LAFAYETTE, La. — Lafayette theater gunman John Russel Houser, a “drifter” from Alabama who had stayed in Lafayette, Louisiana, since early July, apparently was estranged from his family, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said. Investigators don’t know why he was in Lafayette, though he had an uncle who lived there long ago. The uncle died about 35 years ago, Craft said. Craft said he believes Houser was once married, but wasn’t at the time of the shooting “as far as I know.” There’s nothing in Houser’s criminal history for “probably 10, 15 years,” though he had arrests previously, Craft said.
As the previews ended and the lights dimmed for the screening of the comedy “Trainwreck,” Houser stood up inside a Lafayette movie theater, pulled out a handgun and began firing indiscriminately.
The 58-year-old killed two people and wounded nine others at the Louisiana multiplex before he turned his gun on himself and took his own life, police said.
The two women killed — Mayci Breaux, 21, and Jillian Johnson, 33 — were from the Louisiana cities of Franklin and Lafayette, respectively, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said Friday.
It was apparent that John Russel Houser intended to escape the building, but the police response forced him back into the theater, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said Friday. Louisiana State Police Col. Michael Edmonson added: “Certainly him coming out and seeing … police arriving” forced him back. The gunman’s car, parked outside near an exit door, had a switched license plate, Craft said. The gunman shot himself, police said earlier. Two police officers had been on the property at the time of the shooting and responded immediately by entering the theater, Craft said.
Coming within days of the verdict in the Aurora theater massacre, and its saturation news coverage, there was some speculation whether the shooting was a copycat crime.
“There’s nothing to believe that there was any kind of motive,” said Col. Michael Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police.
Authorities had the gunman’s name early on but were withholding it as the investigation continued.
“We want to talk to the [victims’] families first and let them know what happened,” Edmonson said. “We owe them that respect.”
The shooting took place during the 7:10 p.m. (8:10 p.m. ET) screening of “Trainwreck” at The Grand Theater 16 in Lafayette, a city of about 120,000 people, 60 miles west of Baton Rouge.
About 100 people were inside when the bullets flew.
The witnesses: ‘Gunshots after gunshots’
Jalen Fernell said he was in a theater next door.
“I almost thought it was part of the movie at first,” he said of the gunshots.
An alarm went off, followed by an overhead intercom message asking patrons to get out.
“Immediately we get terrified because they are telling us to head out to vehicles,” he said. “It was kinda like a war going on … gunshots after gunshots.”
Paige Bearb, another witness, said she took off running when the alarm sounded.
“I saw people bleeding from the leg, they were shot,” she said. “And I was like ‘Wow.’ It was like a movie itself.”
The auditorium: ‘The guy was just kind of at ease’
Keifer Sanders, who was in a nearby auditorium, said he spoke to someone who was inside and recounted what happened.
“What he said was they were sitting down right before the movie started, it was quiet, there was no argument, nothing going on at all. And a guy just stood up and started opening fire,” Sanders said. “The guy was just kind of at ease, just standing there, just shooting.”
Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft backed up the account.
“He bought a ticket and went into the theater. And sometime during the movie, he started shooting,” he said.
Among the moviegoers inside were two teachers enjoying the last few days of the summer break.
When the bullets flew, one shielded the other and may have saved her life.
“Her friend literally jumped over her,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, after speaking with the unnamed teacher. “If her friend hadn’t done that, she believed the bullet would have hit her in the head.”
A bullet struck her leg instead, but she managed to get to a fire alarm and pull it.
“When you think about it — two friends together — one jumps in the way of a bullet to save her friend’s life,” said Jindal from the scene of the shooting. “The other, even though she was shot in the leg, she had the presence of mind to pull the fire alarm and in the process saved other people’s lives.”
The victims: ‘Awful night for the United States’
By the time four officers entered the theater, the gunman was dead.
“It appears the shooter died from a self inflicted gunshot wound after discharging his weapon numerous times,” Craft said.
The seven injured range in age from late teens to “probably into the 60s,” Craft said. One victim has been released; another is in surgery and is “not doing well,” he said early Friday morning.
Bomb squads conducted a sweep of the theater and the parking lot. Police temporarily closed a nearby Grand theater and deployed officers to other movie houses as a precaution.
“Whenever we hear about these senseless acts of violence, it makes us both furious and sad at the same time,” Jindal said.
“This is an awful night for Lafayette, this is an awful night for Louisiana, this is an awful night for the United States. But we will get through this.”
The theater: ‘My heart is broken’
The shooting occurred six days after the conviction of James Holmes in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting that left 12 people dead and 70 people wounded.
On July 20, 2012, Holmes opened fire during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” using an AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and at least one .40 caliber handgun. The shooting stopped with Holmes’ arrest outside the theater.
Following Aurora, security measures were stepped up at some cinemas. But 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.
Southern Theatres, a New Orleans-based theater chain which owns The Grand, had no immediate comment about the Thursday night shooting. Universal, the distributor of “Trainwreck,” declined to comment.
But the movie’s star, Amy Schumer, tweeted, “My heart is broken and all my thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Louisiana.”
The shooter: ‘We may now never know’
While Houser may have taken his motive with him with his death, the investigation is far from complete. Authorities will painstakingly pore over his digital footprint, talk to his family and friends, and retrace his movements to answer the burning question: Why?
“This kind of stuff just leaves you wondering,” he said. “Why would a guy come into a theater in this city — we have a relatively safe city — and just, you know, randomly start shooting people? It’s hard to figure out. He’s deceased, so we may now never know.”
John Russel Houser had a criminal history but it dates back several years, Craft said. He didn’t elaborate further. His name was made public Friday morning.
Authorities will also put together a profile on Houser, search his house and trace the gun, said CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin.
For now, said Gov. Jindal, “we can pray.”
“We can hug these families. We can shower them with love, thoughts and prayers.”