What Made Him Do It?
Weeks-long bomb scare ends Wednesday with few answers
Two hours before daybreak on Wednesday morning, as he was readying himself for yet another press briefing with his assistant chiefs, City Manager Spencer Cronk, and members of the Texas Rangers, FBI, and Bureau of ATF, a KXAN reporter asked interim Police Chief Brian Manley how he was feeling at that moment.
"It's been a long couple of weeks," he said.
Manley was walking to what seemed like his 300th press conference of the past 19 days. But this time he had good news: Earlier that morning, members of the Austin Police Department's SWAT team confirmed the death of the 24-year-old Pflugerville resident Mark Anthony Conditt, believed to have been responsible for the multiple bombs that have terrorized much of Central Texas.
Authorities had Conditt in their sights for a while, but became "very interested in him over the past couple of days," Manley said. Through a series of tips and surveillance videos, they knew Conditt's car, and yesterday tracked the red sport utility vehicle to a hotel up in Round Rock. Manley said "multiple officers" took up positions around the hotel, but while waiting for the arrival of tactical teams saw him drive off. A pursuit began, but eventually Conditt pulled over on the I-35 frontage road and SWAT team members closed in on him. A bomb he had in his vehicle detonated, killing him.
Manley said authorities believe Conditt to be responsible for each of the bombing incidents. "There were several leads that led us to this person. We have a lot of evidence that came to us via video sources as well as witnesses." He said he didn't know if Conditt was trying to go out and deliver another bomb, or if he brought it with him to specifically detonate inside the vehicle. The investigation will continue; Manley could not say whether Conditt was acting alone. He took a moment to remind those listening of the context of the case.
"I want the community to remain vigilant, but I also want to look at where we are now, in Round Rock, and remind our neighboring communities and Round Rock and Cedar Park and other cities: We don't know where he has been in the past 24 hours."
Manley continued: "If you see something that looks suspicious, if you see something that's out of place, if you see something that gives you concern, call 911 and let us know, so that we don't experience any more tragedies in our communities. We've had far too many over the past three weeks."
Conditt's fatal detonation marked the sixth confirmed bombing in the greater Austin area since March 2, but with all that has gone on – particularly in the past week – it's easy to forget that just last Monday the prevailing narrative for the attacks was that an inexperienced bomber with a vendetta was targeting specific African-American families. Anthony Stephan House was killed by the first bomb, at his Harris Ridge home on March 2; 17-year-old Draylen Mason became the next victim on March 12. The two knew each other through Wesley United Methodist Church, and rumors swirled around Harris Ridge and Mason's Tannehill neighborhood that they'd been specifically targeted – a theory that dissolved later that day when 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera suffered grievous injuries from a package found at her home in Montopolis.
Terrified yet united in the face of what was increasingly looking to be the profile of a serial bomber, Austinites soldiered on, and more than 500 federal agents came into town to assist APD in its investigation. On Sunday, after a brief scare from a false bomb threat (made to Live Nation by an unrelated individual) canceled the Roots' South by Southwest show at Fair Market the night before, Manley gathered reporters for another press briefing, this time to announce an increased reward for information that could lead to the bomber's arrest.
"We want to understand what brought you to this point," Manley pleaded into TV cameras. "And we want to listen to you," Hours later, a tripwire set off another bomb, this time in Southwest Austin, in the predominantly white neighborhood of Travis Country. Austin-Travis County EMS transported two men in their 20s to the hospital with non-life-threatening wounds.
Manley faced news cameras again that evening, saying that he could not disclose whether there was anything that would specifically indicate the bomber had any message – but that those who fit the profile of this type of perpetrator generally did have something they wanted to get across to authorities and the general public.
"It's been our experience over the years that these individuals are doing this for a reason, and they want to get that reason out there," added Fred Milanowski, the special agent in charge of the ATF's Houston Field Division, who worked hand-in-hand with Manley and APD throughout the course of the lengthy pursuit. "It may come to law enforcement, it may come to the media, but they want to get their message out in the public."
