Investigations by law enforcement of John Russell Houser’s online activities reveal the picture of an alienated outsider whose hatred for people of color, Jews, liberals, gays and others was fueled over a period of decades. He was what a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center and other sources describe as a “lone wolf”- a killer operating on his own, not affiliated with any group.

What motivated Houser’s hatred, driving him to open fire in a crowded movie theater? Posts and comments left on various Internet websites provide clues. They indicate that Houser was not only a virulent racist, but suffered from paranoia as well. Many of these statements were about government conspiracies as well as a coming collapse of the financial system and of society itself. He apparently considered society to be something like “The Matrix”: “You have been in a maze created by the media/black block vote/business political alliance created for your long term dismay and discomfort.”

How did Houser – by all accounts, an educated and reasonably intelligent man from a stable and prominent family – come to such twisted conclusions?

In 2013, Houser registered with Tea Party Nation, creating a web page at the organization’s site. Although there is virtually nothing posted on that page other than his name, Houser’s views on government and economics are similar to those of the Tea Party Movement. Houser was also a regular visitor to the website “Golden Dawn,” an extreme right-wing, Greek neo-Nazi party with a chapter in the U.S.  Elsewhere online, he posted comments in which he rants about “sexual deviants” and “declining morals,” expressing his admiration for the infamously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church.  According to a report at TalkingPointsMemo.com, Houser was also familiar with The Bell Curve, a controversial 1994 book by libertarian Charles Murray and Richard Hermstein. The book sparked heated debate over its suggestion that intelligence is linked to race.  According to a blog post at HateWatch.org, Houser was registered at the 2005 American-European Unity and Rights Organization Conference in New Orleans, sponsored by KKK and neo-Nazi leader David Duke.

Houser’s history indicates that he was a fan of Hitler’s political and racial philosophies. A photo appearing in New York Daily News and elsewhere depicts Houser in 2001, standing in front of a Georgia beer tavern he once owned and operated. Hanging from the roof is a swastika, with the words, “Welcome to La Grange.” According to the local newspaper at the time, it was Houser’s way of protesting the city council’s decision to shut his business down after he served alcohol to minors.  He told reporters that “people who used swastikas – the Nazis – did what they damn well pleased.” Houser also published comments online, praising Adolf Hitler for “the results of his pragmatism.”

One thing is certain: whatever literature, media or historical accounts influenced Houser, he had a documented history of mental instability and growing psychotic tendencies.  In 1989, Houser was arrested on suspicion of hiring an arsonist to burn down the office of attorney John Swearingen, whose clients included owners of “adult” movie houses. The judge in that case ordered Houser to undergo psychiatric evaluation. A few years later, Houser called in to a local television show in Columbus, Georgia, advocating violence against abortion clinics. According to Calvin Floyd, host of the Rise and Shine program, Houser was a misogynistic, puritanical, right-wing “gadfly.” Floyd says he frequently took Houser’s calls because of their entertainment value, acknowledging that he seemed mentally disturbed.  “It would generate calls…you could talk with him a few minutes, and you would know he had a high IQ, but there was a lot missing with him,” Floyd recalled.

That’s putting it mildly. In 2008, Houser’s mental condition started to deteriorate. According to a restraining order filed by his family that year, Houser was not only abusive, but also a manic-depressive suffering from bipolar disorder. He was on medication for the condition, but did not always remember to take it. Ultimately, he was committed to a mental institution.

For the past several years, Houser lived as a “drifter.” It is not completely clear how he supported himself, but from what law enforcement discovered in his motel room, the murders had been carefully planned ahead of time.

Houser’s motives may never be clear, but two things are tragically apparent. First, based on his criminal record and documented history of violence and mental illness, Houser should never have been able to purchase a gun. Secondly, he should have been institutionalized. One law enforcement officer blames budget cuts to mental health programs. Sheriff Heath Taylor of Russell County, Alabama, told the Los Angeles Times that such cuts are “allowing a lot of these people who should not be walking around to be out in the community…that’s a scary scenario we’re dealing with every day.”

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.