The Columbus native named as the gunman in Thursday’s lethal Lafayette, La., theater shooting is from a prominent local family and long was known here as an outspoken government critic and conspiracy theorist.
Authorities said 59-year-old John Russell “Rusty” Houser fatally shot two women and wounded nine others before killing himself during a showing of the new movie “Trainwreck,” where he stood and fired into the audience about 20 minutes into the showing.
Houser is the son of the late Rembert Houser, who was Columbus’ city tax commissioner from 1968 until he died in his city office on April 6, 1984.
Rusty Houser had a history here of political activism, fighting taxes and at one point running for office. He also was alleged to have tried to hire a man to torch the law office of an attorney representing the owners of pornographic theaters.
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That was years ago. Authorities in Louisiana said they found Houser to be “kind of a drifter."
They said Houser tried to escape the theater by blending into the panicked crowd, but he turned back when he saw police coming in from the parking lot. Officers following him back into the theater heard a single gunshot and found him dead inside, police said.
Authorities identified the two victims as 33-year-old Jillian Johnson and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux.
Investigators said Houser fired a handgun 13 times. Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said Houser parked his car near the theater’s exit door and was intent on escaping, but couldn’t because police arrived so quickly. Authorities searching a Motel 6 room Houser had rented found wigs and other disguises he might have used to escape town.
Craft said the federal department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced the gun’s purchase to Phenix City. “We have confirmed the weapon is a Hi-Point .40-caliber semi-automatic handgun. The weapon was purchased at a pawn shop in Phenix City in February 2014. ATF has informed us the purchase was legal,” Craft said. It was unclear which pawn shop in Phenix City sold the gun.
Here in Columbus, residents recalled Houser’s frequent and sometimes erratic crusades.
Superior Court Judge and former Columbus Mayor Bobby Peters remembered Houser for his combative attitude.
“He came to many city council meetings, and he was in tune with a lot of issues that were going on in the community,” Peters said. “He was very outspoken, highly intelligent, really didn’t trust government and anything about government. He always thought something was going on behind the scenes. He came across with a very conservative agenda.”
Houser had his own problems to deal with: “He had some legal issues. He was always looking for his niche. The thing he enjoyed the most, and he would tell you, is that he would like to almost cross-examine elected officials on talk shows and in council meetings,” Peters said.
Among Houser’s legal issues was his trying in the late 1980s to hire a man to set fire to the law office of John Swearingen, then an attorney representing pornographic theaters, which Houser detested.
The man Houser tried to hire was a police informant who turned Houser in, Swearingen recalled, adding Houser reportedly told the prospective arsonist to be sure not to kill anyone — except maybe Swearingen. “I don’t mind if he dies,” Houser was alleged to have said.
Swearingen said he agreed not to press charges against Houser if the family got him mental health treatment.
“He’s always been strange,” Swearingen said, adding that no one else in the family seemed to share that eccentricity: “I liked his family and respected his family.” Houser’s brother Rembert Houser Jr. was his stockbroker, Swearingen said.
The Ledger-Enquirer left messages with Rembert Houser Jr., but they weren’t returned.
The past came back to haunt Rusty Houser when he tried to run for Muscogee County tax commissioner in 1996. Jim Houston was then a Ledger-Enquirer reporter who learned of the attempted arson and mental health issue, and called Houser for comment.
“You don’t have to report that, do you?” Houston said Houser asked. Houston told him it had to reported because Houser was running for office. Houser asked if it would not be news were he not a political candidate, and Houston agreed.
“He withdrew the next day,” Houston said, and the story never saw print.
Houston said Houser continued his frequent rants and conspiracy theories, calling the newspaper repeatedly.
“He was a thorn in the side of reporters and editors,” Houston said. “The son of a very good man — Tax Commissioner Rembert Houser — Rusty was a maladjusted political wannabe who aired strange, deluded, paranoid and fanatical views about everything from local politics to international intrigue. He loved to pick up the telephone at all hours and call, spouting his spiel until the answerer finally hung up on him, and then he’d call again.”
Houston said the newspaper at that time had a switchboard Houser was going through, so Houston had the operator stop transferring Houser to the newsroom.
