The innocence of the “happiest town in the country” shattered by senseless violence
Like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, the town of Lafayette, La., has undergone a transformation.
Last year it was voted happiest town in the country. The region, known as Acadiana, has a strong Catholic history and culture and “has always been a loving joyful place,” said one resident. “But the love and prayers are flowing from broken hearts today.”
Thursday evening, 59-year-old John Russell Houser, of Phenix City, Alabama, walked into the Lafayette multiplex’s 7:10 showing of “Trainwreck,” a comedy about a sexually adventurous young woman. Shortly before 7:30, he began shooting, firing at least 15 rounds. Witnesses said he stood at the back of the auditorium and fired down at others.
In the end, there were nine wounded and three dead, including the gunman, who shot himself.
Killed in the rampage were Jillian Johnson, 33, who ran local clothing and art boutiques, played in a band and planted fruit trees for neighbors and the homeless, and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux, who was scheduled to begin radiology school at Lafayette General hospital in a few days.
According to Heavy.com, Breaux was active in her high school’s Christian Ministry and was a pro-life activist. She “marched on Washington, D.C., as part of rally in March 2011,” the report said, though it’s not clear what rally that was.
In December 2012, on her Twitter page, Breaux retweeted a message that read, “During pregnancy if a mother suffers organ damage, the baby in the womb sends stem cells to repair the damaged organ.”
Ironically, according to numerous reports, the man who killed her was rabidly anti-abortion. Calvin Floyd, who hosted a morning phone-in on WLTZ-TV in Georgia, told Alabama.com that Houser was a regular caller and would advocate for violence against abortion doctors and pro-choice activists.
Breaux was the niece of “a very close friend that our kids call Uncle Billy,” said Mary-Rose L. Verret, director with her husband, Ryan, ofWitness to Love: Marriage Prep Renewal Ministry, in an interview. “He called my husband yesterday and talked for an hour just trying to make sense of it. He is one of 10 kids and that is a great family. As horrific as all of this has been it is beautiful to see tears and forgiveness and not hate.”
Houser’s motive is unclear, said Colonel Michael D. Edmonson of the State Police. “To put a motive to it is just something that we simply can’t do right now,” he said. But it’s clear the man had a troubled background. In 1989, for example, he was accused of trying to hire a man to start a fire at a law firm that represented pornographic theaters, according to the New York Times. A grand jury declined to indict him, but not before a Superior Court judge in Muscogee County ordered Houser to undergo a psychiatric examination because his competency had “been called into question.”
He later opened a pub in LaGrange, Ga., where the local authorities accused him of selling alcohol to minors. After his company’s liquor license was revoked, in 2001, he placed a banner with a swastika outside the pub, The LaGrange Daily News reported at the time. He explained that “the people who used it — the Nazis — they did what they damn well pleased.”
The Times discovered that Houser believed women should not work outside the home and “had a lot of hostility toward abortion clinics,” according to an acquaintance. He was the sort of person who believed “that all the trouble started when they took Bibles out of school and stopped prayer.”
In April 2008, Mr. Houser’s family members obtained a protective order against him from a court in Carroll County, Ga., and his wife grew fearful enough that she removed weapons from their home, court records show. The family asked that the court involuntarily commit him to a hospital for psychiatric care; he was subsequently admitted to a hospital in Columbus.
In court papers, family members said he had “perpetrated various acts of family violence,” and cited “a substantial likelihood of future family violence.” They described him as having bipolar disorder, for which he had been prescribed medication, which he sometimes failed to take.//
The town has mourned in a peaceful manner.
“I couldn’t help but notice, while tuning into the news on Thursday night, how there was no hysteria or victimization, but very grounded and competent public officials, from our governor to our local elected officials, asking the community for prayer,” said Robin Hebert, marriage ministry coordinator at Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Student Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It dawned on me that this sentiment is so deeply entrenched in our beautiful culture here—which embodies a deep love of family and faith. Prayer vigils and prayer services have been amply available and people have flocked to Mass. The local newspaper quoted four different priests from various parishes as they offered their spiritual counsel to the people of our Diocese and our community. I have felt a palpable sense of the faith and hope of the Acadian people and the Catholicity here. I am not surprised that this tragedy has brought out the best in us—a profoundly charitable spirit.”
“There is so much love and solidarity here, it is beautiful,” said Verret. “It is a small town and area, so everyone here knew someone in that theater.”
“I’ve sat in those seats many times,” said Verret, who has small children. “Going to the movies is a special treat and a chance to step out of the mundane and the rush of life. It will be very hard to go back to see a show there or at any theater.”