John “Rusty” Houser parked his blue, 1995 Lincoln Continental near an exit beside The Grand 16 Theatre in Lafayette, got out and placed his keys atop one of the car’s tires. During his three-week stay in the city, the man from Phenix City, Alabama, had visited the theater before.
Like another 25 people there on Thursday evening, the 59-year-old Houser stood in line and bought a ticket to the 7:10 p.m. showing of the comedy film “Trainwreck.”
“He wasn’t acting differently than any other person in line to buy their ticket,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said.
Lafayette 21-year-olds Emily Mann and Lucus Knepper sat on the far left side of the theater auditorium, one row down from the top. On the far right side of that row sat Houser, according to an account told through Mann’s father, Randy Mann, of Acadian Ambulance Service.
The show began. And about 20 minutes into it — about 7:30 p.m. — Emily Mann and Knepper described hearing “popping” sounds, although they weren’t really alarmed until they saw flashes from the barrel of a gun, according to Randy Mann.
“After that, they hit the floor and ran,” Mann said of the two young adults.
The flashes came from Houser’s .40-caliber, semi-automatic handgun. His first shots struck the two people sitting directly in front of him, police said.
Taking his time and firing in a “deliberate” way, Craft said, Houser emptied a 10-round magazine.
Jena Legnon Meaux, one of the people in the line of fire, jumped on top of her friend and fellow Jeanerette High School teacher, Ali Viator Martin, according to an account from the women widely relayed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
After at least one bullet injured each woman in the leg, Martin got up and pulled the fire alarm.
The shrill siren marked the first time 19-year-old twin brothers Jacob and Jordan Broussard and 20-year-old Jalen Fernell realized something out of the ordinary was happening as they watched “Southpaw” across the hall from the “Trainwreck” showing.
As the three University of Louisiana at Lafayette students walked outside the building, they saw the chaotic scene of about 300 moviegoers and theater employees exiting the building and the sight of a woman on the ground, covered in blood.
At the same time, two Lafayette police officers — who happened to be exchanging paperwork in the theater’s parking lot — rushed into the scene as the people ran away.
Less than a minute had passed from when Houser fired the first shots to when the officers arrived, police said.
As the moviegoers poured from the theater, Houser dropped his empty clip outside the theater’s side exit, spotted the officers approaching and headed back toward the auditorium, according to police and witness accounts.
“He reloaded,” Craft said. “He returned.”
Inside, police said Houser fired at least four more shots — the last of which he used to kill himself. Officers who rushed to the scene used first-aid kits intended for police suffering bullet wounds to treat the victims.
Although 21-year-old Mayci Breaux died on the scene and 33-year-old Jillian Johnson died at an area hospital, Craft said the officers’ efforts helped stop bleeding for most of the nine additional victims while they awaited transport to treatment.
As moviegoers fled the scene, a group of men outside Corner Bar — a watering hole near the front of the theater’s parking lot — said a barefoot woman ran up on their patio table. Before police sought her out to provide a witness statement, she told the group she had fled her spot in the front row after hearing popping noises — leaving behind her shoes and purse.
More Lafayette police officers, along with Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies and troopers with State Police, immediately rushed to the theater, causing a police officer and deputy to T-bone each other at the corner of University Avenue and Johnston Street amid the charge.
Three ambulances arrived within seven minutes, with a third arriving two minutes later, according to Randy Mann, the Acadian Ambulance Service spokesman.
At the same time, his daughter and her friend — Emily Mann and Knepper, the two 21-year-olds who sat in the same row as Houser inside the theater — drove down the street to the Mann home.
Police immediately blocked off the roads surrounding the theater as Johnston Street traffic began snarling in front of the theater, with curious onlookers craning their heads to see past the dozens and dozens of law enforcement vehicles on scene.
“It’s starting to sink in,” Randy Mann said of the shooting and his daughter’s involvement. “We do all of this training, but we never think of having to respond to a loved one.”
Jindal, who on Friday afternoon toured the crime scene for the first time, described the eerie sensation he felt inside the theater — sodas, nachos, purses and shoes left abandoned amid pools of dried blood and bullet holes.
The day after the shooting, investigators learned and revealed more about Houser. A “drifter,” they said.
His Lincoln Continental’s license plate did not match the car’s VIN. He had been staying in a motel room on University Avenue since the first week of July. Inside that room, investigators found journals and disguises — various wigs and glasses. He had been drinking a lot. He had gotten $5,000 from his mom with promises to start over, police said. He had been in Lafayette talking to people about starting a $2 oil change business.
Meanwhile, the world got to know Breaux and Johnson, two women whose lives were cut short in an act of seemingly random violence.
The names of some of the injured became known — including husband and wife Bo and Jerry Ramsay; Breaux’s fiancé, Matthew Rodriguez; and Johnson’s close friend, Morgan Egedah — while community groups planned a number of gatherings. Candlelight memorials, public art projects and counseling services are scheduled through Wednesday.
“Lafayette, yesterday at this time, was a safe city,” City-Parish President Joey Durel said on Friday. “Today, Lafayette is still a safe city. What happened was an anomaly . It hasn’t changed.”