LAFAYETTE, La. (Reuters) - A 59-year-old man once hospitalized for psychiatric care was identified by authorities on Friday as the gunman who fatally shot two people in a rampage at a central Louisiana movie theater before killing himself as police closed in.
John R. Houser, who bore a volatile relationship with family and railed against the U.S. government online, opened fire on Thursday 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, a presidential contender who went to the crime scene in Lafayette. “This just shows these senseless acts of violence can literally happen anywhere.”
Houser bought the gun legally from a pawnshop in Alabama in 2014, police said, despite a history of mental illness and having been denied a concealed-carry permit seven years earlier because of a domestic violence complaint and a prior arson arrest.
Police said Houser acted alone and appeared to have carefully planned his attack in advance with hopes of making a quick getaway.
Before buying a ticket for the 7 p.m. show, Houser parked his blue Lincoln Continental near the theater’s emergency exit. 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,” said Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft, 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 a main thoroughfare in Lafayette, he reloaded his pistol, re-entered the auditorium and fired several more rounds at the crowd before killing himself, Craft said. In addition to the gun, he was carrying two 10-round magazines of bullets.
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.
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.”
Not counting Thursday’s incident, a total of 203 mass shootings have been reported so far this year, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker website, a crowd-sourced database kept by the anti-gun group GunsAreCool, which defines a mass shooting as any event in which four or more people are shot.
Authorities initially said seven people were wounded in the Lafayette rampage, three of them critically. Craft said later Friday that five victims remained hospitalized and that four others injured in the incident had been treated and released.
The two dead 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.
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 history of mental illness, according to police officials and court records. 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 involuntarily 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.
Houser applied for and was denied a concealed carry-permit in Russell County, Alabama, in 2006 because of a domestic violence complaint filed against him by his wife in 2005 and an arson arrest dating back to 1989 or 1990, Sheriff Heath Taylor told reporters. He said Houser was known to have undergone treatment for an unspecified mental illness while in Alabama in 2008 and 2009.
In 2014, Houser was accused of vandalizing a home from which he had been evicted after a foreclosure but was not arrested in connection with that incident, the sheriff 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. The page also listed an undergraduate degree in accounting from Columbus State University in Georgia.
Craft, the police chief, said Houser had been discussing “with a couple of businessmen” in town the idea of opening a two-minute automotive oil change service.
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.”
Houser also expressed an affinity for white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology and wrote about the “power of the lone wolf,” according to online activity cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitor extremist groups.
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.
Additional reporting by Phil McCausland in New Orleans; Dan Whitcomb and Victoria Cavaliere in Los Angeles; Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; Laila Kearney, Joseph Ax, Angela Moon and Lena Masri in New York; Writing by David Adams, Frank McGurty and Steve Gorman; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli, Lisa Shumaker and Ken Wills