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The Wall Street Journal
By Cameron McWhirter – Cameron.McWhirter@wsj.com and Ana Campoy
The gunman who police say killed two women and wounded nine other people in a Louisiana movie theater Thursday night had a history of legal problems, as well as mental health issues that once prompted his former wife to remove guns and weapons from their home, according to court records.
John R. Houser was denied a permit in 2006 to carry a concealed weapon, according to Heath Taylor, sheriff of Russell County, Alabama, where Mr. Houser applied for the permit. His now ex-wife and other family members were granted a protective order from him in 2008. Mr. Houser, who sometimes went by the name Rusty, also apparently held extreme political views, according to letters-to-the-editor and social-media postings attributed to him.
Police have identified Mr. Houser, 59 years old, as the man who fired a semiautomatic handgun into the crowd at a 7:10 p.m. showing of the movie “Trainwreck” at the Grand 16 theater in Lafayette, La. While trying to blend in the crowd and leave the theater, he was spotted by police and went back inside, where he shot himself to death, police said. The shooter began firing about 20 minutes into the movie, at around 7:30 p.m., Central Time.
The shooting comes about a week after a jury convicted James Holmes of shooting and killing 12 people and wounding 70 others during a midnight screening of the movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., in July 2012. A trial in civil court is scheduled for July 2016 to determine the culpability of Cinemark Holdings Inc., CNK -1.61 % which operated the theater where the shooting occurred.
The Louisiana shooting also follows two recent, high-profile incidents involving gun violence: one at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C. and another at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Police identified the victims of the shooting at the Grand 16 theater as 33-year-old Jillian Johnson of Lafayette, La., and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux of Franklin, La. Nine others were wounded in the attack, according to police. Of those, two have been released and one remains in critical condition.
Ms. Johnson was known in Lafayette, where she lived with her husband, as a musician, business owner and advocate of southern Louisiana culture. A message on Friday on the website of a business she co-owned with her husband read, “Our hearts are shattered. We will love you forever. She was a once-in-a-lifetime gal. A mother, daughter, sister and a truly exceptional wife.”
Ms. Breaux was a student at Louisiana State University-Eunice, where she was training to be an X-ray technician, according to an uncle, Chris Barrilleaux. She was preparing for her finals on Monday and was supposed to begin clinical training soon. She had attended the movie Thursday night with her boyfriend, likely seeking to have some fun before a weekend of hitting the books, Mr. Barrilleaux said. “Mayci was an angel,” he said. “She was the most perfect young lady you would ever meet in your life.”
It’s unclear how Thursday’s shooting might affect security at U.S. theaters. No sweeping changes were implemented at theaters nationwide following the Aurora shooting, though the attack did contribute to studios’ decision to begin adding earlier screening times ahead of Thursday-night midnight openings. The Aurora shooting occurred during a midnight opening, while this latest shooting occurred at a 7:10 p.m. showing of a movie that had been running for two weeks.
Representatives at the nation’s three-largest exhibitors— Cinemark, Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc.—didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday. The Grand Theatre, which is owned by New Orleans-based exhibitor Southern Theatres LLC, said, “All of us offer our thoughts and prayers to the victims and to the community of Lafayette.”
Police are trying to figure out why the suspect fired in a theater in Lafayette. Mr. Houser spent most of his life living in and around Columbus, Ga., and across the Chattahoochee River in Phenix City, Ala., according to records.
James Ivins, a 64-year-old neighbor who lived near Mr. Houser in Phenix City, described him as eccentric, sometimes warning Mr. Ivins about how the global economy was collapsing. Mr. Houser flew a small Confederate battle flag outside his house, Mr. Ivins said.
Russ Lenig, 44, said he saw Mr. Houser drive around the neighborhood on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Mr. Lenig, who lives two doors down from Mr. Houser’s house, said Mr. Houser often left trash in the yard, angering neighbors.
