In gunman John Russell Houser’s mind, opening fire in a crowded Lafayette theater last summer was his way of doing America a favor.
Houser, 59, killed two people and injured nine in the Grand 16 Theatre shooting on July 23 last year. Then, he shot and killed himself. Through his journal, Houser left clues for analysis and insight into his state of mind.
Experts say some of these clues may provide the answer to the critical question: “Why?”
His ideas and opinions leaned far right. In his writings, it is evident Houser did not like minorities — women, blacks and gays. He blamed liberals for America being a “filth farm.”
University of Louisiana at Lafayette psychology professor Emily Sandoz, Ph.D., analyzed the journal for Ragin’ Wire. She said Houser’s feelings toward minorities didn’t seem to be very emotional. She said she hesitated to call it hate, because to him the idea that minorities were the problem seemed evident.
Sandoz said she believes Houser struggled with psychosis. His lists of favorite movies and songs in his journal may have been efforts to grab on to some kind of identity, which Sandoz said she found not surprising at all.
“It’s not uncommon for people that are struggling with psychosis to keep notes and diaries and lists in that way to help them feel grounded, like there’s something they can hang on to as everything is sort of swirling around,” Sandoz said.
“I’ve seen people who had pages and pages that they felt like were really important, significant sort of discoveries or conclusions,” she continued. “And it’s like, it’s nothing. I mean, it’s rampant. It’s a grocery list and the four things that I couldn’t get off my mind today. And the connections that seem so overwhelming. These are the three groups to blame. Of course that’s the case. That feels like such a huge epiphany, and it’s like, ‘No, that’s just hate, dude.’ That’s not — there’s nothing there.”
Chris Nugent, a federal investigator based in New Orleans who has over 26 years of experience investigating criminal cases, also analyzed the journal at Ragin’ Wire’s request. Houser had previous arson charges, which stuck out to Nugent the most.
“Those people (with arson charges) that we eventually caught and arrested were a little different,” Nugent said. “It was always something off with those types of people.”
It was clear from his journal entries Houser felt there was a truth he could no longer ignore about the world — that the end was near. Sandoz said perhaps Houser felt the end (of the world) would be slow if left to its own devices and the cost would be greater. According to Sandoz, this may be why Houser felt the need to catalyze the end, to shock people publicly into realizing what they were doing.
“He felt too alone (to call himself a hero),” Sandoz said about Houser catalyzing the end. “It didn’t seem like he had a lot of people in his life… He felt fundamentally different from those around him, seeing this truth that nobody else could see, staying the same when everybody else was changing.”
That was a big theme in Houser’s journal — the idea that he has been the same for the past 40 years, but everyone around him is different.
“It’s like he’s in a dystopian society and everybody is just walking around,” Sandoz added. “He can see the fallout and we’re all just… buying sugar cereal and watching TV and driving our cars. And he’s like ‘Good God, look around.’”
Sandoz said when looking at people who commit such atrocities, we shouldn’t ask how they are different from us, “but how they are like us, and then what are they lacking?”
And though not everyone struggling with psychosis and feeling fundamentally different is violent, his feelings of isolation coupled with his opinions and views of the world around him led him there, Sandoz said.
“(His) feelings that nobody could ever understand what he was experiencing, those feelings that he was seeing some truth that nobody else could perceive and how crazy that would make somebody feel,” she said. “How out of place, how alone, how willing to do something drastic.”
Sandoz said she wishes she could go back in time and have the opportunity to talk to him about how afraid he was, “even if the content was bizarre and without truth.”
“Just that feeling of connection. Just that feeling that somebody else could understand his fear, even if they didn’t agree with his ideas.”
It may have been enough to prevent this from happening. It may have been the only thing that could have prevented this, but, in the end, no one will ever know, she said.
Here are some pages from Houser’s diary:
Heather Osbourne and Karley Nugent contributed to this story.