This is Anywhere, USA,” said Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who went to the crime scene in the city of Lafayette to meet with law enforcement and victims. “This just shows these senseless acts of violence can literally happen anywhere.”
Before purchasing a ticket for the 7 p.m. show, Houser parked his blue Lincoln Continental near the theater’s emergency exit in what police said appeared to be preparations for a quick getaway. He had switched its license plates and stashed the keys on top of a tire. Disguises including glasses and women’s wigs were later uncovered in a local motel room where he was staying.
“It is apparent that he was intent on shooting and escaping,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said, who described Houser as an unemployed “drifter” from Phenix City, Alabama.
Houser never made it back to his car. As police swarmed the Grand 16 Theater, located along main thoroughfare in Lafayette, he reloaded his .40 caliber handgun, re-entered the theater and killed himself, police said.
Police said they did not know why the suspect launched the attack in Lafayette, roughly 55 miles (90 km) southwest of the state capital Baton Rouge.
“Certainly it exists out there that we may not find a motive but that’s not our goal right now,” Colonel Mike Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police told reporters.
The shooting was the latest in a series of mass killings in the United States, including the fatal shooting of five U.S. servicemen in Tennessee, and the massacre of nine African Americans at a South Carolina church in recent weeks.
The latest act of apparently random gun violence came almost three years to the day after 12 people were killed at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado.
It is likely to heat up a festering political debate in the United States over access to weapons and the right to bear arms, protected under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
President Barack Obama had told the BBC in an interview aired on Thursday before the shooting that his biggest frustration was the failure to pass “common-sense gun safety laws.”
Authorities said seven were wounded in the Lafayette rampage, three of them critically.
The two victims were identified as Mayci Breaux, 21, from Franklin, Louisiana, and Jillian Johnson, 33, from Lafayette. Breaux was about to begin studies at Lafayette General Hospital to become an x-ray technician. Johnson owned a Lafayette gift shop.
Amanda Rabalais, 19, a college student who frequently shopped at Johnson’s store, said she was stunned by the shooting.
“I don’t think I can go inside a movie theater for quite some time now. It just really shook my feeling about safety,” she said.
Two of the wounded victims were teachers, Jindal said, one of whom told him that she survived the attack because her friend rolled on top of her as bullets rang out. That teacher then managed to pull a fire alarm in the theater, he said.
Houser had a volatile relationship with his family, who said he had a history of mental illness. A political conservative who joined the Tea Party, Houser was described as a “gadfly” who voiced his views on talk radio and ran for local political office.
In April 2008, he was ordered not to contact his wife, daughter and other relatives after they filed a request for a protective order against him in Carroll County, Georgia.
In the request, Houser’s estranged wife, Kellie Houser, said she feared for his “volatile mental state” after he threatened to stop the wedding of his daughter and her boyfriend, according to court records. She said her husband was on daily medications for manic-depression and bipolar disorder at the time.
Earlier, Houser was involuntary committed to a hospital for psychiatric care, according to court documents. His family was concerned he could be a danger to himself and others, according to the petition.
Houser’s wife filed for divorce in March after they separated in 2012 following 29 years of marriage, court records show. According to the clerk of court’s office the divorce had not been finalized.
Craft, the police chief, said records indicated that Houser, who is white, had no arrests in the last 10 to 15 years, but previously had an arson and a misdemeanor arrest, possibly involving the sale of alcohol to a minor.
He was denied a concealed carry permit in Russell County, Alabama in 2006 because of a report or domestic violence filed against him by his wife in 2005 and a previous arrest, authorities said.
A LinkedIn page that appears to have belonged to Houser describes him as an entrepreneur with a specialty in investment management. He helped run two bars in Georgia from the late 1970s to 2000, the page says. His education included a law degree from Faulkner University, a Christian school in Montgomery, Alabama, and an undergraduate degree in accounting from Columbus State University in Georgia.
Houser was a member of the conservative Tea Party, according to Tea Party Nation.com, and he was a guest host on a now-defunct political commentary show.
A frequent commenter on PoliticalForum.com, a messaging board covering social and political topics, Houser wrote about 200 posts on President Obama, taxes and how “the U.S. is about to fall,” using the name Rusty Houser.
In response to a thread in May 2013 about the fall of the United States, Houser wrote: “Truth carries with it an understanding of death. Rather than live without it, I will take death.”
Bobby Peters, a former mayor of Columbus, Georgia, said Houser was a local activist who came to council meetings and had hosted a talk show where he interviewed elected officials. Columbus is across the state line from Phenix City, Alabama.
“I’m not going to say that he gave any signs that he was going to do some kind of act like this. Not at all. He was just very erratic,” Peters said.
Reporting by Phil McCausland in New Orleans, Dan Whitcomb, Victoria Cavaliere, Letitia Stein, Karen Brooks, Laila Kearney, Joseph Ax, Angela Moon and Lena Masri; Writing by David Adams and Frank McGurty; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Meredith Mazzilli