If you want to find out something about the Lafayette, Louisiana, theater tragedy you can get on the google and learn that shooter John Russell Houser was something of a ‘mentally ill drifter’ from Phenix City, Alabama. Then, if it interests you, you can try to learn more about Houser and google him - and that’s when you find out that he was as much a well-to-do conservative firebrand as he was anything else. It may be that Houser’s struggles with mental illness came and went, and that he spent some short time as a ‘drifter’ toward the end, but it was certainly true he’d been a conservative activist all his life.
Houser was born in the mid-1950s to a wealthy conservative family in Phenix City’s neighbor, Columbus, Georgia. His mother and father came from prominent families, and his father won a local seat as tax commissioner. As far back as everyone can remember Houser hated African-Americans and women.
This weekend, friends from Columbus High School remembered him as odd, and said a more mean-spirited mindset seemed to lock in place when desegregation came to the school.
“He was a racist,” said Fife Whiteside, a longtime acquaintance. “He always had this racist rhetoric.”
Race was not Houser’s only interest. Calvin Floyd, a talk radio host who knew him, told the Washington Post he had “an issue with feminine rights” and said: “He was opposed to women having a say in anything.”
Instead of homelessness and drifting, Houser chose college and eventually earned a degree in accounting. He later went to law school and earned a law degree, though he never to took the bar and never practiced law. As an entrepreneur, Houser owned at least two businesses: Rusty’s Buckhead Pub, and the Peachtree Pub. He and his conservative buddies liked to hang around in his bars and talk right-wing politics.
As he grew older, he grew even more conservative. He was virulenty anti-government, anti-tax, and frequented whatever local city council meetings he could find to say so.
Houser indicated that he frequently spoke out about wasteful spending at Columbus City Council and Water Board meetings, and the city’s former mayor said he remembered him.
“He came to many City Council meetings and he was in tune with a lot of issues that were going on in the community,” said Superior Court Judge and former mayor Bobby Peters. “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,” Peters continued. “He came across with a very conservative agenda.”
He even confronted local politicians.
Whiteside won the [school board] position, but later made [tax] decisions that Houser didn’t like. Mild support turned into virulent animosity.
“One night I was at my office,” Whiteside said, “working late. I had the lights on. I thought I heard something outside, so I made my way over to a window and looked out – there was Rusty, spying in my bushes. Looking back at me.”…
Whiteside said Houser unleashed an anti-tax rant that seemed endless. “It took me forever to get him out of my office,” Whiteside said. Houser liked to work out at the local YMCA, and “in a fist fight he would have been a formidable opponent. I was never afraid of him but I guess, looking back now, that was my mistake.”
Like almost all conservatives, he was rabidly homophobic:
But Hostilo noted that Houser wasn’t always mellow. At a public water board meeting about a rate hike, Hostilo recalled his friend “went off on homosexuals controlling the city.”…
Two years ago, the two crossed paths at a barbecue restaurant and Houser sat down at his table. He said Houser immediately started complaining about the Obama administration and decrying the attack on Confederate heritage.
“He said people were out to destroy the Confederacy, that they want to destroy our heritage,” Hostilo recalled. “And I said, ‘Who?’ and he said, ‘the homosexuals.’”
He despised liberals as well.
“The Westboro Baptist Church may be the last real church in America (members not brainwashed),” he wrote June 5, 2013, talking about the church that protests military funerals.
The same day, he tweeted “If you don’t think the internet is censored, try reading a newspaper from a country that hates liberals the way I do.”
At some point he got married and bought a house in Phenix. But it was the end of that marriage that seems to have undone the furious right-winger. In part because of the divorce Houser apparently went bankrupt. He completely trashed the house and then, later, left Phenix City and moved into a Motel 6 in Louisiana. On Thursday he sat for 20 minutes watching Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” in a Lafayette theater before standing up and firing randomly at the audience, injuring nine and killing two. Then he killed himself. Does that make John Russell Houser really crazy? Or does that make him really angry, i.e., a diehard conservative?
One thing none of Houser’s former friends understand is why he was in Louisiana and how he could be described as a “drifter” by law enforcement. Hostilo said he believed Houser had been financially secure.
“I always understood his family was very wealthy and that he was very wealthy,” Hostilo said. “He’s not the kind of person I would have thought would drift away from everyone he knew.”
“If you had told me the other day that five politicians on a city council had been shot, then I would have believed it was Rusty,” Hostilo said. “But when I heard it was innocent people in a movie, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Maybe he was both.