Cinema gunman's escape plan 'thwarted by police officers'
Published 24/07/2015 | 20:49
The cinema gunman who began firing into the crowd, killing two and then himself, has been described as a drifter whose escape plan was thwarted by police officers who arrived almost immediately.
The incident was the latest of mass shootings in the United States and the second in three years at a cinema. Nine people were wounded in the evening attack in the city of Lafayette, Louisiana.
While the shootings have shocked the nation, they have not led to major changes in gun control laws in the United States, where many Americans see gun ownership as a fundamental, constitutionally-protected right.
The gunman, identified as 59-year-old John Russel Houser, fired 13 times from a handgun, police said. He had parked his car by the cinema's exit door and initially tried to escape by blending into the fleeing crowd, but turned back when he saw police heading inside from the parking lot, authorities said.
Officers tailing him back into the building then heard a single gunshot and found him dead inside, police said.
Lafayette police chief Jim Craft said: "The quick law enforcement response forced him back into the theatre."
Authorities did not release a motive. They said Houser, who comes from the neighbouring state of Alabama, had been in the Lafayette area since early July, staying at a motel where they found disguises, including glasses and wigs.
Police said the gunman was by himself and started the rampage by shooting the two people sitting in front of him.
At least one film-goer described the attack, saying an older man stood up about 20 minutes into the 7.10pm local time showing of the popular comedy Trainwreck and began shooting.
"We heard a loud pop we thought was a firecracker," Katie Domingue told The Advertiser, a local newspaper.
"He wasn't saying anything. I didn't hear anybody screaming either," said Ms Domingue, who added that she heard about six shots before she and her fiance ran to the nearest exit, leaving behind her shoes and purse.
Stories of heroism immediately began to emerge with presidential hopeful Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who travelled to the scene within hours of the shooting, telling reporters that a teacher who was in the cinema jumped in front of a second teacher, saving her life. The second teacher then managed to pull a fire alarm to alert other moviegoers, he said.
"Her friend literally jumped over her and, by her account, actually saved her life," Mr Jindal said.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the shooting while on his way to Africa for a two-nation visit, the White House said.
The shooting took place a week after the man who shot and killed 12 people at a cinema in Colorado in 2012, was convicted and on the very day a jury said his attack was cruel enough to consider sentencing him to death.
Nine people ranging in age from their late teens to their late 60s were wounded, Mr Craft said. At least one of those was in critical condition and being operated on, he said. Police said there were about 100 people inside the cinema at the time of the shooting.
One of them was 21-year-old Emily Mann. Her father said she was sitting with a friend in the same row as the shooter.
"They heard a couple of pops and didn't know what it was," Randall Mann said. "And then they saw the muzzle flashes, and that's when they knew what was going on. She hit the floor immediately."
Mr Mann said his daughter and her friend escaped uninjured.
Houser had been arrested and fined for several offences in the past, ranging from arson to selling alcohol to a minor to speeding, authorities said. It is not clear where the arson allegedly occurred.
He had been married once but did not currently have a wife. Police said they had talked to his family in Alabama but he appeared "seemingly estranged" from them.
"It just seems like he was kind of drifting along," Mr Craft said. He had an uncle that once lived in Lafayette, but he died 35 years ago. "We don't know why he decided to stop and stay in Lafayette."
Early on Friday, about a dozen law enforcement personnel were gathered at a motel in Lafayette to investigate whether the gunman had stayed there, officials said.
Trainwreck star Amy Schumer sent a tweet: "My heart is broken and all my thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Louisiana."
The comedy stars Schumer as a magazine writer who decides to live a life of promiscuity, but in spite of her best efforts, finds herself falling in love with one of her interview subjects.
Governor Jindal called the shooting "an awful night for Louisiana". "What we can do now is we can pray," Mr Jindal said. "We can hug these families. We can shower them with love, thoughts and prayers."
The Louisiana shooting occurred three years after James Holmes entered a crowded cinema in suburban Denver and opened fire during the premier of a Batman film, killing 12 people and wounding 70 others.
A jury last week quickly convicted Holmes on 165 counts of murder, attempted murder and other charges, rejecting defence arguments that he was insane and suffering delusions.
The wife and other family members of the gunman asked for a temporary protective order in 2008 against the man, it has emerged.
Court documents seeking the order said John Houser "exhibited extreme erratic behaviour and has made ominous as well as disturbing statements".
The documents said even though he lived in Phenix City, Alabama, he had come to Carroll County, Georgia, where they lived and "perpetrated various acts of family violence".
Houser "has a history of mental health issues, ie manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder" the filing said.
The documents said Houser's 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".
The protection order was at least temporarily granted.
She filed for divorce in March.
The two victims shot dead by Houser were women - one a student studying to be a radiology technician, the other an artist who ran retail boutiques in two Louisiana cities.
Jillian Johnson, 33, was remembered as an all-around "creative force" who ran clothing and art boutiques, played in a rock band, helped organise a music festival and used her design skills on T-shirts and other crafts.
"She just did the things she wanted to do, and nothing could stop her," said friend Lucius Fontenot. "She was a creative force, always inspiring and amazing to watch."
Mayci Breaux, 21, was in the first year of an associate's degree program for medical radiology technicians at Louisiana State University-Eunice.
The head of the program, Robert McLaughlin, described her as a sweet, generous person who was always polite and professional.
"She was the kind of person you want in your program," Mr McLaughlin said. "She had a lot of potential. I knew she would do well."
Hospital officials said three of the people shot are now in a stable condition.
David Callecod, president of Lafayette General Health, said one of those patients required surgery. Another was in intensive care. Two other people were treated and later released.
He said all five had gunshot wounds.