The man alleged to have shot up a movie theater in Lafayette, La., has been identified as John Russel “Rusty” Houser, a former political candidate and activist here in Columbus.
Houser is the son of the late Rembert Houser, a longtime city tax commissioner.
Rusty Houser had a history here of political activism, fighting taxes and at one point running for office.
In 1994, Rusty Houser joined opponents who helped defeat a proposed bond issue for the school district. He accused the school district of punishing his wife, a school teacher, for his role in that effort. Years later he ran as a Republican for tax commission, but was charged for stealing an opponent’s yard signs and withdrew.
After a subsequent sales tax passed, Rusty Houser filed papers trying to get the Muscogee Superior Court to invalidate the election. He had been admitted to practice law in Alabama after attending an unaccredited night law school.
Superior Court Judge and former Columbus Mayor Bobby Peters remembered Houser’s 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. 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 1980s to hire a man to set fire to the law office of John Swearingen, who was then an attorney representing the owners of 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.
“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,” Swearingen said. Houser’s brother Rembert Houser Jr. was his stockbroker, he 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 family lived and “perpetrated various acts of family violence,” adding that he “has a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bipolar 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 a Columbus 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” to stop his daughter’s wedding, the filing said.
It said wife Kellie Maddox Houser “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.
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.
Columbus State University in a news release said a John Russell Houser born in 1955 graduated with a degree in accounting in 1988. “Mr. Houser is apparently the man that police have identified as the suspect in the Louisiana movie theater shooting,” the release said, adding CSU’s last address for Houser was in Phenix City.
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 “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 Kellet 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.”
Authorities in Louisiana called the theater gunman “kind of a drifter” from Phenix City.
Police said Houser was sitting in a packed movie theater when he stood up about 20 minutes into the showing of “Trainwreck” and began firing into the crowd, killing two and wounding at least nine others before fatally shooting himself.
The gunman tried to escape by blending into the fleeing crowd, but turned back when he saw police coming in from the parking lot, authorities said. Officers following him back into the theater heard a single gunshot and found him dead inside, police said.
Authorities identified the two victims killed in the theater as 33-year-old Jillian Johnson and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux.
Investigators said Houser fired a handgun 13 times inside the theater, wounding at least nine others. 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, they told the AP.
Senior reporter Chuck Williams contributed to this report.