A man who lost his family, home and businesses as he spent years angrily espousing right-wing extremism on television and the Internet did not say a word as he opened fire on strangers in a darkened cinema.
John Russell Houser, 59, stood up about 20 minutes into Thursday night’s showing of Trainwreck and fired on the audience, killing two people and wounding nine with a semi-automatic handgun.
The gunman then tried to escape by blending into the fleeing crowd after one of his victims set off a fire alarm and hundreds poured out of the cinema complex in Lafayette, Louisiana.
But he turned back as police officers approached, reloading and firing into the crowd before killing himself with a single shot inside the cinema, police said.
“That was a horrific scene in there,” state police Col. Michael Edmonson said after senior officials got an inside look at the cinema.
“He took his time, methodically choosing his victims,” Governor Bobby Jindal said. “One of the surviving wounded victims actually played dead to stay alive.”
“This is such a senseless, tragic action,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said. “Why would you come here and do something like this?”
Investigators recovered Houser's journals, and were studying his online postings and trying to reconstruct his movements to identify a motive and provide what Col. Edmonson called ``some closure'' for the victims' families.
Mr Craft said Houser bought the weapon legally at a pawnshop in Phenix City, Alabama, last year, and that he had visited the cinema more than once, perhaps to decide “whether there was anything that could be a soft target for him”.
He had only been in Louisiana since early July, staying in a Motel 6 room littered with wigs and disguises. His only known connection to the Lafayette was an uncle who died there three decades ago.
Details quickly emerged about Houser’s mental problems, prompting authorities in Louisiana and Alabama to bemoan the underfunding of mental health services in America.
Court records describe erratic behaviour and threats of violence that led to a brief involuntary hospitalisation in 2008 and a restraining order preventing Houser from approaching family members.
Houser “has a history of mental health issues, ie, manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder,” his estranged wife told the judge.
He was evicted from his home in Phenix City last year, then returned to throw paint, pour concrete down the plumbing and tamper with a gas line.
Houser’s wife filed for divorce in March, saying their differences were irreconcilable and his whereabouts were unknown.
He was educated in accounting and law, and owned bars in Georgia – including one where he flew a Nazi banner out front as an anti-government statement.
He tried real estate in Phenix City, but his own resume, posted online, says what he really loved to do was make provocative statements at local board meetings and in the media.
On an NBC television affiliate’s call-in show in the 1990s, Houser encouraged violent responses to abortion and condemned working women, host Calvin Floyd recalled.
In recent years, he turned to right-wing extremist Internet message boards, where he praised Adolf Hitler, and advised people not to underestimate “the power of the lone wolf,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
But what prompted Houser to kill people remains unknown.
He seemed like just another patron as he entered Lafayette’s Grand 16 cinema, one of 25 people who bought tickets to the romantic comedy.
Police believe he hoped to escape his deadly ambush before police closed in. Inside his motel room they found wigs, glasses and other disguises. Houser also swapped the licence plates on his 1995 Lincoln Continental before parking it by the cinema’s exit door.
Once inside, he sat by himself and gave others no reason for concern before he began shooting, firing first at two women who were sitting in front of him, then wounding nine other people.
“He wasn’t saying anything,” Katie Domingue told The Advertiser. “I didn’t hear anybody screaming either.”
The two women killed were 21-year-old Mayci Breaux and 33-year-old Jillian Johnson.
Ms Breaux’s body was brought to the same hospital where she was preparing to become a radiology technician. Ms Johnson ran clothing and art boutiques, played in a rock band and planted fruit trees for neighbours and the homeless.
The wounded ranged in age from teenagers to their late 60s. Five were treated at Lafayette General Health Centre, where one remained in intensive care. Two others were released Thursday night.