US theater gunman’s family called him mentally ill, violent

Law enforcement personnel stand near a police line at The Grand Theatre following a deadly shooting in Lafayette, La., Thursday, July 23, 2015. (Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser via AP)

LAFAYETTE, Louisiana (AP) — The family of the man who killed two people and wounded nine others before killing himself at a crowded movie showing in southern United States said he was mentally ill and so violent that they hid his guns and sought police help to keep him away, court documents show.

Thursday’s attack in the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, was the latest of mass shootings in the United States and the second in three years at a movie theater. While the shootings have shocked the nation, they have not led to major changes in gun control laws as many Americans see gun ownership as a fundamental, constitutionally protected right.

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. Police said Friday they found 13 shell casings.

Then he tried to escape, but 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 earned degrees in accounting and law before he became estranged from his family years ago, and was staying at a city motel before the attack.

Houser parked his car by the theater’s exit door, and disguises including glasses and wigs were found in a search of his motel room, police said. He had also switched the license plate on his car.

“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, officials 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 show.

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.

The two fatalities were identified as a 21-year-old woman who was in medical radiology technicians program at a nearby college and another woman, aged 33, who ran clothing and art boutiques, played in a band and planted fruit trees for neighbors and the homeless.

At least one of the wounded, ranging from their late teens to their late 60s, was in critical condition, Craft said.

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 a local theater.

“We heard a loud pop we thought was a firecracker,” Katie Domingue told a local newspaper. “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.

Randall Mann said his 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.

“They heard a couple of pops and didn’t know what it was,” Randall Mann said. “And then they saw the muzzle flashes, and that’s when they knew what was going on. She hit the floor immediately.” Mann said his daughter and her friend escaped, uninjured but traumatized.

Stories of heroism emerged. Louisiana Governor 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 “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 Alabama, by then, but came and “perpetrated various acts of family violence” at their home in Georgia, they said.

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.

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.

“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, but in spite of her best efforts, finds herself falling in love with one of her interview subjects.

Governor Jindal, a presidential hopeful, 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 about the attack while on his way to Africa.

The Louisiana shooting happened three years after James Holmes entered a crowded movie theater in Colorado 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.

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