The picture that emerged Friday of the gunman who killed two women and wounded nine other people in a theater was one filled with instability and rage, from a history of mental illness to venting his fury at women’s rights, minorities and liberals.
The gunman, John Russell Houser, 59, of Phenix City, Ala., who had a history of mental illness, took his own life in the theater Thursday night after gunning down the others during a screening of the comedy “Trainwreck,” the police said.
“If you gave me 40 names and 40 pictures of people who might have done that, I wouldn’t have hesitated to point him out,” said Calvin Floyd, the former host of a television talk show in Columbus, Ga., that frequently featured Houser as a guest in the 1990s.
“I could just sense the anger was there,” Floyd said in an interview. “Maybe I should have been afraid of him. He had a very hostile personality at times.”
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Houser believed women should not work outside their homes and “had a lot of hostility toward abortion clinics,” Floyd said. He was the sort of person who believed “that all the trouble started when they took Bibles out of school and stopped prayer.”
The two dead women were identified as Mayci Breaux, 21, and Jillian Johnson, 33. The wounded ranged in age from their teens to their 60s, and one was listed Friday in critical condition. Two victims were treated and released.
On Twitter, on anti-government discussion boards and on other forums online, a person using the names Rusty Houser and John Russell Houser praised Westboro Baptist Church, which has drawn ire for demonstrating against gays at military funerals; Timothy J. McVeigh, who bombed a government building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168; and Adolf Hitler. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist and anti-government groups, said the posts were all from Houser.
“America is so sick that I now believe it to be the enemy of the world,” he wrote on one discussion forum. “I know next to nothing about Iran, but the little I do know tells me they are far higher morally than this financially failing filth farm.”
Houser was treated in the Phenix City area for an unspecified mental illness in 2008 and 2009, according to Heath D. Taylor, the sheriff of Russell County, Ala. Court records show that he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, and the superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, Col. Michael D. Edmonson, said his finances had been poor; he recently received money from his mother.
Houser lived most of his life in Columbus, Ga., just across the Chattahoochee River from Phenix City, and his LinkedIn profile described him as an investment manager with a law degree, accounting credentials and experience running restaurants. He ran for local office in Columbus, Floyd said, but he was spotted removing his opponents’ signs, which drove him from the race.
He and his family moved into a house in Phenix City in 2005, and that year his wife made a domestic violence complaint against him, but it did not lead to an arrest, Taylor said. The next year, Houser applied for a permit to carry a concealed pistol, but the application was denied by the sheriff’s office. Alabama, however, does not require a permit or license to buy or own a handgun.
“The reason for the denial was we had the report of the domestic violence against him, and in ’89 or ’90, he was arrested for an arson case in Columbus, Ga.,” which did not result in conviction, Taylor said.
In 2008, Houser’s family members sought a temporary protective order in court in Carroll County, Ga., and asked that he be committed involuntarily to a mental hospital, and his wife grew fearful enough that she removed weapons from their home, court records show. He was subsequently admitted to a hospital in Columbus.
In court papers, they said he had “perpetrated various acts of family violence” and cited “a substantial likelihood of future family violence.” They described him as having bipolar disorder, for which he had been prescribed medication, which he sometimes failed to take.
His condition apparently deteriorated in April 2008, with his daughter’s wedding approaching. The family told the court he expressed “vehement opposition” to the planned nuptials, “exhibited extreme erratic behavior” and made “ominous as well as disturbing statements” that the wedding would not happen.
That month, the police in Carrollton, Ga., investigated a report of a “mentally disturbed person” after he arrived unannounced at his daughter’s office and later threatened another family member.
It was the following day that family members sought to have him committed.
In March, Houser’s wife, Kellie, filed for divorce in Georgia after 31 years of marriage and listed his location as “unknown.”
Houser lost his house to foreclosure, and an eviction order was served on him in March 2014, the sheriff said. A criminal complaint was later filed accusing Houser of vandalizing the house, including pouring cement into the plumbing and tampering with gas lines in a way that could have started fires.
The buyer of the house, Norman Bone, and his daughter, Beth, and her boyfriend, Dan Ramsel, described what Houser had done as booby-trapping the house and said his rampage required more than a year of repairs. They said he destroyed many of its fixtures, dumped hundreds of fish into the swimming pool, and left human feces and cement throughout the house, where he once flew the Confederate battle flag.
Ramsel said Houser, known as Rusty, had cultivated a reputation as “somewhat of an anarchist.”
The family members apparently had not been in contact with him recently, said Chief Jim Craft of the Lafayette Police Department.
Craft said Houser’s only known connection to Lafayette was a long-dead uncle who once lived here.
Law enforcement officials said they were looking into where and when Houser acquired the gun he used in the assault and why he was in Lafayette, a 500-mile drive from Phenix City. A purchase at a store requires a federal background check, and serious mental illness can be grounds for denial, but the check system is imperfect and does not cover person-to-person sales.
“Because of the brand of weapon it is, it’s more difficult to trace that type of weapon than it is other types,” said Craft, but he would not elaborate.
The police said Houser had been in Lafayette since early July and had been staying in a motel. They appealed to the public for help in learning more about him.
The gunman parked a blue 1995 Lincoln Continental, with illegally switched license plates, near an exit door to the Grand Theater, and in his motel room “we found wigs and glasses and disguises, basically,” Craft said at a Friday morning news conference just outside the crime scene.
“It is apparent that he was intent on shooting and then escaping,” Craft said. “What happened is that the quick law enforcement response forced him back into the theater, at which time he shot himself.”
Edmonson, of the State Police, said: “To put a motive to it is just something that we simply can’t do right now.” He said there was no known connection between the gunman and any of the victims.
Houser bought one of 25 tickets sold for a showing of the film and sat for several minutes in the theater, authorities said. Shortly before 7:30 p.m., he began shooting, firing at least 13 rounds from a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun.
“He was by himself, he sat by himself, and the first two people he shot were right in front of him,” Craft said.
He identified the two dead women as Mayci Breaux, 21, and Jillian Johnson, 33. The wounded ranged in age from their teens to their 60s, and one was listed Friday in critical condition. Two were treated and released.
Witnesses said Houser stood at the back of the auditorium, which had stadium-style seating, and fired down at others. Houser reloaded at least once as he tried to flee the theater, Craft said, and returned when he saw police.
Campbell Robertson reported from Lafayette, La., Richard Pérez-Peña from New York, and Alan Blinder from Phenix City, Ala. Leslie Turk contributed reporting from Lafayette. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.