The stranger clenched his fists and shook his head, recounting a time when he tried and failed to beat a cat to death with a steel rod.
His audience, two women lunching at a Lafayette bistro on a Saturday afternoon, sat across from him, shocked and silent. The man in a Hawaiian-print shirt had pulled a chair up to their table minutes earlier. He stroked their dogs and started to ramble: People spend too much money on their pets. There should be a cheaper way to euthanize an animal.
This stranger told them he once took in a stray cat and it got sick, so he bashed its head with the rod but failed to kill it.
“He was hurt that the cat lived,” recalled Bonnie Barbier, who listened in horror to the bluster for 30 minutes. “It was this twisted sense that he was doing the right thing.”
Days later, John Russell Houser’s photograph flashed onto television screens across America as the man who opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater.
“My stomach dropped,” Barbier said of the moment she saw his photo, stern and unsmiling. “That was the man from Saturday.”
At the bistro, the man seemed unhinged and self-righteous, Barbier remembered. He had written letters to newspapers about conspiracies, he told her. But he was too smart for the world and had to dumb down his missives so the masses might understand them.
“I’m just sitting there thinking, `There’s something wrong with this. He’s out of his mind because normal people don’t talk about this kind of thing,'” she said. “He was just so odd, and I felt really weird feelings with him. Something inside was like, `Just don’t set him off. Just smile and nod.'”
She and her friend found an excuse to slip away.
Houser, a mentally ill 59-year-old, terrified his own family and ranted in online forums about African-Americans, Jews and gays. He had lost his wife and his house and left behind a paper trail documenting a long history of seeking vengeance.
Five days after the chance meeting at the bistro, Houser walked into the theater, bought a ticket to the 7 p.m. showing of “Trainwreck” and picked a seat two rows from the back. Twenty minutes into the movie, he stood up in the darkness and, according to those who knew him, let loose a lifetime’s reserve of rage.
Five hundred miles away in Houser’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia, some former neighbors say his life was a decades-long collision course with disaster.
“He’s been known as a lunatic and a fool around this neck of the woods for years,” said Patrick Williams, an antiques dealer who once filed a police report alleging Houser sold him a stolen iron fence at a flea market. “He was a highly intelligent guy but mean as a snake and dangerous. I wasn’t a bit surprised when I saw his picture on TV. And no one else that knew him was surprised either.”
Houser, who went by Rusty, was known as odd and eccentric in the cluster of towns near the state line between Georgia and Alabama where he lived nearly all his life.
Neighbors said he filled his in-ground pool with hundreds of koi. He flew a Confederate flag, passed doomsday fliers around his neighborhood, pounded out angry online missives about corruption and injustice and spouted admiration for Adolf Hitler.
He fit the familiar mold of mass shooters, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, author and prominent expert on massacres. Houser was paranoid, blamed everyone but himself, alienated his family and survived in a world of self-imposed isolation.
“If you gave me a list of names, I would have picked his out as the one that done it,” said Vince Woodward, who was then active in local Republican politics.
But many towns have a resident crackpot. And hindsight is an inaccurate lens, Fox said.
“There’s a very large haystack of people who have these characteristics, but very few needles that will indeed carry out a rampage,” he said. “They’re not red flags. They’re yellow. The only time they turn red is after blood is spilled on them.”
Mass shooters often sound a lot like Houser, he said. But thousands of men who sound a lot like Houser don’t become mass shooters. Fox compared the relationship to another sort of tragedy: most planes that crash do so in bad weather. But most planes withstand storms without plunging from the sky.
By 1989, Houser imagined himself as a crusader for righteousness.
Then 34, he tried to pay a man $100 to burn down the office of a lawyer who represented a pornographic movie theater to “save the world, bring law and order,” The Advocate newspaper reported, citing a court transcript.
But his intended arsonist turned out to be a police informant, and Houser was hauled into court.
The judge questioned whether “the presence of a delusional compulsion overmastered his will to resist committing the alleged act,” according to court records. He ordered that Houser be evaluated at the psychiatric unit at a Columbus hospital.
The case was later dropped. But Houser’s sanity would remain in question for more than two decades.
He soon became a regular guest on a local television show, where he held forth about the evils of abortion and women in the workplace. He was known as the black sheep of a well-regarded family. His father was the town’s longtime tax commissioner.
