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Latest on Louisiana Shootings; Crews Find Capsized Boat Off Florida Coast; Serial Killer Suspect May Have Targeted Sex Workers. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired July 27, 2015 - 16:30   ET




TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The national lead, new circumstances just uncovered help explain to a degree how the killer in last week's Lafayette theater shooting was able to buy a weapon and kill two innocent women. New surveillance video shows the gunman less than an hour before the deadly rampage. In video obtained by CBS News, you can see John Russel Houser's Lincoln Town Car leaving the Motel 6, where he was staying.

That was at 6:41 last Thursday evening. Just 46 minutes later, he stood up in a showing of the movie "Trainwreck 'and started firing upon the crowd.

Today, funerals were held for the two women killed in that attack, 33- year-old Jillian Johnson and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux. Three of the nine people hurt in the shooting are still in the hospital. Police still have that Grand Theater roped off as they comb the crime scene for more evidence.

CNN's Evan Perez joins me now.

And, Evan, the big question here is how this killer who had been just a few years before taken against his will to a mental institution, how was he legally able to go to a pawnshop in Alabama and buy a gun?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right. That's the big question.

Jake, there are three million mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is what the FBI uses to check to see whether or not you are qualified to buy a firearm. The records of John Houser were not among those records.

In 2008, his family filed for what they called, his lawyer called, the lawyer of the family called an involuntary commitment order, seeking to have him basically institutionalized, simply because he had shown up at his daughter's workplace and made some threats about the fact that she was getting married.

The judge ordered for him to be apprehended the same day, to be brought into West Regional Medical Center there in Columbus, Georgia. That's where we don't know what happened. All we know is that within a month, the order, the temporary restraining order was expiring, and it appears that whatever happened at that hospital, it never came back to the judge in Georgia for them to order him committed.


And so that's where this failure apparently exists. We don't know what happened at that hospital. And we don't know why it was never ordered and why it was never entered into the system.

TAPPER: So this local judge ordered that he be apprehended?

PEREZ: Correct.

TAPPER: But ultimately never ordered an official involuntary commitment?

PEREZ: Right. Right.

TAPPER: Even though he was taken against his will to the hospital?

PEREZ: Right. He was there and he was held at the hospital for evaluation. We don't know what these doctors found in that evaluation.

And so we don't know then why he was back out on the streets shortly thereafter. The question, you know, for anybody evaluating this is, you know, if you're not involuntarily committed, you know, the system doesn't require this record to be passed up into the background checks. So the FBI wouldn't know about it.


TAPPER: OK. So the FBI might not know.

Evan, stand by.

We know that the killer bought the handgun used from a pawnshop in Alabama last year. The big question now, as we're discussing, did the system fail, or is there much more to this story?

Let's bring in Matthew Horace now. He's a former ATF executive, a former special agent in charge, and he's now senior vice president of FJC Security Services.

Mr. Horace, thanks so much for joining us.

Help explain this to us. Georgia is where the gunman's ex-wife filed the restraining order against him in 2008. It's also where he was taken to this mental health facilities against him will. In Alabama, that's where he was denied a concealed carry permit because of an arrest record related to a Georgia arson. Still, in Alabama, he was able to buy this gun legally at a pawnshop.

It surprises me that none of these other events prevented him from buying this gun. Is that normal?

MATTHEW HORACE, FORMER ATF AGENT: I don't know how normal it is, but, Jake, there's several areas of reconciliation that have to occur, and that has to be done seamlessly, and it has to be done within the scope of the government and the state, and, as you know, states' rights are very big in this issue.

In this case, it appears as though he was never adjudicated mentally defective, and that would have sent off red flags. But even if that had have happened, the information would have been to be forwarded to NICS, so that the FBI could forward that information back to the FFL.

So, along the way, there are many points of reconciliation where things can go wrong, and now we have seen another case where things actually did go wrong.

TAPPER: Right. We saw in the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting something going wrong, NICS of course standing for National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Evan, you wanted to ask a question.

PEREZ: Well, yes.

Matt, one of the things that was supposed to happen after 2007 and the Virginia Tech massacre was that there was supposed to be an encouragement for the states to more accurately reflect mental health records in the background check system. What exactly has happened since then that allowed this issue to occur yet again?

HORACE: Well, Evan, I can tell you I have worked in probably almost three-quarters of the states in the United States. It's done very differently in every state.

Some states have a tremendous amount of resources they place into this issue and other issues, states like New Jersey and California, which have longer waiting periods, specifically to California five to seven days. There's a longer period to go back and check re-check to try to ensure that this doesn't happen.

TAPPER: Matt, explain to us. Alabama denied the killer a permit to carry to concealed weapon, but they did not deny the ability to buy a gun. I'm assuming these are different standards?

HORACE: Well, like we discussed earlier, states' rights comes into play when we're talking about the whole gun control and gun rights issue.

In both cases, in both cases, that is absolutely possible and probable.

TAPPER: There's a form that potential gun buyers have to complete before they actually buy the weapon.

