Louisiana theater shooter had ties to LaGrange
Published 12:00 am Friday, July 24, 2015
LaGRANGE — A 59-year-old man who shot and killed two people before turning the gun on himself in a Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater Thursday evening had ties to Troup County and was once prosecuted for serving alcohol to minors while operating a bar in downtown LaGrange.
John Russell “Rusty” Houser was prosecuted in Troup County State Court in February 2001 on three counts on furnishing alcohol to minors while operating Rusty’s Buckhead Pub, 314 Main St., court and city records show. The building is no longer standing but was located next to the former Westbrook Tire building.
Houser was found guilty Feb. 23, 2001 of selling beers to underage informants for the LaGrange Police Department on June 15 and 28 of 2000. One of the individuals to whom he sold beer was former LPD Officer Chris Vines.
“He was cited for furnishing alcohol three different times in two different events. One was one minor and we sent two back to back to show it wasn’t an oversight by Houser,” said LaGrange Public Safety Chief Lou Dekmar.
The case was prosecuted by Jorje Olmo-Novoa, who was then working for LPD but is now an investigator with the Troup County Sheriff’s Office.
Houser was found guilty in a jury trial and fined $3,600. The mayor at the time, Jeff Lukken, along with the city council pulled Houser’s liquor license. He appealed the decision in April of 2001 but his appeal was denied.
An April 25, 2001 article about the revocation in the Daily News showed that Houser or his employees were convicted five times between June 1999 and April 2001 of selling alcohol to people under 21. Four of the cases involved Houser and the fifth a bartender at the business.
In response to the city’s move to revoke his liquor license, Houser hung a large banner bearing a swastika and the writing “Welcome to LaGrange” on the pub.
In an April 28, 2001 article in the Daily News, Houser said he used the swastika to symbolize the menthods of witnesses who testified against him and the LaGrange police officers whom he claimed lied on the witness stand to convict him of selling alcohol to minors.
An investigation in 2001 by the National Institute of Ethics, a police certifying organization, found no wrongdoing by police during the alcohol-sale investigation.
“On the occasions I spoke with him, he was aggravated,” Dekmar remembered of Houser. “He was aggravated and adament that the system didn’t work as it should and unwilling to accept the consequences of his own behavior. Sometime after that, I learned he had moved to Columbus.”
Dekmar added that Houser was also arrested in Columbus on a probation violation in August of 2001. He said LPD officers went down to Columbus to pick Houser up and transported him back to Troup County to answer for those charges.
Still, Houser was unsatisfied with the ethics investgation and is reported to have said, “They ain’t seen nothing yet. There’s an infinite amount of things that we can do to make people so mad they can’t see straight.”
Houser had only been in Lafayette a matter of weeks, staying in a Motel 6 room littered with wigs and disguises. His only known connection to the city was an uncle who died there three decades ago.
According to reports, he stood up about 20 minutes into Thursday night’s showing of “Trainwreck” and fired on the audience, killing two people and wounding nine with a semi-automatic handgun.
Houser then tried to escape by blending into the fleeing crowd after one of his victims pulled a fire alarm and hundreds poured out of the theater complex. But he turned back as police officers approached, reloading and killing himself with a single shot, police said.
“This is such a senseless, tragic action,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said. “Why would you come here and do something like this?”
Chief Dekmar said Houser’s actions in LaGrange may have showed what he was capable of years ago.
“People are often iratate and frustration when dealing with violations with the law so thats not unusual,” said Dekmar. “What was unusual was that he seemed to be consumed by it … and paid to have it displayed on the side of his building for a few weeks. So when I think about all the issues we had involving him at the time … Ican’t say I would have predicted it (theater shooting), but I can’t say I was surprised by it.”
Details quickly emerged about Houser’s mental problems, prompting authorities in Louisiana and Alabama to bemoan the underfunding of mental health services in America.
Court records describe erratic behavior and threats of violence that led to a brief involuntary hospitalization in 2008 and a restraining order preventing Houser from approaching family members. Houser “has a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder,” his estranged wife told the judge.
Educated in accounting and law, he tried real estate in Phenix City, Alabama. But Houser’s own resume, posted online, says what he really loved to do was make provocative statements at local board meetings and in the media.
On an NBC television affiliate’s call-in show in the 1990s, Houser encouraged violent responses to abortion and condemned working women, host Calvin Floyd recalled. He was an “angry man” who spoke opposite a Democrat and really lit up the phones, he added.
Houser wrote that he was a weekly guest for 60 episodes on “Rise and Shine WLTZ” in Columbus, Georgia, where he “invited political controversy on every one of them, and loved every minute of it.”
In recent years, Houser turned to right-wing extremist Internet message boards, where he praised Adolf Hitler, and advised people not to underestimate “the power of the lone wolf,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose hate-group watchdogs spotted Houser registering to meet with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in 2005.
What prompted Houser to kill people Thursday night remains unknown.
The two women killed were 21-year-old Mayci Breaux and 33-year-old Jillian Johnson. Breaux’s body was brought to the same hospital where she was preparing to become a radiology technician. Johnson ran clothing and art boutiques, played in a rootsy rock band and planted fruit trees for neighbors and the homeless.
The wounded ranged in age from teenagers to their late 60s, Craft said. Five were treated at Lafayette General Health Center. Three patients had been stabilized, including one who remained in intensive care. Two others were released Thursday night.
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said his office denied Houser’s request for a concealed weapons permit in 2006 because he had been treated for mental illness and arrested for arson in Georgia.
“He was pretty even-keeled until you disagreed with him or made him mad,” said Jeff Hardin, mayor of Phenix City, Alabama, just across the state line from Columbus. “Then he became your sworn enemy.”
Hardin said he once partnered with Houser on a real-estate project, but they had a falling out and hadn’t spoken since around 2007.
Houser was evicted from his home in Phenix City last year, then returned to throw paint, pour concrete down the plumbing and tamper with a gas line, Taylor said.
Houser’s wife filed for divorce in March, saying their differences were irreconcilable and his whereabouts were unknown.
“It just seems like he was kind of drifting along,” Craft said. Houser’s only known relative in Lafayette, an uncle, died 35 years ago.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.