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A city in fear: How police, federal agents took down the Austin bomber

A city in fear: How police, federal agents took down the Austin bomber
For 19 days, a bomber held Austin, Texas, hostage – residents of the city paralyzed by the worry of unpredictable strikes.

By the time authorities caught up with the suspect, six bombs had detonated, two individuals have been lifeless and 5 have been injured.

A yr has handed, however for the first time, ABC Information’ “Nightline” takes you inside the investigation that brought down considered one of the most prolific bombers in American historical past, by means of the eyes of regulation enforcement on the floor – the Austin police, the bomb squads, FBI and ATF agents – and by revealing never-before-seen particulars on how they found him.

“In the history of this country, we haven’t had a serial bomber that planted this many devices in a 19-day period,” stated Fred Milanowski, the ATF special agent in charge of the Austin probe.

Austin, residence to the South by Southwest pageant and the University of Texas, is a colourful capital city recognized for its stay music and barbecue.

But the morning of March 2, 2018, modified all that.

That morning, 39-year-old Anthony Stephan Home opened a package deal left outdoors of his door and unknowingly detonated a bomb.

“My neighbor – something exploded. There’s blood everywhere…it sounded like an explosion,” certainly one of House’s neighbors advised 911 throughout a call obtained by ABC News.

Police rushed to the scene. It was the first time the city’s bomb squad had handled a stay bomb.

“After we were there a few minutes, we realized…the type of injuries…that the victim had-sustained,” stated Austin PD bomb technician Caine Johnson. “I think at that point, I think we realized we had some sort of bombing.”

House died from his accidents at an area hospital.

It was an uncommon technique for murder, one that brought in teams from the FBI and ATF to research the scene. However at the time, all agents on the Home case appeared to agree that it was doubtless a one-off fatal bombing.

“There is no information to believe that this is anything other than an isolated incident,” Austin Police Chief Brian Manley stated at the time. “[We] came up with a theory on the scene.”

“The Austin police department’s Organized Crime Division had conducted a raid in the weeks leading up to this bombing on a house on that very same street,” he continued. “The vehicles were very similar in appearance. So we did have a very early [theory that] this was an intentional act, but they got the wrong house, the wrong victim.”

Ten days went by, after which on March 12, 2018, the first day of the annual SXSW pageant, police received a call a few second package deal exploding at a residence in the northeast part of the city. Seventeen-year-old Draylen Mason was lifeless and his mom was critically injured.

“When I heard the bomb squad commander say, ‘We have another device,’ I thought, ‘In the United States? This normally is what we see happening overseas,'” stated FBI agent Mike Call.

Then, round 11:50 a.m. that exact same day, police acquired calls a few third package deal exploding and severely wounding 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera.

“Even before looking at the components of the device…we could tell that the handwriting on that package was immediately similar to the handwriting on the package from earlier in the day,” stated ATF analyst Jeff Kennedy.

Once they arrived at the third bombing scene, Particular Agent Chris Combs, the FBI’s prime agent in the space, stated he turned to Manley and acknowledged that that they had a serial bomber on their arms and that they wanted to sound the pink alert. Manley went on to ship a terrifying message to the media and the individuals of his city.

“It is important that people be vigilant and be aware of things that look suspicious,” Manley stated at the time. “If you have had a package show up in your home, and you were not expecting a delivery. If the package that is delivered to your doorstep looks suspicious in any way, call 911, report it.”

Abruptly, panicked residents overwhelmed police with suspicious package deal calls.

On March 18, Manley addressed the public again, saying the bomber was making an attempt to send a message with each assault.

“We hope this person or persons is watching and will reach out to us before anyone else is injured or before anyone else is killed out of this event,” he stated at the time.

Hours later, the bomber responded, not with a telephone name but with more terror.

Police stated a fourth gadget detonated that night when two young males, aged 22 and 23, have been walking on a sidewalk in the Travis County neighborhood. The bomb was set off by a tripwire and was placed close to a fence, hid by a purple sign, police stated.

“I walked over and there was a bicycle in the middle of the street…and these two young men were right here in the sidewalk,” stated Austin PD Senior Patrol Officer Seth Mannequin, an Iraq warfare veteran, who was amongst the first on the scene.

“And [I] look at them, look at the fence and realized that I was looking at shrapnel, and then it just clicked. I had to start thinking like I was a soldier again, in Iraq and I realized that this was a bomb,” he continued. “I just started walking slowly and I take out my flashlight because it’s getting darker and darker, and I shine my flashlight just looking and I just start doing what a soldier would do and I was like, there’s gotta be something here and I just start scanning the area.”

ATF Special Agent and explosives enforcement officer Alex Guerrero explained that the bomber had placed the system on the ground and coated it considerably with the sign, ran a tripwire about “three inches off the ground” and anchored it into a metallic stake. The signal read “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.”

The tripwire setup changed the whole lot for regulation enforcement. They stated it was a way often seen in warfare zones.

“He could have put more tripwire devices out there in the area knowing that we…would be out there clearing the scene to make sure there was no secondaries,” Guerrero stated.