It specifically asks if the buyer has ever before been found mentally defective, if he or she has been committed to a mental institution. Houser bought his gun in 2014, about six years after his was treated for mental health. How could this not be flagged in a background check? Did it just not rise to the level where he had to admit it and acknowledge what had happened to him?

HORACE: Well, again, if you look at the language on the ATF form 4473, it's very clear you had to be adjudicated by a judge, a court, a panel.

And that's very different than saying that someone voluntarily committed themselves to a mental institution. Where is the record of the adjudication. Does the state know there's a record? Did a judge adjudicate a person? And when that happened, was that information forwarded to NICS to make sure that the FBI system picks it up?

TAPPER: All right, Matthew Horace and Evan Perez, thank you both. Really interesting and complicated.

Coming up, the Navy now joining the search for two missing young teenagers off the coast of Florida not seen since Friday night.


Now, after a big break in the search, are rescuers any closer to finding these poor boys?

Plus a mother's quick thinking saves her son, as the floor below them collapses, an unbelievable moment captured on video -- that story next.


TAPPER: The national lead now.

Right now, storms complicating the search for two 14-year-old boys after their boat apparently capsized off the coast of Florida. Coast Guard video shows their boat floating in the Atlantic Ocean with no signs of the boys. They were last seen in Jupiter, Florida, not far from West Palm,

[16:45:01] That's where they gassed up their boat, and the hopes we're told of possibly heading to the Bahamas. And then on Sunday their boat was found about three hours north near Ponce de Leon Inlet.

To give you an idea of the fast moving current, the search scene is focused near Jacksonville. That's almost 175 miles north of where the boat was found.

Alina Machado is in Jupiter, Florida.

Alina, there's bad weather we're told coming in. Is that going to affect the search?

ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake. Bad weather could definitely complicate the search efforts in this situation. We know that the coast guard has moved the search north from where we are. They're focusing in an area that's about 60 miles offshore near Jacksonville.

The Coast Guard is searching by air. They're search in the water, and they're also being joined by the Navy. They have always been working nonstop since these kids were reported missing.

The teens, Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, were on a 19-foot boat. They were last seen down the road from where we are here in Jupiter, Florida, on Friday, while they were gassing up the boat ahead of a fishing trip they had planned. The boat was found capsized yesterday north of here, and inside rescuers did find a life vest, but no sign of these two missing teens.

Several family members, the families of these missing teens are encouraging people to get out and walk the Florida beaches, to walk the coastline like here, just to see if they find any sign, any sort of debris that could be connected to these missing teens, debris that could point rescuers to the teens.

TAPPER: Alina, it might be common in parts of this country, including Florida, for teens to take out boats. It's obviously not that way in much of the country.

What do we know about these two 14-year-old boys and their experience when it came to the water?

MACHADO: Well, their families tell us they are highly experienced. They've been basically boating and out in the water with their families for years. This is something that they have done for a very long time. They're familiar with the boating experience.

So, you know, they talk about survival and being savvy out there. If there's ever some kids who would be just like that, their families say these would be it.

TAPPER: The families are offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the rescue of these boys, also getting support we're told from NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath. What exactly is Joe Namath's role in this?

MACHADO: Well, he's known these kids for a very long time. He's neighbors. And he just wants to raise awareness. He wanted people to realize this is going on.

So, he's been out there with the family walking the beaches when they have made press conferences, when they've been in front of the cameras, he's been there by their side, supporting them and helping raise awareness about the situation here.

TAPPER: All right. Alina Machado in Jupiter, Florida, thank you so much.

Joining me now, Coast Guard Petty Officer Third Class Derrian Duryea. He's a rescue swimmer. And he helped find the boat that belonged to those two Florida teens.

Derrian, thanks so much for joining us. The waters their off Florida, we're told, are fairly warm, but there have been storms every day since Friday.

What was the water like yesterday when you found the boat?


The water was (INAUDIBLE) it was fairly warm, around 80 to 85 degrees. The C-130 found the boat Sunday morning. And we launched on it. Upon getting on the scene, I did a harness deployment for the water and started swimming towards the capsized vessel. I did a quick look inside. I noticed that there was a taut anchor dangling about 50 to 60 feet below the capsized vessel and also, another line that was drifting behind the boat that is 120 to 30 feet out here.

I went in to check for any signs of life. And the only thing I could find is there was a red life jacket. We also looked at the engine, the engine cover was missing. And we also confirmed the Florida registration tags on the side of the boat.

TAPPER: We're looking at video, right now, which I believe is video of you at the boat. Obviously, the boat was overturned, when you and your crew found it. There was the life jackets inside, as you say. Anything else associated with the boat? Anything else that you found or anything in terms of the condition of the boat?

DURYEA: No, sir. The boat looked to be in very good condition. There were no often signs of damage other than the engine cover missing. Everything looked to be intact.

TAPPER: Was the weather in the area since the boys left on Thursday, the kind of weather that could capsize a boat?

DURYEA: I'm not sure. I don't want to speculate to that, but this is simply disheartening, not being able to find the boys yet, but we are doing everything we did.