A Level of Sophistication
But just who were investigators searching for? Last Thursday, I caught up with Enzo Yaksic, co-founder of the Atypical Homicide Research Group at Northeastern University. The 150-member criminal justice network maintains a database with the profiles of 11,000 serial murder cases. Yaksic's initial read on a possible suspect proved just how difficult it can be to make out one of these subjects and their motives until they trip up or establish their intended purpose.
Yaksic conceptualized an older offender, perhaps in his 40s, and suggested the bomber could be driven by a political issue like the city's gentrification crisis, and that he sought to disrupt House and Mason's church where House's stepfather was once a preacher. But the tidy narrative changed quickly with the tripwire, which detonated on a neighborhood's sidewalk and could have harmed anyone, authorities noted.
Milanowski told reporters during the early stages of the investigation that bomb makers generally find a model that works and stick with it through their terror – another reason why the tripwire alarmed authorities. Because of its placement, Milanowski noted that they could not know when the bomb was set – it could have been days before its detonation. And the location and style of explosive were telling as well; perhaps a way to express to investigators and the city in general that whoever was behind the bombs was more skilled than previously thought.
Conditt may have been skilled, but by Sunday night investigators were on to him. A seemingly prominent clue concerning his activity emerged on Tuesday morning just after midnight when a package at FedEx's Schertz facility just north of San Antonio exploded, injuring the eardrums of one employee. Later that morning, FedEx employees located another bomb at the company's location off McKinney Falls, but were able to alert authorities, who "disrupted" the package before it went off. Community members seized on the aborted bomb, hoping a mistake had finally been made that could deliver the bomber to police, who were by then further along than anyone in the public could have known.
An Open Nerve
Despite any optimism gleaned from the disrupted bombing at McKinney Falls, a sense of worry and unrest fell over Austin on Tuesday, culminating just after 7pm with a hotshot call to a Goodwill store on Brodie Lane after reports of an explosion in a donation bin that a staffer had been assessing. Police buzzed through South Austin, and blocked off much of the neighborhood to canvass the area. The item turned out to be an artillery simulator, which the military uses in training exercises to mimic blasts; it went off in the employee's hand. He spent some time at St. David's Hospital, but was released on Tuesday night.
Though the event is not believed to be connected to any of Conditt's bombings, the swift reaction by authorities, the now overwhelming media, and the general public demonstrated the growing concern. NextDoor apps pinged with nervous neighbors, and pleas for unity filled social media for several days. Between March 12 and March 19, APD cleared more than 1,200 packages residents found at their homes and called in as potentially dangerous. And as the city fell into an uneasy sleep on Tuesday night, law enforcement found Conditt at a hotel in Round Rock.
"We wanted this to come to a peaceful resolution tonight, but we knew how dangerous this situation was, given what he had done in our community leading up to tonight," Manley told reporters at his press conference confirming the final bombing. "So we were waiting to get the best assets in place with our tactical teams and our ballistic vehicles so that we had the best chance possible to take him into custody. However, we were not afforded that opportunity when he started driving away and we could not let him get anywhere into the community."
Manley said one SWAT team member sustained minor injuries in the blast, and another fired a gunshot toward the car. The Office of the Police Monitor will investigate the situation as it would any other officer-involved shooting, and the Texas Rangers are conducting a criminal investigation into the night's events. APD, the FBI, and ATF will continue their own investigations, as well. They ran another clearance on the McKinney Falls FedEx facility on Wednesday morning, and were at Conditt's Pflugerville home throughout the day – and took his two roommates in for questioning, though neither of them were under arrest when we went to press on Wednesday. The FBI said Wednesday afternoon that investigators were busy removing homemade explosives from Conditt's home.
Manley told reporters that investigators still don't know Conditt's motivation. And though he never identified Conditt by name, he expressed confidence they had stopped the bomber. "We do believe that all of these are related, and that he is responsible for these, based on the similarities we've seen."