FBI agent Call stated they realized that they had no protected strategy to clear the neighborhood.

“Alex [Guerrero] and I were in the same house, standing in a house where there was shrapnel and I.E.D. components in their backyard, and telling the citizens, ‘You can’t go in your backyard. It’s a crime scene.’ And I remember clearly the citizen saying, ‘We’re scared. We’re not even sure if we can leave our house safely,'” Name stated.

The tripwire, officers stated, also advised them that the bomber was turning into more refined and assured.

“It was a signal,” stated Chris Combs of the FBI. “We also were very concerned, because of the change in the bomb, the sophistication of the bomb, which now led us back to thinking, ‘Could this be a terrorist?'”

By that point, 16 days since the first explosion, police stated none of their suspects had panned out.

“We had people of interest throughout this investigation. And the night of the tripwire device, we knew where those people were, and they were nowhere near that,” stated the ATF’s Milanowski. “So, unfortunately, the morning we started processing that scene, we were at square one.”

On March 19, a fifth explosion was reported at a FedEx sorting facility just outdoors of San Antonio. One worker had been injured.

“When the FedEx package detonated at the facility, that provided critical evidence that…the subject had…changed his M.O.,” stated FBI agent Justin Wilson. “The bomber is diversifying…his methods.”

“That elevated our concerns tremendously because now you’re shipping something, and before we knew they were placed,” he added. “And we didn’t know how many.”

Sending a package deal by means of FedEx was the bomber’s third technique of supply after first putting packages at residences and then utilizing the tripwire. Police stated the package deal that induced the FedEx facility explosion was on its method to an tackle in Austin and had been despatched from a “Kelly Killmore.”

Additionally they stated that they realized the bomber was turning into bolder and jeopardizing the lives of many more individuals. Putting a bomb into the mail or delivery techniques meant the gadget might find yourself on a aircraft and the penalties might be devastating.

Detectives stated they felt they needed to discover the bomber quick because they have been operating out of time. FBI Particular Agent Michael Name stated he determined to call the FedEx facility in Austin.

“[I] described the [San Antonio] package to the manager at the [Austin] FedEx facility and he said, ‘Yes, we have that particular box…It’s on the dock for outbound delivery,” Call stated. “So, at that point, I told the manager, ‘That is a live improvised explosive device. Evacuate the building and then call the bomb squad.'”

By daybreak on the morning of March 20, 2018, the Austin PD bomb squad was on the scene of the FedEx facility in Austin.

“We immediately sent one of our robots inside,” stated Rob Nunez, a senior police officer with the Austin PD Bomb Squad. “With the robot, were able to use the cameras and the manipulator arm to look at the package, get the tracking numbers off of it, and see that, yes, this was it.”

Police stated the package deal that the bomb squad safely intercepted had been marked for supply that same day. The monitoring number lifted from the package deal led authorities to a FedEx store in Austin.

Once they took a take a look at the retailer’s surveillance footage, ATF agent Dan Mueller stated the suspect “was wearing a disguise.”

“He was wearing gloves and everything else,” he stated. “The interviewing agents talking to the FedEx employee said [the suspect] went and got into a red Ford Ranger.”

“The fact that he walked…brazenly into a FedEx facility to drop off those two packages led to the identification of him,” ATF agent Matt Abowd stated. “That was his biggest mistake.”

Authorities reached out to Residence Depot, where they believed the bomber may need bought his provides. The House Depot’s Organized Retail Crime Division works in tandem with regulation enforcement for these conditions.

Jeremy Greenleaf, House Depot’s company supervisor of investigations, stated when his staff acquired the suspicious packages, they have been “able to identify those gloves, come up with the product identification number, and… the sign” reading “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” that was used at the tripwire scene.

Then, his group was capable of “generate the one receipt purchased here” in Spherical Rock, Texas.

After scouring hours of surveillance footage, House Depot safety situated the suspect.

“He walked into the building, he asked the door greeter some questions…you could tell he was kind of asking where certain items were,” stated Residence Depot organized retail crime investigator Terry Pruse. “The greeter directed him to that area, and minutes later, he came back with some of the items that we were looking for.”

In line with the House Depot investigators, the suspect was seen on surveillance buying the purple signal and gloves he later wore to drop off the packages at FedEx, then he exited the House Depot and received into his car – a purple Ford Ranger.

As that info was being referred to as into the command middle, a staff of FBI analysts immediately started looking for the one that may need each bought these supplies and owned that pink truck.

FBI Employees Operations Specialist Jordanna Nesvog launched into the painstakingly thorough means of combing via names and data to find a match.

“I was systematically going through each name, and just looking at what kind of vehicle would this person have,” Nesvog stated. “And I got to about the seventh name. And it was the bomber’s name, and I conducted a search to find out what kind of vehicle he had registered to him if he had one. … It was exactly the vehicle that we were looking for.”

Going via a careful strategy of elimination, she shortly discovered the identify of their suspect whilst she was nonetheless getting info phoned in by way of the conference call.

“It was a heart-stopping moment,” Nesvog stated. “And I got goosebumps. I knew. I knew this is something good.”

