Investigators are now pursuing numerous leads that poured in when police released John "Rusty" Russell Houser’s name and photograph Friday morning, the day after he fatally shot two people in a Lafayette movie theater Thursday before killing himself.
A friend and authorities said Friday Houser had mental health problems, personal struggles and was evicted from his Alabama home within the past several years.
(Related: Click here to read more about Houser's personal struggles, according to various sources.)
Police Chief Jim Craft told reporters in an 11 a.m. press conference that people have come forward with what they think were potential encounters with Houser. The chief said his behavior during those encounters were “nothing that would have alerted anyone to call law enforcement.”
It’s still unclear where Houser purchased his weapon, as the brand is hard to trace, Craft said. He did not release information on the type of gun used, only saying it was a semi-automatic handgun.
Police also found cell phones in the theater but were unsure if they belonged to Houser. Craft said they didn’t have batteries in them.
With about 300 people total inside The Grand 16 at the time of the shooting, 25 people — including Houser — purchased tickets for the 7:10 p.m. showing of comedy film “Trainwreck.”
“He wasn’t acting differently than any other person in line to buy their ticket,” Craft said.
Of those 300 people in the building, Craft said, investigators interviewed 160 “who may or may not have had useful information.”
Investigators on Thursday morning were still inside the theater and “being deliberately slow and methodical” with the crime-scene processing, Craft said.
As of 11 a.m. Friday, 13 gun casings had been recovered, indicating Houser fired a total of 13 shots, Craft said.
He tried to leave the scene with the crowd fleeing from the gunfire, but he changed direction — returning to the auditorium from the lobby — as police arrived on the scene in less than a minute after the first shots were fired.
“He reloaded, he returned,” then he fired the handgun and killed himself, Craft said.
Two Lafayette police officers responded so quickly because they happened to be on the theater property, Craft said.
Seven people were still hospitalized Friday morning, one of whom remained in critical condition, Craft said.
State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson said agents with several federal agents are working together to pursue leads on Houser’s background, including a trail he’s left across the Internet.
“We’re getting into where the bloggers are,” Edmonson said.
Included in that multi-agency effort, Edmonson said, are the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; State Police; the Lafayette Police Department; and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Edmonson also said Houser’s mother had recently loaned him some money on the premise he had intentions of getting “his life together.”
Investigators hope the research helps determine Houser’s motive in the shooting.
That may never be determined, Edmonson said, “but that’s certainly not our goal.”
Chief Administative Officer Dee Stanley, of Lafayette Consolidated Government, said the city has received hundreds of thousands of well wishes from around the world. But he encouraged well-wishers to stay away from the scene as investigators continue to canvass the theater.
“The law enforcement process is a marathon. The healing process is a marathon,” Stanley said.
State Rep. Terry Landry, of New Iberia and former head of State Police, praised the efforts of first responders and law enforcement, but he also lobbied for a change in gun law.
“It is our job as the Legislature to close loopholes in these gun laws” so that those with mental illness cannot gain access to the weapons, Landry said.
Police are not expected to give another update until around 5 p.m.
In Alabama, Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor told The Advocate that his office also denied Houser a pistol permit in 2006.
“It appears he had some mental health issues,” Taylor said.
A friend of Houser's, Mark Hogencamp, told The Advocate that Houser "had a problem with drinking" and appeared to be "struggling with depression."
A former attorney in Columbus, Ga., John Swearingen said Houser once tried to hire someone to set his law office on fire.
(Related: Click here to read more about Houser's mental health issues, personal struggles and past dealings with lawn enforcement.)
Investigators still have not determined a motive in the killings.
Houser, described by authorities as a 59-year-old drifter, was most recently living in a Motel 6 in Lafayette, police said.
Craft said Friday morning that investigators found wigs and disguises in the motel room. Houser’s 1995 Lincoln Continental, found in the parking lot near a theater exit after the shootings, had a switched license plate, the chief said.
Craft said Houser clearly intended to escape after opening fire by blending in with the fleeing crowd, but turned back when police arrived and shot himself.
Houser, who was a student at Jones School of Law at Faulkner University beginning in the Fall of 1994, had several addresses across several Southern states, Craft said, including Phenix City, Alabama.
Houser graduated in the spring of 1998, prior to the law school receiving ABA accreditation
The victims are Mayci Breaux, 21, from Franklin, and Jillian Johnson, 33, from Lafayette, he said.
The bodies of Houser and one of the victims were found inside the theater. The other victim died at the hospital, Craft said.
Of the nine other victims who were injured in the shooting and taken to the hospital, one remained in critical condition.
“It was a pretty horrific scene with that many people being shot,” Craft said, describing the inside of the theater.
Craft said earlier there was no evidence at this time that Houser knew any of the victims.
Houser opened fire about 20 minutes into the 7 p.m. showing of the comedy “Trainwreck” at The Grand 16 Theatre. The first two people he shot were those sitting right in front of him, Craft said.
The victims ranged from teenagers to people in their 60s.
The motive still remains unclear. The weapon was a 40-caliber handgun.
Four nearby officers heard the shots and ran into the theater on Johnston Street, hearing more shots as they entered, the police chief said earlier Friday.
Craft said the shooter acted alone in what appeared to be an isolated incident.
Shortly before midnight police exploded a suspicious package in what they believe to be the suspect’s vehicle.
Gov. Bobby Jindal arrived at the scene Thursday night. He praised the actions of the first responders.
“They ran toward shots fired, toward danger, not away from it,” Jindal said, adding that “Lafayette is a strong community. We will get through this.”
The governor also said he plans to meet with the families of the victims.
“A lot of us are horrified and shocked,” he said, asking the public to “shower” the families with “thoughts, hugs and prayers.”
Thursday night, witnesses at a nearby bar told The Advocate they were having drinks when a woman with no shoes ran up to the group telling them she was in the front of the theater when she heard popping sounds.
In her haste to escape, she lost her shoes and purse, she told them.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette students Jacob and Jordan Broussard, 19-year-old twin brothers from Lafayette, and Jalen Fernell, 20, of Lafayette, said they were across the hall from the shooting site, watching “Southpaw”, when they heard gunshots and the evacuation siren. When they ran through the front of the theater, they saw a woman lying on the ground, covered in blood.
Traffic was snarled down Johnston Street and all roads leading to the theater were blocked off while police processed the scene.
People were standing on the sidewalks on the perimeter of the parking lot and ambulances were lined up at the side of the theater.
Advocate staff writers Billy Gunn and Jim Mustian contributed to this report.