Shooter’s fi­nal days ap­peared un­sta­ble

Those who en­coun­tered gun­man in La. won­der if he was sal­vage­able

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY WIL­LIAM WAN AND MICHAEL A. FLETCHER

Lafayette, la. — John Rus­sell Houser’s fi­nal days were rest­less and er­ratic. He roamed widely here. He snapped at some peo­ple, broke down in tears in front of oth­ers, beg­ging for their prayers. But on many days, he seemed per­fectly com­posed, well-spo­ken even.

He was des­per­ate for money, though, at­tempt­ing to sell his car to a stranger, of­fer­ing to do odd jobs and try­ing to talk oth­ers into start­ing a busi­ness. And in at least one con­ver­sa­tion, he of­fered a glimpse of the vi­o­lence of which he was ca­pa­ble.

His few short weeks in Lafayette ended in a mass shoot­ing Thurs­day that left two peo­ple dead and nine in­jured in­side a movie theater. Houser also took his own life.

There are lin­ger­ing ques­tions about the gaps in the data­base used to per­form back­ground checks on gun buy­ers that al­lowed Houser, who had a history of men­tal ill­ness and mak­ing vi­o­lent threats, to legally pur­chase 17 months ago at an Alabama pawn­shop the semi­au­to­matic hand­gun used in the shoot­ing.

Now the na­tion is once again reel­ing in the wake of a mass shoot­ing, and many peo­ple here are comb­ing through their en­coun­ters with Houser for signs of the bro­ken­ness within or the car­nage to come.

Many of those who met Houser here in re­cent weeks have asked them­selves whether they could have done any­thing dif­fer­ently. Vol­un­teers at a church food pantry in Lake Charles in­stantly rec­og­nized Houser, 59, when TV sta­tions flashed his pic­ture. The rec­ol­lec­tion was im­me­di­ately ac­com­pa­nied by hurt and re­gret.

Houser, a po­lit­i­cal provo­ca­teur turned trou­bled drifter, had wan­dered in a week be­fore the shoot­ing on July 16 and bro­ken down

in tears, church mem­bers said.

“He stayed for a long time, just cry­ing a lot. All our work­ers and vol­un­teers tried to talk to him,” said Pas­tor Tony Bourque. “He just kept say­ing he was se­verely de­pressed.”

Houser stayed for at least an hour, sob­bing through­out. He wouldn’t say much about his dif­fi­cul­ties. He asked the vol­un­teers at the pantry to pray for him, and they did.

Since the shoot­ing, one church mem­ber in par­tic­u­lar who prayed with Houser has been beat­ing her­self up, Bourque said. “She keeps won­der­ing if she could have done some­thing to help, and I told her, ‘You can never know the lay­ers of sto­ries that make up some­one’s life.’ ”

Af­ter the shoot­ing, author­i­ties have been work­ing to stitch to­gether a timeline of Houser’s re­cent ac­tiv­i­ties in an at­tempt to un­der­stand what led him to open fire on a crowd of strangers.

His fam­ily in Colum­bus, Ga., de­scribed Houser as men­tally ill and said his life had been un­rav­el­ing for years. In 2006, when Houser ap­plied for a per­mit to carry a con­cealed weapon in Rus­sell County, Ala., he was turned down be­cause of a prior ar­rest for ar­son and a do­mes­tic-com­plaint. Houser was also sub­ject to an or­der to be com­mit­ted to a hos­pi­tal af­ter of­fi­cials in Ge­or­gia de­ter­mined he was a dan­ger to him­self and oth­ers fol­low­ing a se­ries of events dur­ing which he stalked his daugh­ter and other fam­ily mem­bers.

Yet, in Fe­bru­ary 2014, he was able to legally pur­chase a .40-cal­iber semi­au­to­matic hand­gun at a Phenix City, Ala., pawn­shop, mean­ing he was able to pass a fed­eral back­ground check that should have dis­qual­i­fied him.

Gun-con­trol ad­vo­cates say the episode re­veals a ma­jor flaw with the fed­eral data­base used to per­form back­ground checks on prospec­tive gun own­ers: of­ten states drag their feet when it comes to en­ter­ing in­for­ma­tion into it.

“The data­base is only as good as the in­for­ma­tion that is put into it,” said Ari Freilich, a staff at­tor­ney with the Law Cen­ter to Pre­vent Gun Vi­o­lence.

