John “Rusty” Houser, the “drifter” who opened fire inside a crowded Lafayette, La., movie theater Thursday night, was once known as an unusually social accountant who dabbled in radio and TV, owned a jazz club, and later in life identified strongly with far-right issues before disappearing from his hometown of Phenix City, Ala.
Police have not revealed whether they have found a motive in the shooting, and mental illness may turn out to have played a factor. In court documents in 2008, Mr. Houser’s family said he had “a history of mental health issues,” according to the Associated Press.
However, the incident is also raising familiar questions about radicalization turning violent. The United States has struggled to contain a barrage of attacks by disaffected "lone wolf" Americans, including last week's attack on military facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., where an American Muslim man fatally wounded four US Marines and one US sailor before being shot to death.
And last month, nine black parishioners were shot to death by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C. The accused, Dylann Roof, was indicted Wednesday on 33 federal charges, including hate crimes.
On Thursday, three people, including the shooter, were left dead after Houser, police say, stood up 20 minutes into the movie “Trainwreck” and began opening fire. Nine moviegoers were injured, at least one critically. Police found various disguises in his motel room as well as an alternate license plate, suggesting Houser had intended to try to get away. According to police, Houser had joined the throngs of people trying to get out of the movie theater, but he turned around when he saw responding police and ended his own life.
AM radio show host Doug Kellett, who most recently was on WPTF in Raleigh, N.C., says he remembers Houser’s face and name from some guest appearances in the 1990s. According to a LinkedIn account for the shooter, which carries the same face as police have presented to reporters, he also guest-hosted a Columbus, Ga., TV show, also in the 1990s.
“The guys who used to work with me are like me. They recognize the face ... older ... and name ‘Rusty.’ But that is it so far,” writes Mr. Kellett in an e-mail to the Monitor. “Crazy.”
On LinkedIn, Houser wrote that during his guest appearances, “[I] invited political controversy ... and loved every minute of it.”
A Georgia man who graduated from Columbus State University with Houser 25 years ago remembers him as “very social, which is unusual for an accountant.”
According to what appear to be his social media accounts, Houser was drawn to the entertainment industry, running two music clubs in Columbus, Ga., for short stints.
His political views appear to have been hardened at least until 2013, when nearly all traces of him disappear from the Internet.
On what appears to be Houser’s Twitter account, he wrote in 2013: “If you don’t think the internet is censored, try reading a newspaper from a country that hates liberals the way I do.”
He also references the Westboro Baptist Church in a tweet, saying that the controversial church, known for picketing military funerals, “may be the last real church in America [members not brainwashed].”
On a PoliticalForum.com profile, an individual who appears to be Houser says he belongs to no political party and claims he doesn’t vote. “Believe US will be Mad Max [in less than] 5 years,” he writes. His occupation is “hustling,” he writes, and under a “family” heading, he says, “No family safe in US environment.”
Police say they have talked to Houser’s friends in Phenix City, all of whom say they lost contact with him awhile ago. Police also say he was "estranged" from his family. His wife filed for divorce in March in part because of erratic, sometimes violent, behavior, according to AP.
According to the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Houser was the son of a longtime city tax commissioner and had a history of political activism. He fought taxes and at one point ran for office, but withdrew before the election.
"He came to many city council meetings, and he was in tune with a lot of issues that were going on in the community,” Bobby Peters, a Superior Court judge in Georgia and a former Columbus mayor, told the Ledger-Enquirer. “He was very outspoken, highly intelligent, really didn't trust government and anything about government. He always thought something was going on behind the scenes. He came across with a very conservative agenda."
The shooting came amid the trial in Colorado of James Holmes for killing 12 people and injuring 70 at a movie theater in 2012. The shooting in Louisiana happened three days after the third anniversary of the Aurora, Colo., massacre. It’s not clear if there is a link.
Tom Teves, whose son Alex Teves was killed by Mr. Holmes, said in a statement after the Louisiana shooting: "Something is very wrong in our society when Americans can’t feel safe in a movie theater, or where they worship, or in a shopping mall. Enough is enough."
Only hours before the shooting Thursday night, President Obama told the BBC that his failure to shuttle a gun control bill through Congress remains one of his biggest frustrations as president.
"It is the fact that the United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense, gun-safety laws,” Mr. Obama said. “Even in the face of repeated mass killings."