Mr. Houser came from a prominent Columbus, Ga. family and his father was once county tax commissioner, a post that Mr. Houser ran for unsuccessfully in the 1990s. He attended Columbus State University, from 1985 to 1988, graduating with an accounting degree. He later attended the law school of Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., graduating in 1991.
Roger Boutwell, a retired chiropractor who lived next to Mr. Houser’s mother, described Mr. Houser as having “the most beautiful crystal blue eyes you’d ever looked at” and “bad anger issues.” Over the years, Mr. Boutwell saw Mr. Houser grapple with his personal relationships and finances—and tried to help him by lending him money or a sympathetic ear. Mr. Houser never failed to pay back the loans, and would bake him a cake or pie on top of that.
“Since he was little he was a firecracker,” he said. “He could go off at any moment.”
On one occasion, when Mr. Boutwell was bed-ridden after a motorcycle accident, Mr. Houser mowed his overgrown lawn, for free and without being asked.
But Mr. Boutwell never knew Mr. Houser to hold a stable job.
On his LinkedIn page, Mr. Houser described himself as an entrepreneur, but his last substantial employment appeared to have been when he owned a bar in LaGrange, Ga., from 1998 to 2000.
A person who took accounting classes with Mr. Houser at Columbus State said that after school, Mr. Houser “always had get-rich-quick schemes.” The man had not spoken to Mr. Houser in several years, he said.
In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Houser was a fixture at Columbus city council meetings and local talk shows, recalled Bobby Peters, a superior court judge in Georgia and former mayor. He took on a variety of issues—from what he saw as excessive water rates to pornography to the city budget—and argued his positions intelligently, said Mr. Peters.
Meanwhile, his personal life was in turmoil. Mr. Houser became estranged from his mother after she sided with his wife in an argument, said Mr. Boutwell. His temper worsened, he added, recalling one incident in which he hit an employee at a golf course with a club during a confrontation. In 2012, he divorced his wife, the family’s bread winner, and was left without an income or a home, he said.
Their relationship had long been troubled In October 2005, Mr. Houser’s wife filed a domestic violence complaint against Mr. Houser with the police department, but he was never prosecuted, said Mr. Taylor, the Russell County sheriff. In 2006, Mr. Houser applied for a concealed-carry permit with the sheriff’s office and was denied due to the domestic violence complaint as well as a 1989 arrest related to arson, Mr. Taylor said.
In 2008, Mr. Houser’s wife and other family members sought a protective order in a Georgia court against Mr. Houser after he made threats about stopping the impending marriage of his daughter, according to papers filed with the court. Family members stated in court filings that Mr. Houser had committed violence against the family in the past and had “a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder.” They also stated that he “exhibited extreme erratic behavior and has made ominous as well as disturbing statements” to family members. Ms. Houser was so frightened by Mr. Houser’s “volatile mental state” that she took guns and weapons from their home, according to records.Mr. Houser’s ex-wife could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Myra LeAnna Smith, said her client “was shaken up by the entire incident,” and had not seen Mr. Hauser in many years.
In a Carrollton, Ga., police report filed with the request for protection, an officer wrote that Ms. Houser told him she had taken all guns from their house and Mr. Houser “and he should not have one unless he obtained it illegally.”
The family had him involuntarily committed in 2008 to a psychiatric facility. Ms. Houser told the officer that Mr. Houser was on anti-depressant medication, but sometimes forgot to take his pills. The officer met with Mr. Houser, who denied harassing anyone.
—Erich Schwartzel, Lindsay Ellis, Arian Campo-Flores, Lisa Schwartz and Charles Lampach contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
The suspect was 59 years old. An earlier online version of this story said he was 58. Also, the film being watched during the 2012 Colorado theater shooting was “The Dark Knight Rises.” An earlier online version of this article incorrectly identified the movie as “The Dark Night Returns.”
Write to Cameron McWhirter at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ana Campoy at email@example.com