He noted that Ge­or­gia has re­ported only about 7,000 men­tal health records into the fed­eral data­base, while Vir­ginia — a state with a smaller pop­u­la­tion— has re­ported more than 211,000.

Fam­ily mem­bers say Houser has been es­tranged from them for years. Rem Houser, 61, a fi­nan­cial ad­viser, said he last spoke to his younger brother, whom he de­scribed as de­pressed and with­drawn, on the Fourth of July. “Just real shal­low,” he said of the con­ver­sa­tion. “I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t ask. He didn’t tell me.”

Houser came to Lafayette on July 2 or 3, po­lice said, and took up res­i­dence at a Mo­tel 6 in the north part of town, just a 10-minute drive from the movie theater.

There were signs, po­lice said, that in the last few weeks of his life, Houser was try­ing to get a grip on an ex­is­tence that had been spin­ning out of con­trol. His mother had just lent him $5,000.

But the money did not last long. Just days be­fore the shoot­ing, Houser vis­ited the Cracker Bar­rel res­tau­rant be­hind his mo­tel. He had come in to eat just three days ear­lier, but this time he handed the cashier a note. Houser had scrawled that he needed money and of­fered to do work for the res­tau­rant. He also of­fered to sell his car for $600 and left his phone num­ber.

The owner of K&D Seafood Ex­press, a con­ve­nience store and res­tau­rant down the street from the Mo­tel 6, im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized Houser’s pic­ture. Houser had vis­ited the store on con­sec­u­tive days this month.

“He looked nor­mal but like the kind of peo­ple that have a drink­ing prob­lem,” Johnny Ha said. Houser asked for money. “He was talk­ing about he’s from another state, he ran out of gas,” Ha said.

Ha said he of­fered Houser food but told him he couldn’t give him cash. Houser didn’t ac­cept the of­fer.

Houser re­turned to the store the next day, Ha said. “He told me the same story, that he needs gas money. I said, ‘Sorry sir, no. I can­not help you.’ ”

Po­lice said Houser also talked to oth­ers in Lafayette about mak­ing money by open­ing a quick oil change ser­vice.

“He was cir­cu­lat­ing while he was here,” said Lafayette Po­lice Chief Jim Craft. “He was out and about. . . . Maybe he was test­ing, look­ing for a soft spot.”

At the Mo­tel 6, Bob Fisher, 59, said he fre­quently spot­ted Houser in the mo­tel’s tiny fenced-in pool.

“He was po­lite, well-spo­ken. I’d say, ‘How’s the wa­ter?’ Just small talk,” said Fisher, who re­called that Houser oc­ca­sion­ally bought al­co­hol at the RaceTrac gas sta­tion across from the mo­tel.

Oth­ers had much stranger en­coun­ters with him.

At a bar bistro down­town, Houser, who was nurs­ing a Pabst Blue Rib­bon beer, pulled up a chair next to two women, and launched into a me­an­der­ing con­yard ver­sa­tion about killing pets.

“He talked about how peo­ple spend too much money on their pets when they get sick,” said Bon­nie Bar­bier, who had her two dogs with her at the time. A con­ver­sa­tion about her dogs soon led to Houser ex­plain­ing how he had chased his for­mer cat out­side and tried to kill it by clubbing it with re­bar.

Next came Houser’s pro­pos­als for a more con­ve­nient way to eu­th­a­nize pets — by drug­ging them and then fin­ish­ing them off with an ax.

“It was an in­sane, one-sided con­ver­sa­tion,” said Bar­bier, 31. “I was scared he was go­ing to hurt my dogs. I just nod­ded and smiled and tried to get away from him as soon as I could.

“It just over­whelmed me,” she added, “the fear of be­ing that close to a mur­derer.”

But of all in Lafayette who came face to face with Houser, among the last was Lu­cas Knep­per, who sat in Houser’s row at the theater, just six seats away.

Knep­per, 21, saw the flash from the muz­zle of Houser’s gun. Even as he rushed to­ward the theater exit, he said he kept his eyes fixed on Houser.

“I re­mem­ber he had a blank stare, not an­gry at all,” he said.

Houser had an al­most re­laxed pos­ture, Knep­per said, as he kept shoot­ing and shoot­ing and shoot­ing.

JOE KOVAC JR. FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

RemHouser, shown on his porch nearHamil­ton, Ga., said his last con­ver­sa­tion with his brother, John Rus­sel­lHouser, was de­press­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.