In early 2015, Lafayette had captured national attention for all the right reasons: innovative high-speed internet, incomparable Cajun cuisine, a lively music and entertainment scene and the reputation as the “Happiest City” in America.
But since the July 23, 2015, shooting that claimed two innocent lives, plus the shooter's, Lafayette has encountered a host of unrelated community challenges from a tragedy that may have shaken the city’s calm and tempered its happiness.
“Lafayette was setting the stage, setting the tone in many areas,” said former Mayor-President Joey Durel. “We were rock stars in the world of fiber. We were leading America in high-speed internet, not the kind of thing Louisiana was usually associated with.
“We had food. We had culture. We had the happiest city.”
His job, Durel said, called for the mayor-president to be Lafayette’s biggest cheerleader. The job was easy, given the fortunate circumstances.
But the shooting at the Grand 16 Theatre on Johnston Street that left two women, Jillian Johnson, 33, of Lafayette and Mayci Breaux, 21, dead — their killer was a deranged gunman from Georgia with no ties to the area — shook the city’s people deeply, Durel said.
“It was kind of like losing a parent or a sibling,” he said. Johnson, a musician and artist, was immersed in the city’s arts culture, a beloved figure; Breaux was a local nursing student in a city that treasures its college students.
Durel said the tragedy — nine others were wounded when the lone gunman stood up in a theater and fired 13 rounds from his handgun, then reloaded to fire again — made people here recognize their own mortality.
“That was the sobering part,” Durel said. “Those types of things didn’t happen here.”
Emile Ancelet was approaching the theater that night with his 7-year-old son to buy tickets when people began fleeing the building. He thought he heard “pop” sounds from inside, but the scene was chaotic, even after the shooter, 59, turned the gun on himself. His sole initial thought was to protect his child.
He’s had lots to think about since. There was the shock that a well-known local woman had died. He didn’t know Johnson well, he said, although she and her popular group, The Figs, had once recorded music in a home Ancelet shared with friends. His son suffered emotionally in the days after the shootings.
Later, he said, he experienced an “overwhelming sense of loss” shared by the community.
“It seemed like Lafayette was in a state of shock,” he said. “How could that happen here?”
With Johnson’s death, he said, Lafayette seemed to “lose a piece of its puzzle that it would never recover.”
Since then, he said, he’s become disillusioned about how the community regards its environment and culture. People don’t travel here to drive on the city’s main roads; people come here for what makes Lafayette distinctive: Cajun and Creole culture, food, music. He questions if those things are still fully valued here.
He said he is disappointed by local government budget cuts and sees a turn away from shared pride and commitment to the common good. He said he feels like the community is “on a losing streak” that includes the 2016 floods, job layoffs, environmental concerns.
“Everywhere we turn, there’s more bickering,” he said.
But he remembers this, with admiration from that fateful night: Lafayette’s first responders performed quickly, efficiently and bravely in response to the shooting, arriving on the scene in seconds. He’s still impressed by how they performed.
Jennifer Doucet, president of TownFolk, a nonprofit Johnson helped start, honors Johnson by supporting a victory garden in the downtown LaPlace neighborhood where she lived. The garden was a goal for Johnson. A pavilion was completed there this year. Doucet, a native of Lafayette, said she knew Johnson briefly.
Doucet said she moved back to Lafayette after 10 years in Baton Rouge. She said while Johnson’s death was heartbreaking for the community, she suspects Lafayette was encountering some downturn in its fortunes as early as 2014. The city weathered much of the soft national economy that started around 2008 because of a brisk energy economy. A “land man” in the energy industry herself, she said Lafayette’s economy softened with the first hint of the oil and gas downturn in 2014.
She said while Lafayette is known as family oriented and community minded, cracks have shown in its community spirit in the past few years. “You see a microcosm of the nation,” she said, citing some unwillingness locally to wear masks to protect others during the pandemic. This, she said, in a town that bolstered its reputation for the Cajun Navy — local heroes who take their own, private boats to flooded communities to help others.
“We have always had such a tight culture,” she said. “We’re going in different directions. There’s more stress, more divisiveness.”
Pearson Cross, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, also felt the first cracks in the local economy with the downturn in oil prices and toward the end of the Bobby Jindal administration, when the state’s coffers became empty.
A political scientist, Cross said both conservatives and liberals here as elsewhere decry the state of public affairs; both suggest the world is “going to hell in a handbasket” — disaster seems to loom for everyone. The “disaster narrative,” he said, is a shared one.
He said the theater shootings, bitter elections, the 2016 flood, the rise of rancorous social media, and now COVID-19 — all those things have had a draining effect on a community where he is much invested, with a home, family and children in school.
“Around the university, students don’t seem to notice it,” he said. “But I have conversations like that in my own ground.”
He’s not sure things will — or can — turn around soon. The shootings, he said, were part of the five years of perceived community sliding.
“One thing it did: It felt like Lafayette was insulated from events that happened all over the country. That particular event brought those other violent events home.
“Mass shootings are no longer things that happen elsewhere. They happen here.”