LAFAYETTE, Louisiana – John Houser legally bought the .40-caliber pistol used in the Lafayette, Louisiana, theater shooting. He got it in February 2014 at a pawnshop in Phenix City, Alabama, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said Friday, citing the the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Nobody knows why Houser landed in Lafayette, Louisiana, about 500 miles from his stomping grounds in Georgia and Alabama.
Besides an uncle who’d died about 35 years ago, Houser, 59, didn’t have any known connection to the city of 120,000.
The city’s police chief, Jim Craft, said some businesses reported interacting with him, “but nothing that would have alerted anyone to think that maybe we need to call law enforcement.”
Authorities are still trying to figure out why Houser entered the Grand 16 movie theater Thursday night and opened fire during a showing of the comedy “Trainwreck.” Police say he fatally shot two people and wounded nine others before turning his .40-caliber handgun on himself.
“(The possibility) exists out there that we may not find a motive,” said Louisiana State Police Col. Michael Edmonson.
Acted like any other patron, then randomly opened fire
Houser earned a law degree, operated taverns, and apparently penned anti-government, anti-media blog posts.
But he had legal and mental problems. His then-wife took out a restraining order against him in 2008, saying she was “fearful of him,” police said.
The one-time political candiate from Columbus, Georgia, spent time that year and the next getting treated for mental health issues. And last year, he was evicted from a house he used to own in Phenix City, Alabama, and returned to vandalize the property, the sheriff there said.
He was estranged from his family when he arrived in Lafayette and bunked down in a hotel four miles from The Grand 16.
On Thursday, he bought a ticket for the 7:10 p.m. (8:10 p.m. ET) showing of “Trainwreck,” a romantic comedy.
“He wasn’t acting any different than anybody,” Craft said.
Houser settled into the theater’s second-to-last row, which was where Randall Mann’s 21-year-old daughter was sitting.
Mann’s daughter heard the first pops about 20 minutes in, thinking they could have been firecrackers or part of the movie. But she “knew something was happening” when she saw muzzle flashes, Mann said. She hit the floor and then ran for her life, joining a panicked but controlled, helpful crowd.
Another man in the theater told Keifer Sanders, who was watching another movie, that “there was no argument, nothing going on at all. And a guy just stood up and started opening fire.”
“The guy was just kind of at ease, just standing there, just shooting,” Sanders said.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recounted the story of two teachers, enjoying the last few days of summer break, caught up in the melee. One jumped over the other, a move that the friend said prevented a bullet from hitting her in the head, according to the governor. It struck her in the leg instead.
Police: ‘He could have come out and done additional harm’
Four on-duty police officers happened to be on the property, Craft said. Within 60 seconds, they were inside the theater.
By that point, Houser had left and come back after noting the quickly growing police presence outside, including one patrol car near the exit door where he’d parked his blue 1995 Lincoln Continental. He reloaded, went back in and shot himself.
While authorities haven’t pinned down how Houser got his weapon, there’s no indication yet that anyone else helped him or knew what he was going to do.
Yet there are clues suggesting this wasn’t a spontaneous act. Searches of his hotel room and vehicle turned up wigs, glasses and other apparent disguises. He also had swapped out the license plate on his car, which would have made it harder to track him if he’d escaped.
The bloodshed comes three years after James Holmes — who was heavily armed and had colored his hair red, a la Heath Ledger as “The Joker” — burst into an Aurora, Colorado, showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring more than 70 others.
His story has been in the headlines recently, because of a Colorado jury’s decision to convict him on murder charges. The next step for the jurors is to decide whether he will be sentenced to death.
Security measures were stepped up at some cinemas after the Aurora shooting. Still, theaters across the United States fundamentally remain freewheeling places, where ticket holders can wander in and out, unbothered by the intense security measures that now typify airports and public buildings. Ticket sales also didn’t slump.
Time for recovery, mourning
Afterward, the movie’s star Amy Schumer tweeted, “My heart is broken and all my thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Louisiana.”
The violence left the friends and families of two women grieving.
Jillian Johnson, 33, a Lafayette native who died at a hospital, operated the Red Arrow gift and toy shop in Lafayette. She played the ukulele and guitar for The Figs.
Mayci Breaux, 21, was killed at the scene. She was a student at Louisiana State University-Eunice and worked at the Coco Eros boutique. Her boyfriend of about three years, Matthew Rodriguez, was shot in the neck and armpit, according to his cousin.
Two of those injured have been treated and released, and one was still in critical condition as of midday Friday, according to Craft.
Others among the roughly 300 people watching movies at The Grand 16 that night, from boys who went to see “Minions” to Randall Mann’s daughter, are fine physically but not yet psychologically.
“She made a comment that she was just thankful that the shooter did not pick one of the theaters that had some children’s movies in it, because she would have hated for the children to have witnessed that,” Mann said of his daughter, whom he described as “very traumatized.”
“I took that as a great first step of her eventually coping with this.”
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