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US theatre gunman Houser built reputation as angry provocateur

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

world Updated: Mar 01, 2017 19:45 IST
John Russell Houser

Mourners attend a vigil to honour the victims of Thursday night's shooting at The Grand 16 theatre, in Lafayette, La. (AP Photo)

Facing eviction from his Alabama home, John Russell Houser, in 2014, set out to make sure no one else could ever live in that house. He poured concrete down the drains, and 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 theatre 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 house, 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.

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 But his stint as a club operator ended sourly when his license to serve alcohol was revoked for selling alcohol to minors.

Houser put up a 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 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 after a dispute about a house deal.

"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 to a hospital, but he told his wife he would continue trying to stop the wedding once he was released.

A police report 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.

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

Kellie Houser said her long-gone husband called her 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.

After the theatre shooting, police characterised him as a drifter who hadn't spent much time in Lafayette.

Investigators found wigs and disguises in his motel room. They said he tried to blend in with the fleeing crowd to escape but ran back inside when he saw officers in front of him.

As police made their way in, they heard a single gunshot and found Houser dead.

Read: US: Gunman kills two, self in Louisiana movie theatre shooting

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