By Andrew J. Yawn
July 25, 2015
Almost 20 hours after John Russell Houser shot and killed three people, including himself, and injured nine others at a Lafayette, La., movie theater, Sharon Fowler drove up to 1101 32nd St. in Phoenix City, Ala., and put a bouquet of flowers in front of Houser's last known residence.
When she put the flowers in front of Houser's old house, it wasn't for the neighbors or the victims. She didn't know them. The flowers, she said, were for "Rusty." At least the one she remembered.
Fowler and Houser went to Columbus High School together and became good friends. Houser graduated in 1973, and Fowler graduated the year after.
"He was a wonderful person," Fowler said. "He was very open-hearted. He would give you the shirt off his back."
The morning after Houser murdered two people, Fowler was shocked when she heard the news from her father. That wasn't the Rusty she knew.
"I just couldn't see anyone I know taking part in that," Fowler said.
Houser grew up in Columbus, Ga., with what Fowler described as an "excellent family," but he sporadically showed signs of erratic behavior.
He was arrested in the late 80s for arson in Columbus, but that case was dismissed. He gained a reputation as a radical advocate of non-taxes and frequently hassled the Columbus City Council and Water Works Board.
In 2005, Houser and his wife, Kim, moved to Phoenix City after he bought the house where Fowler would one day lay flowers. He was reported for domestic violence by his wife, Kim, in October of that year, but charges were never pursued. He applied for a concealed carry permit in 2006, but was denied due to the arson and domestic violence charges.
By this time, however, he was in a house he loved with neighbors who knew nothing about his past.
In a way, all of Houser's 32nd Street neighbors could be somewhat thankful for him. Houser bought his house and its large parcel of land overlooking the river in 2005 and divided the land into five or six lots to be sold.
Neighbor Rick Chancey built his house next door to Houser's in 2007. Ivins James built his directly behind Houser's in 2006. All the houses built since are situated around his with a great view of the river and the valley.
A year after Chancey and his family moved in, Houser's wife removed all guns from the house out of fear for his mental health and Houser reportedly sought help for mental health problems.
Chancey saw none of this. James called him "a little eccentric," but he's a general practice attorney. As he says, he sees somewhat eccentric people every day.
The most eccentric thing Rusty did was ask James about invention ideas, collect iron wrought furniture, and leave neighbors a sticky note about the economy crashing. Sure it was a scrawl of disjointed ramblings, but it was 2008. The economy was crashing.
So was Houser.
The last time Fowler saw Houser was in January 2014 with his 32nd Street home under mortgage foreclosure. She loved the house and visited Houser to discuss buying it. It needed lots of repair, she said, but the price was good. Houser, however, wasn't.
"At first he didn't even recognize me, and I was surprised at that," Fowler said. "He looked at me kind of blank-like."
Fowler had no idea he allegedly underwent mental health treatment a few years earlier. Still, he seemed off to her, and she called him out on it.
"He was different," Fowler said. "More reclusive."
By the third visit, Houser seemed to recognize her more, but Fowler said she didn't buy the house, because it needed so much work. Not to mention the koi pond.
"I almost don't even want to talk about it," Fowler said. "It was the most freakish thing I've ever seen. I wanted to take everybody I knew over to see it."
All of Houser's neighbors knew about what used to be his swimming pool.
It was filled with thick green algae. Chancey said the water was so opaque that you could only see some of the hundreds of koi living in the pond when they came to the surface.
"He said the pool pump didn't work anymore, and he was putting it to good use," Fowler said.
By February, Fowler didn't buy the house, but Dan Ramsel did. Ramsel asked Houser how many days he needed to move out, but Houser became belligerent, according to Ramsel.
Ramsel started eviction paperwork, but after Houser missed the court date, Ramsel went to the house with an officer in March.
What he found was a house destroyed and primed for further destruction.
"He had booby-trapped the house to burn," Ramsel said of Houser. "He put gas cans everywhere, pulled the gas line out of the fireplace."
Chancey came home that night and saw the firetrucks outside Houser's house. He and Houser had always been courteous neighbors, and nothing could have prepared him for this.
Chancey said the stove fan had been rigged to overheat and the gas valves on the fireplace had been left open in the hope that the air would ignite. Every window was duct taped shut to keep the gas-filled air in, but somehow the fire did not ignite.
Houser had disappeared, the catalyst of his identification as a "drifter." Before he left though, he poured concrete down the drains, splattered purple paint across the house and property and threw everything in the house into a maniacal heap just for good measure.
Now a year later, Ramsel is not living at the house. The pool is a cool, clear aquamarine but occasional purple spots dot the driveway and patio, a reminder of Houser's disappearance from the neighborhood.
While admittedly somewhat eccentric, all of his former neighbors said Houser was a normal neighbor. Until he tried to set the house on fire. Until he disappeared. Until Thursday night in Lafayette.
The signs of madness were there all along. And yet, Houser was drifters in that nobody was able to be next to him long enough to put it all together. He was shunned by those who knew his dark side and left alone by those who didn't.
"We all thought he was a normal guy until he tried to burn the house down," James said. "I'm just really surprised about all this. We're all surprised it went to that level of violence."
Fowler had no idea about Houser's past or the desecration Houser wrought on the house he once owned and the house she once wanted.
Hearing it was further proof that Rusty had disappeared long before Houser murdered himself and two others.