Theater gunman’s family called him mentally ill
Lafayette, La. — The man who killed two people and wounded nine others at a “Trainwreck” showing was so mentally ill and violent that years ago, his wife hid his guns and his family had him hospitalized against his will before obtaining a court order to keep him away, according to court documents, which also show his wife filed for divorce this year.
John Russel Houser, 59, stood up about 20 minutes into the movie and fired first at two people sitting in front of him, then aimed his handgun at others, firing at least 13 times, police said Friday.
“They heard a couple of pops and didn’t know what it was,” said Randall Mann, whose 21-year-old daughter, Emily, was sitting in the same row as the shooter.
She told her father that she did not hear the shooter say anything before opening fire. “And then they saw the muzzle flashes, and that’s when they knew what was going on. She hit the floor immediately.”
Randall Mann said his daughter and her friend escaped, uninjured but traumatized.
Police say Houser had one additional magazine of bullets for his handgun as he tried to escape. Then, when he spotted police officers outside, he turned around and pushed back through the fleeing crowd. The officers tailed him into the theater and heard a single shot before finding him dead inside, police said.
Houser parked his 1995 blue Lincoln Continental — with a mismatched license plate — by the theater’s exit door, and disguises including glasses and wigs were found in a search of his room at a nearby Motel 6, police said.
“It is apparent that he was intent on shooting and then escaping,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said.
Police were looking at online postings they believed Houser wrote to learn more about him and try to figure out his motive, superintendent Col. Michael D. Edmonson said Friday.
In the 1990s, he frequently appeared on a local television call-in show, advocating violence against people involved in abortions, said Calvin Floyd, who hosted the morning show on WLTZ-TV in Columbus, Georgia.
Houser also espoused other radical views, including his opposition to women in the workplace. Floyd described Houser as an “angry man” who made “wild accusations” about all sorts of topics, and said he put him on to counter a Democratic voice because “he could make the phones ring.”
The two fatalities were identified as 33-year-old Jillian Johnson and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux. At least one of the wounded, ranging from their late teens to their late 60s, was in critical condition, Craft said. Two were released from the hospital.
Theatergoers said the gunman sat alone and said nothing before he stood up and opened fire at Thursday’s 7:10 p.m. showing of “Trainwreck” at the Grand 16 theater.
“We heard a loud pop we thought was a firecracker,” Katie Domingue told The Advertiser. “He wasn’t saying anything. I didn’t hear anybody screaming either.”
Domingue said she and her fiance ran for the nearest exit, leaving behind her shoes and purse.
Stories of heroism emerged. Presidential hopeful Gov. Bobby Jindal, who traveled to the scene, said a teacher jumped in front of a second teacher, taking a bullet for her. The second teacher then managed to pull a fire alarm to alert other moviegoers, he said.
“Her friend literally jumped over her and, by her account, actually saved her life,” Jindal said.
Houser studied accounting in Georgia and earned a law degree at Faulkner University in Alabama, but the Alabama State Bar said it has no record he ever tried to take the bar exam to become a lawyer.
Houser “has a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder,” his family said in court documents in 2008, when he made violent threats in an effort to stop his daughter’s wedding. A judge granted the family’s petition to have him involuntarily committed to a hospital as “a danger to himself and others.”
Houser refused to back down after getting out, however, so his wife, daughter and other relatives also obtained a protective order preventing him from coming near them. Houser was living in Phenix City, Alabama, by then, but came and “perpetrated various acts of family violence” at their home in Carroll County, Georgia, they said.
His daughter, Kirbey Ellen Houser, was engaged to Andrew Michael Broome at the time, and though they were 23 and 26, he felt they were too young to be married. “He has exhibited extreme erratic behavior and has made ominous as well as disturbing statements” that their marriage would not occur, the filing says.
Police weren’t sure why Houser ended up in Louisiana seven years later.
“It just seems like he was kind of drifting along,” Craft said. He had an uncle that once lived in Lafayette, but he died 35 years ago. “We don’t know why he decided to stop and stay in Lafayette.”
State police superintendent Col. Michael D. Edmonson said there were about 100 people inside the theater at the time of the shooting. Keys, shoes and purses were all left behind.
About a dozen law enforcement personnel descended on the Motel 6 in Lafayette where Houser had been staying. An officer carried out a cardboard box from the room and other officers could be seen knocking on neighboring doors.
Edmonson said police believe the gunman did not wage any other attacks Thursday night before opening fire in the theater.
“Trainwreck” star Amy Schumer tweeted: “My heart is broken and all my thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Louisiana.” The comedy stars Schumer as a magazine writer who decides to live a life of promiscuity after her father convinces her that monogamy isn’t realistic, but in spite of her best efforts, finds herself falling in love with one of her interview subjects.
Gov. Jindal called the shooting “an awful night for Louisiana.”
“What we can do now is we can pray,” Jindal said. “We can hug these families. We can shower them with love, thoughts and prayers.”
President Barack Obama was briefed on Air Force One by Lisa Monaco, his homeland security adviser, while on his way to Africa. He asked his team to keep him updated on the investigation and the status of the wounded, and offered his thoughts and prayers to the families of those killed, the White House said.
The Louisiana shooting happened three years after James Holmes entered a crowded movie theater in suburban Denver and opened fire during the premier of a Batman film, killing 12 people, wounding 70 others. The jury found Thursday that the death penalty is justified, and is hearing evidence about James Holmes’ schizophrenia before issuing a sentence.