The brick home on 32nd Street in Phenix City, Alabama is empty. Its suburban white trimmings and sprawling backyard pool are littered with weeds, while purple paint splatters stain the mahogany wood patio.
When John Russell “Rusty” Houser was evicted from this quiet corner house in March 2014, sheriffs said, he trashed the place, dousing it in paint and gasoline and stuffing concrete down its pipes.
When the new home-owners decided to renovate, they had to call the fire department twice in one day after booby-trapped doors burst into flames.
“There was some tampering with the gas line that ran into the fireplaces,” said Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor. Tracie Chancey, who has lived on 32nd Street with her husband and children since 2007, feared that the arson could have been much worse. “It shook us up when we found out what he did to that home.”
Houser is now dead after shooting eleven people, killing two young women and eventually himself in a Lafayette, La. movie theater on Thursday. But his path of self-destruction was visible inside and outside his former 32nd Street house in Phenix City.
His yard was unkempt and littered with vehicle parts and the automobiles he tinkered with, cursing up a storm that led to his elderly next-door neighbors building a single-story brick fence between them. He offered to fix his neighbor’s cars from time to time, or invited them to use his pool, but otherwise kept to himself.
“He was eccentric,” Chancey said. “Just kind of different.”
He appeared to live alone in the house after his wife, Kellie Maddox Houser, requested a protective order against him in 2008.
The tiny Alabama town that Houser left behind in a manic huff now wonders aloud at what could have been a tragedy in their own backyard.
“I like it here because it’s so quiet. It’s really mind-boggling that something like that would happen so close,” said Russ Lenig, who lived two doors down from Houser. “It could have happened here.”
Houser grew up and lived most of his life in Columbus, Ga., a mile across the state border from Phenix City. He had lived in the 32nd Street home, though he still owned property in Columbus, in 2005—the same year his wife accused him of domestic violence. (No official charges were filed.)
The next year, Houser applied for a concealed carry permit but was denied based on a previous arson charge and his wife’s allegations. He was then committed to a mental hospital in Columbus in 2008.
“Alabama’s dealing with a mental illness issue around the state. We’ve had, I believe, two or three mental hospitals close in the last several years,” Taylor said. “Obviously, that might not be the first place we need to cut funding.”
The sheriff said it’s now tougher to deny gun permits than in 2006, when authorities were able to keep Houser from legally carrying a concealed weapon.
“Today, it would be extremely difficult to potentially deny that very case,” Taylor said. “This could have went a lot worse than it did.”