In 1996, Houser too ran for public office. But he was caught stealing his competitor’s yard signs and backed out of the race. Woodward said Houser was something of a “fringe member” of the party, known for spouting wild accusations.
He was often nice, then his mood would suddenly darken.
“He wasn’t just depressed,” Woodward said. “He was angry depressed.”
Houser earned a degree in accounting, then went to law school. But he never took the bar exam and for a while ran a tavern instead.
In 2001, the city of LaGrange, Georgia, revoked Houser’s liquor license, citing a series of convictions for selling beer to minors.
He railed to the LaGrange Daily News that he’d been set up, that the police lied. He challenged city officials to take lie detector tests to prove their case, the newspaper reported at the time. But the city declined.
So Houser unfurled a banner as big as a bedsheet on the side of his downtown tavern, the newspaper reported. It displayed a swastika with the phrase “Welcome to LaGrange.”
He said at the time he was against Nazi philosophy and described the flag as an effort to mock a government willing to trample its citizens’ rights. But Houser changed his mind a few years later. He wrote in online message boards that “Hitler is loved for the results of his pragmatism” and “decent people can retake the entire world, as Hitler proved.”
“He was a little odd,” said Jeff Hardin, the former mayor of Phenix City, just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus. “He was pretty even keeled until you disagreed with him or made him mad. Then he became your sworn enemy.”
In 2005, he caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and lone-wolf extremists, when he registered for former KKK leader David Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization conference in New Orleans.
In April 2008, his 23-year-old daughter was planning to marry her fiance the following month. But Houser believed they were too young. He made “ominous as well as disturbing statements,” his family wrote in seeking a court order to keep him away. His wife, Kellie Maddox Houser, wrote that she was so worried about his unraveling mental state, she removed all his guns from the house.
He stormed into his daughter’s office, then to another relative’s house, where police were called and intervened. Houser’s wife told officers he had a history of depression and bipolar disorder.
“She said he sometimes forgets to take his medication and sometimes he forgets to eat, which affected his behavior as well,” an officer wrote in the report. A judge agreed he should be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.
Despite his history, Houser was able to walk into an Alabama pawnshop and buy a Hi-Point .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun in February 2014, just as his life began its final downward spiral.
His wife of 30 years filed for divorce in March and wrote they had been separated since 2012. Their home had gone into foreclosure when they split, and she had not been able to find him.
He called her, she wrote in a court filing.
“He told me if I wanted to play games with him, I’d better watch out because he always wins.”
Norman Bone bought the house at a 2014 foreclosure auction. He asked Houser, a man he knew from church, how long it would take him to leave. Houser became angry and slammed the door, Bone said.
He poured concrete down the toilets and drains and threw paint and feces around the house, Bone said.
The day Houser was evicted, Bone walked into the house to find the gas fireplace logs were removed and the gas starter tube was twisted out and ignited.
“He was hoping the house would catch on fire. That’s what the investigators told me,” Bone said.
“He was trying to blow the house up,” his wife, Pat, chimed in.
Then Houser disappeared.
His estranged mother gave him $5,000 to get back on his feet.
She lived in a retirement home and had told his wife months earlier that she hadn’t seen him in years, according to court records. Security at her home had forbidden her son from entering.
In the first days of July, he rented a room at the Motel 6 in Lafayette. Police are now trying to piece together what brought him to this college town and what he did once he arrived.
Johnny Ha, the owner of KD Seafood, said Houser came into his store at least twice and begged for money. Ha refused and offered him food instead. Houser declined.
“He just left. He did not get angry or get a bad attitude,” Ha said.
People saw him rambling around town, said Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft.
Houser drank. He talked to people about opening a two-minute oil-change service. He went to a food bank in Lake Charles, an hour’s drive east. And he went to the Grand 16 movie theater several times, Craft said.
“Maybe he was testing. Maybe he was checking. Maybe he was determining, you know, is there anything that could be a soft target for him.”
He settled into the back of the theater on July 18, alongside 25 people there for the movie. Then he stood silently and fired 20 times.
He killed two young women and wounded nine people.
He had apparently planned to escape. Police searched his motel room and found wigs and glasses and other disguises, and he had swapped out the license plate on his blue 1995 Lincoln Continental.
But police closed in, thwarting his route to safety.
So he put his gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta, Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Rebecca Santana in Lafayette and Ray Henry in Carrollton, Georgia contributed to this report.