TAPPER: It is heartbreaking. Petty Officer Duryea, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

On the other side of the country, firefighters in California are continuing to fight nearly a dozen active wildfires in the state.

[16:50:4] Residents have been forced to evacuate their homes and camp grounds. And officials say one of the fires in Madera County is threatening more than 400 homes. That was just 5 percent contained as of late last night.

Meantime, north of Sacramento, California, four firefighters were being treated for burns, and a fire engine was damage as crews battled another fire, that one north of Sacramento. More than 1,000 firefighters are trying to put an end to this inferno. But temperatures are expected towards the triple digits which of course could only spell more troubled.

Our world lead today, it's a scene hard for anyone to watch. A 30- year-old mother saving her son, only for the child to witness his own mother's death. A security camera caught in on tape. The mom and her child riding up the escalator in a Chinese shopping mall, as it almost reaches the top, she lifts her son up to get off, but not before the metal panel suddenly collapses beneath her.

The boy miraculously pushed to safety by his mother who makes that a priority, of course. But it ends up being too late for her. She's pulled under. She was declared dead after a four-hour rescue. Chinese state media quoted sources who said that workers forgot to screw down the panel after performing maintenance on the escalator.

Coming up: have police found a serial killer? What chilling items police found in this man's trunk, which would connect him to several murders.


[16:55:35] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. A remarkable story now in our national lead.

She may have saved more lives than just her own. Police now saying that a woman, who shot and killed a man inside her own home in self defense, may have stopped a serial killer who has been preying on sex workers for years. The man showed up at her home after answering an escort ad she posted on Only police say he did not have any money on him, just a car, packed with a machete and a shovel and bleach and trash bags and more.

CNN's Boris Sanchez is following this horrifying story for us.

Boris, what happened next?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it is an unsettling case. Investigators looking at any potential links between what was discovered in that car and cases in several other states.

Meantime, the woman who survived the attack, shaken but thankful to be alive.


HEATHER, KILLED NEAL FALLS: I knew he was there to kill me. I could tell he had already done something. He said that he was going to prison for a long time.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): After meeting a stranger that answered her escort ad on, a West Virginia woman, known only as Heather says the man became aggressive, wrapping his hands after her throat.

HEATHER: He was saying, you're going to be quiet. I'm going to call the orders.

SANCHEZ: Moments later, she was running from the home, pleading for help, chasing down a neighborhood.

CALLER: There's a lady in an alley here, and she's saying that some guy tried to rape her, and she had to defend herself. She's got cuts and stuff all over her.

HEATHER: When he strangled me, he wouldn't let me get any air, so I grabbed my rake. When he laid the gun down to get the rake out of my hands, I shot him. I grabbed the gun and shot behind me.

SANCHEZ: Heather shot and killed Neal Falls, the 40-year-old now under the microscope. As a kill kit in his Subaru, has led investigators in West Virginia to believe Falls may be a serial killer. Items inside included a machete, axes, knives, a shovel, a large container of bleach, and trash bags.

LT. STEVE COOPER, CHARLESTON POLICE DEPARTMENT: We also found four sets of handcuffs in Mr. Falls' pockets. And the brutality of the attack that took place in the house where the victim was able to defend herself and survive, all those things together lead us to believe that Mr. Falls has been involved in similar crimes.

SANCHEZ: Authorities tell CNN an item found in his car is believed to be linked to evidence on several dismembered bodies in Las Vegas back in 2005, where falls lived at the time. Remains found in trash bags, all of them escorts.

One of the cases under scrutiny, Lindsey Marie Harris, whose dismembered legs were recovered in Illinois three weeks after she went missing. Investigators are also studying potential cases in Eugene, Oregon, where Falls lived in 2010. While sources tell CNN that no evidence has yet pointed to a direct link, Heather believes she stopped Falls from hurting others.

REPORTER: Do you feel like you possibly saved other women's lives?

HEATHER: I know I did.


SANCHEZ: CNN also contacting someone who claimed to be the sister of Neal Falls. She told us, quote, "she wants nothing to do with her brother and that the family would not release any further statement" -- Jake.

TAPPER: Boris, obviously, prostitutes as we all know and sex workers are quite often the ones killed by serial killers. We understand this man had some sort of a list on him. What is that about?

SANCHEZ: That is correct. Aside from those handcuff that he was discovered with, investigators also found he had a list of ten women, all of then escorts, nine of them based in West Virginia. Apparently, he had their names, ages and contact information for them lined up.

However, investigators reached out to the women. All of them are fine. None of them say they had any contact with Neal Falls.

TAPPER: It's such a terrifying story. We're so glad the woman had the presence of mind and the courage to wrestle the gun away and do this.

Boris Sanchez, thank you so much. Much appreciated.

Remember you can watch THE LEAD anytime live or on demand on your desktop, on your cell phone, on your tablet. Just go check out And while you're at it, be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JakeTapper. Tweet the show @TheLeadCNN.

That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jake Tapper.

I'm now turning you over officially in seven seconds to Mr. Wolf Blitzer who's in the next door little alcove called THE SITUATION ROOM.

Wolf, take it away.