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Police identify Louisiana theater shooter as John Russel Houser, Alabama 'drifter'

By Amy R. Connolly and Danielle Haynes
Police identify Louisiana theater shooter as John Russel Houser, Alabama 'drifter'
John Russel Houser of Phenix City, Ala., was identified Friday as the gunman in the shooting at a Lafayette, La., movie theater. Photo courtesy of John Russel Houser/LinkedIn

LAFAYETTE, La., July 24 (UPI) -- Police identified on Friday the gunman who opened fire in a Lafayette, La., movie theater Thursday evening as John Russel Houser, a 59-year-old "drifter" from Alabama who had been living in a local motel for several weeks.

Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said two women died in the shooting at Grand Theatre 16. Mayci Breaux, 21, died at the scene, and Jillian Johnson died at the hospital.

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At least one of eight injured in the shooting was admitted to Lafayette General Medical Center in critical condition, but had improved Friday, hospital officials said in a news conference.

The hospital received a total of five patients -- three arrived by ambulance, two were driven by private vehicles. The other patients were taken to other hospitals in the city.

RELATED Accused Louisiana gunman had troubled 'erratic' past, officials say

Lafayette General officials said two patients were treated and released Thursday night, while two were admitted to the hospital. One required surgery and one required admittance to the intensive care unit. The hospital's patients ranged in age from the 30s to 80s.

"All of our patients are expected to have a full recovery soon" and be discharged within a matter of days, one of the doctors said.

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At the same news conference, Lafayette General President David Callecod offered mental health assistance to victims, families and those in the community affected by the shooting.

He called for an increase in funding for such services "in order to hopefully avoid situations like this occurring in the future.

"We have seen dramatic decreases in funding for mental health services in the United States," Callecod said. "We're seeing a real lack of service for patients that are suffering from mental illness."

Meanwhile, investigators searched the hotel room where Houser was staying and found "wigs and glasses and disguises." He had been living there since early July, Craft said. Houser has no known connection to Lafayette, a city of about 120,000, 60 miles west of Baton Rouge.

"At this point, we have very little information on him," Craft said, imploring the public for help.

"Why did he come here? Why did he do that? We don't know that," added Col. Michael Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police.

Police said they have not found any indication Houser was working with any groups. Houser fired at least 13 rounds in the theater during the previews for the comedy Trainwreck about 7:30 p.m. As the 100 moviegoers ran from the theater, Houser attempted to blend in with the crowd, but when he saw approaching police officers, who happened to be already on the scene, he turned back into the theater. Police found Houser dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.

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Houser had parked his 1995 blue Lincoln Continental near the back exit of the movie theater, Craft said, adding it had a "switched" license plate.

"It was apparent he was intent on shooting and then escaping," he said. Crime scene investigators found a 40-caliber handgun in the theater. There were no explosive devices found in the theater, car or the motel room.

While it's unclear what motivated the shooting, Houser's family said he had a history of bipolar disorder. His former wife had a restraining order against him in 2008 because she and their daughter were "fearful of him," police said.

Houser also had a criminal history dating back 10 to 15 years that included arson and selling alcohol to a minor, NOLA.com reported.

Craft said quick law enforcement response to the shooting helped reduce the number of victims. He said 12 ambulances were on scene within six minutes. Inside the theater, moviegoers left keys, purses and shoes behind in their haste to get away.

"As you can imagine, it's pretty horrific in there," he said.

The shooting came within days of the verdict in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting, adding to speculation it might have been a copycat. Police have not found any connection between the shooter and anyone inside the theater.

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"There's nothing to believe that there was any kind of motive," Edmonson said early in the investigation.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama, en route to Africa, has been briefed about the shooting and the status of the injured.

"The thoughts and prayers of everyone at the White House, including the president and first lady, are with the community of Lafayette, La., especially the families of those who were killed," a statement read.

In an interview with the BBC on Friday, Obama said gun control has been on ongoing issue "where I feel that I've been most frustrated and most stymied." Obama said the United States lacks "sufficient common-sense, gun-safety laws. Even in the face of repeated mass killings."

"If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it's less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it's in the tens of thousands," he said.

Among those wounded were two teachers, Jena Meaux and Ali Martin, who work at schools in the Iberia Parish. Gov. Bobby Jindal said one of the women jumped on top of the other to save her from bullets. After being shot in the leg, Meaux reportedly pulled a fire alarm to alert authorities to the incident.

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"Her friend literally jumped over her," Jindal said. "If her friend hadn't done that, she believed the bullet would have hit her in the head."

Cammie Maturin, president of the Iberia Association of Educators, said the two women are close friends. She and colleagues have set up a GoFundMe page for the teachers to help with their medical bills.

"That's them, that's who they are," she said of the women's bravery. "They did exactly who they are as people; saving each other, saving a whole lot of other people."

In an interview Friday on Fox and Friends, Jindal said he intends to suspend his presidential campaign for an unspecified amount of time in reaction to the shooting, The Hill reported.

"We are going to do whatever we can to support our community; this is a time for us to come together," Jindal said.

"This could have happened anywhere, and one of the things you hear over and over is why here. You never want this to happen anywhere but you would never imagine it would happen in Louisiana," he said.

Meanwhile, Amy Schumer, star of Trainwreck, tweeted her condolences in the hours after the shooting.

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Doug G. Ware contributed to this report.

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