Tax Commissioner Lula Huff said Houser was running against her in 1996 when he was caught stealing her campaign yard signs.
The sign thefts had become a recurring problem, she recalled: “As fast as we could put them down, they would disappear.” That ended when a Columbus police officer watched Houser stop his pickup truck on Macon Road to pilfer her signs, she said: The officer found about 25 of them in Houser’s truck. When acquaintances heard about that, they warned Huff to “be very, very cautious” in dealing with Houser, she said.
According to the Associated Press, 2008 court records show Houser’s immediate family sought protective orders because he “exhibited extreme erratic behavior and has made ominous as well as disturbing statements.”
The documents said Houser was living in Phenix City, but had traveled to Carroll County, Ga., where his daughter lived, and “perpetrated various acts of family violence.” The filings said he “has a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder.”
The family petitioned a probate court to have him involuntarily committed “because he was a danger to himself and others.” Houser was taken to Columbus’ West Central Georgia Regional Hospital after the order was granted.
He was at the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office awaiting transfer to the hospital when Houser told his wife that once he got out, “he would continue his erratic as well as threatening behavior” because he wanted to stop his daughter’s wedding, the filing said.
It said Houser’s wife, Kellie Maddox Houser, now 51, “has become so worried about the defendant’s volatile mental state that she has removed all guns and/or weapons from their marital residence.” She filed for divorce in March.
Phenix City police reported a domestic violence complaint from Kellie Houser on Oct. 23, 2005, when she told officers her husband became angry because their swimming pool had not been cleaned. She said Houser first began to throw things, then hit her on the left side of her face with his hand. He had consumed “several alcoholic drinks,” she told police.
The wife declined to prosecute, and police ordered her husband to leave the 1101 32nd St. residence.
Other police reports showed Houser had frequent disputes with his Phenix City neighbors, but none led to his arrest.
The AP reported also that Alabama court records show Houser filed a 2004 lawsuit claiming he was injured donating plasma in Phenix City. He sought $1,800 in medical costs. Records show the case was settled.
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor told the Ledger-Enquirer that Houser in 2006 was denied a pistol permit, and was served eviction papers March 25, 2014, while living on 32nd Street in Phenix City.
Because of his mental health treatment in 2008 and 2009, Houser should not have been allowed to purchase a firearm, Taylor said.
The sheriff said dealing with offenders who suffer from a mental illness is an ongoing issue in law enforcement, because government funding for treatment programs and facilities has been cut significantly.
“There are cuts being made all over about mental health, and that’s what’s so scary for us in law enforcement and should be scary for the community,” he said. “The cuts being made in mental health around the state are allowing a lot of these people who should not be walking around to be out in the community. That’s a scary scenario that we’re dealing with every day, and it’s a financial decision people above my grade are making to close mental health facilities.”
Houser graduated from Columbus High School in 1973. Columbus State University in a news release said a John Russell Houser born in 1955 graduated with a degree in accounting in 1988.
Houser’s profile on the networking site LinkedIn says he passed the certified public accountant’s exam in 1987 and got a law degree from Faulkner University in 1991. From March 1979 to August 1980, he ran an oldies bar named Peachtree Pub at 2932 Warm Springs Road. From April 1998 to July 2000, he ran Rusty’s Buckhead Pub at 110 Main St. in LaGrange, Ga., he posted.
On LinkedIn he also wrote of his time publicly challenging city leaders and stirring up controversy, saying he guest-hosted a local TV show and appeared regularly on talk radio.
On Calvin Floyd’s “Rise n’ Shine” show in January 1993, he guest-hosted one day a week for 60 episodes and “invited political controversy on every one of them, and loved every minute of it,” he wrote. “On 13 occasions I was a guest of Doug Kellett on WRCG talk radio.”
He also described himself as an “unwanted guest and budget cutter at seven Columbus Water Works board meetings, and 22 Columbus City Council meetings,” parenthetically adding “millions saved and mega-thousands discovered misappropriated.” He said his skills were financial analysis, public speaking and “God’s Business.”
— Mark Rice and Stephanie Pedersen contributed to this report.