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Authorities Search For Motive In Lafayette, La., Movie Theater Shootings

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Details are starting to emerge today about the man who opened fire inside a movie theater last night in Lafayette, La. Police say John Russell Houser killed two people and wounded nine others before killing himself as police closed in. Authorities say they still haven't identified a motive. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, court records and Houser's online postings show he had a history of mental health issues and an interest in extremist right-wing ideology.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was about 20 minutes into the showing of the comedy film "Trainwreck" when John Russell Houser stood up and began shooting. He fired a handgun at least 13 times, killing 33-year-old Jillian Johnson and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux. He shot nine others in the theater. Lafayette police Chief Jim Craft says Houser had switched the license plate on his car and left it parked near the theater exit.

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CHIEF JIM CRAFT: It is apparent to that he was intent on shooting and then escaping.

ALLEN: Houser dropped one magazine before attempting to leave the theater. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says it was the quick response by law enforcement that prevented Houser's escape.

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BOBBY JINDAL: As he was leaving in the crowd, trying to mingle in the crowd, he saw the law enforcement local police officers, went back inside. That's when he shot and killed himself.

ALLEN: Police say Houser had a second magazine for his handgun that he used to kill himself. There's no indication he was working with anyone or had an accomplice. In his motel room in Lafayette, police say they found wigs and glasses, evidence, they said, Houser may have planned on disguising himself. Mike Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police said authorities are still searching for a motive.

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MIKE EDMONSON: Here we are in Lafayette, La., in the middle of a neighborhood of a movie theater. Why did he come here? Why did he do that? We don't know that.

ALLEN: Houser wasn't from Lafayette. He's from Alabama. He earned a law degree from Faulkner University, a small Christian school there. But there's no evidence he ever passed the bar. The Associated Press reports that in 2008, Houser's family had him involuntarily committed him to a hospital because of mental health issues, specifically bipolar disorder. After he was released several month later, Houser's wife, daughter and other relatives, said he threatened violence, and they secured protective orders against him. Lafayette police Chief Jim Craft.

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CRAFT: We talked to some of the family members last night who haven't seen him or don't have very much contact with him, and so he just seemed like he was kind of drifting along.

ALLEN: In the hours since the shooting, another picture has emerged of Houser - that of what may be an angry man with radical right-wing views who sometimes espouses violence against those he disagreed with. And that's a big group.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Well, what's interesting about Houser is he basically exhibits every extremist belief that we track.

ALLEN: Heidi Beirich tracks hate groups with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She's found comments that appear to have been posted by Houser on numerous extremist forums and websites, like Twitter.

BEIRICH: He supports the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. He praises Hitler. He discusses looking online for white power groups. He hates the government vehemently. He criticized the United States. So it's everything from antigovernment to white supremacists to anti-Semitic beliefs.

ALLEN: Police in Lafayette today said Houser bought the gun he used in the shooting legally last year at a pawn shop in Alabama. In 2006, because of a past arson conviction, he was denied a concealed carry permit in Alabama. Two years later, Houser's wife had all guns removed from the house because, as she told the court, she was worried about her husband's, quote, "volatile mental state." Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.