Theater gunman built reputation as an angry provocateur

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Posted: Jul 25, 2015 2:46 AM
Theater gunman built reputation as an angry provocateur

In 2014, facing eviction from his Alabama home, John Russell Houser set out to make sure no one else could ever live in that house. He poured concrete down the drains and cemented the fuse box shut. He splattered paint and human waste all over the walls.

The new owners found Houser had it booby-trapped: the gas starter tube in the fireplace was twisted out and ignited, the logs removed. "He was hoping the house would catch on fire. That's what the investigators told me," said Norman Bone, 77, who had bought the house for his daughter.

The man Bone once knew as a church-going neighbor had grown into someone better known by neighbors and colleagues as an angry provocateur. Police say his anger culminated Thursday night in a slaughter at The Grand 16 theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, leaving two women dead and nine other people hurt.

For decades, Houser lived and worked in the same area where he owned that home, in Phenix City and the surrounding cities. Since the early '90s, he had built a reputation as an oddball. It was then that he regularly appeared on a local television show, appearing opposite a Democrat as a radical Republican railing against women in the workplace and calling for violence against abortion providers.

"He made a lot of wild accusations," said Calvin Floyd, who hosted the show on WLTZ-TV in Columbus for more than two decades. "He could make the phones ring."

Yet Houser had a dark side that went way beyond talk. In 1989, court records say, he was accused of hiring someone to burn down a Columbus lawyer's law office. His wife and other relatives filed papers accusing him of domestic violence in 2008.

"As many times as I had him on it was obvious he had a screw loose," Floyd said.

The son of a longtime city tax official in Columbus, Houser received degrees in accounting and law but never applied to take the bar exam in Alabama.

Houser posted on an online career website that he was an entrepreneur who owned and operated two nightclubs in Columbus and LaGrange in the 1980s and 1990s. But his stint as a club operator ended sourly when he was accused of selling alcohol to minors at Rusty's Buckhead Pub.

In April 2001, the LaGrange mayor and city council voted to revoke all of Houser's alcoholic beverage pouring licenses based on five convictions of selling alcohol to minors in the span of a year from 1999 to 2000, according to a court filing. Houser appealed, but the court found the mayor and council acted correctly.

Houser put up the swastika banner in protest, according to an April 28, 2001, story in the LaGrange Daily News.

He told the newspaper he was "completely against" the Nazi philosophy but chose the symbol because it represents a government's ability to do what it wants.

"The people who used it — the Nazis — they did what they damn well pleased," Houser told the newspaper, accusing police officers of lying on the stand during his trial.

It was not the last time he'd invoke that type of imagery, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, said he'd been on the group's radar since 2005.

Last January, he wrote on one online forum: "Hitler is loved for the results of his pragmatism."

He also posted on a forum dedicated to the New York chapter of Golden Dawn, Greece's far-right neo-Nazi political party.

It was around 2007 that former Phenix City Mayor Jeff Hardin lost touch with Houser. They had a falling-out then after partnering on a project to flip a house. Houser refused to move his belongings after Hardin bought him out, he said.

"He was a little odd. He was pretty even-keeled until you disagreed with him or made him mad. Then he became your sworn enemy," Hardin said.

In April 2008, Houser's wife, Kellie, his daughter and others filed court papers seeking a temporary protective order against Houser, saying he had "perpetrated various acts of family violence" and had a history of manic depression and bi-polar disorder.

At the time, records show, Houser was vehemently opposed to the upcoming marriage of his daughter. A judge had Houser committed, but the man told his wife he would continue trying to stop the wedding and his "threatening behavior" once he got out of the hospital.

A police report included with the request for a protective order said Houser believed his daughter and her fiance, who were 23 and 26 at the time, were far too young to wed and that he was mad at his wife for not stopping the marriage.

"Kellie told me that she removed all of the guns from their house in Phenix City ... and he should not have one unless he obtained it illegally. She said he has made the statements that this wedding will not happen, although he has not overtly threatened anyone," the report says.

Neighbors recalled Houser as being odd but said they never saw signs that he was violent or dangerous or had guns.

Houser flew a large Confederate flag on a flagpole outside his house for a time, said neighbor Rick Chancey, but Houser later replaced it with a smaller rebel battle flag.

About seven years ago, Chancey said, Houser put a "doomsday-type" flier in neighbors' mailboxes warning that a global economic collapse was about to occur and everyone should pool their resources and work together.

By this spring, relatives had lost touch with Houser. In a divorce filing on March 24, Kellie Houser said she didn't know where her husband was.

The estranged wife was unsure where her husband had been living since they split. The wife accused John Houser of lashing out as she tried arranging a divorce, and accused her estranged husband of trying to get money from his mother by threatening suicide.

Kellie Houser said her long-gone husband called her as she left work on March 30 and asked for her address. She had recently filed for divorce and needed to contact him.

"He told me if I wanted to play games with him I'd better watch out because he always wins," Kellie Houser wrote in a court filing. He asked that any legal paperwork be sent to his mother. But Houser's mother told Kellie Houser that she had not seen her son in years, and that security at her retirement home had forbidden her son from entering or approaching her.

Police characterized him after the shooting as a drifter who hadn't spent much time in Lafayette. He had been living at least briefly out of a Motel 6; investigators found wigs and disguises in that room and said he tried to blend in with the fleeing crowd to escape the theater before running back inside when he saw officers in front of him. As police made their way in, they heard a single gunshot. Houser lay dead when they entered.

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Reeves reported from Birmingham. Brumback reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Columbus, Georgia; Ray Henry in Carrollton, Georgia; Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans; and Melinda Deslatte and Michael Kunzelman in Lafayette, Louisiana, contributed to this report.