Lastly, regulation enforcement had the id of a possible suspect who had eluded them for 18 days: 23-year-old Mark Conditt. Police stated he was a younger man with no legal document, who came from a family with deep ties to the group and a long-standing connection to its church.

As they pieced together the suspect’s profile, his recognized addresses, where he could be spending his time, prosecutors and investigators have been racing to get search warrants authorised. By that time in the day, it was getting late.

“So we decided that we were going to hold and execute that warrant at sun up [on March 21, 2018], without making any further notice,” Chief Manley stated.

But they by no means acquired to sun up.

“About midnight we had decided we’re going to take the house the next morning,” stated FBI Special Agent Justin Wilson. “It was decided then, ‘Go home, get a few hours’ sleep, reconvene in the morning.’

I went ahead and headed home, which, ironically, is about a mile-and-a-half, two miles away from where [the suspect] was located.”

The bomber had gone dark, but then, in a stroke of luck for regulation enforcement, he briefly turned on his cellphone and police have been capable of ping his location.

“And I had just gotten home – started to lay down when my phone rang from the command post and said, ‘We got him,'” Wilson stated.

They tracked him to a lodge parking zone in a suburb north of Austin. Wilson was sent to the parking zone to stake him out.

“I had darked out my lights. I sat up. I could see the bomber’s vehicle from an oblique angle,” he stated. “I’m going through in my head, ‘How’s this going to play out…you are dealing with a bomber.'”

Simply down the street, members of the city’s SWAT workforce have been staged in one other nearby parking zone. That they had raced to that spot after originally being despatched residence to get a number of hours of sleep. Once they obtained there, they didn’t even have the armored vans they often use on dangerous operations.

“We had to stop him that night,” stated Robert Justesen, a senior police officer with the Austin PD SWAT group. “He didn’t care who he hurt or killed at this point.”

“The longer I sat there…you just got this feeling over you that he’s finalizing his thoughts,” Wilson stated. “I got an eerie feeling that it wasn’t going to end well.”

Wilson stated he watched Conditt in his truck, then he watched him back out of the parking spot. He adopted him, with Austin Police and SWAT immediately behind him.

“He proceeded south on the service road [and] turned out to go to the Frontage Road of I-35,” Wilson remembered. Then the suspect stopped at a pink mild.

“We had quite a few people pull up behind him,” stated Jeff Williams of the FBI special operations group. “If you look at the videotape later on, I mean, you see a pretty long train. At that point, the guy knew.”

That’s when SWAT decided it was time to behave. They planned to hit his van exhausting sufficient to disable it – a regular maneuver, however they have been touring in commonplace vans and this was no strange suspect on the run.

“One of our biggest fears is on impact, it was going to explode,” stated Lt. Katrina Pruitt, commander of the Austin Police SWAT. “I told them, ‘You cannot let him get on the interstate. Whatever you do, you’ve gotta stop him before he gets on the interstate.'”

Police stated SWAT hit his car, causing him to roll off the street, making him unable to flee. Then, the SWAT workforce came out of their van and approached.

Swiftly, there was a growth.

As police had feared, the bomber set off another explosive, this time inside his car.

“I saw the flash and I felt shrapnel or debris or whatever hit my face, and I stepped back,” Justesen stated.

Leighton Radtke, another member of the SWAT workforce that night time, was one among the first to go as much as the windshield and seemed inside.

“I quickly recognized that our suspect was no longer a threat at that point,” he stated. “I’m really lucky that I didn’t lose anybody.”

Conditt was lifeless. After 19 days of monitoring the elusive killer, the terror had finally ended.

“There was a moment of relief in that we had at least taken who we believed to be our prime suspect,” Chief Manley stated. “We could account for him. But we didn’t know what he had been doing. Whether there were more bombs still in the community somewhere and we still had to investigate whether he was acting solo or in concert with anybody.”

They had to go to the home the subsequent morning to seek out out. FBI’s Combs stated, “That was going to be a very dangerous SWAT hit.”

Darla Roessler and her family stay just across the road from Conditt. Their videos show the SWAT staff getting into the suspect’s residence.

“I went through different phases,” Roessler stated. “I really would look over there and it didn’t really sink in. I guess that’s denial. And then the negotiating with God, ‘Why did he not harm us?'”

Conditt lived in a room in the again of the house, where police stated they discovered sufficient weapons materials to explode the complete block. It was the place he had masterminded the bombing spree.

“He had the capability to build much bigger devices,” stated ATF agent Fred Milanowski. “All that stuff was in his house, along with the wig and the gloves and everything that we tied him to this investigation was in his bedroom, in that house.”

Manley reflected on the public’s yearning for a motive.

“That’s what everybody wants to know, right? … I’d love to know why. But we’re left with what we’re left with,” Manley stated. “The reality is there’s no answer and there’s no reason that could ever make any of this okay.”

U.S. Lawyer John Bash stated regulation enforcement “reviewed all of the evidence they could get their hands on, all his electronic devices, everything in that house. And they have found no evidence of links to a hate group or a terrorist group, no evidence of being influenced by any recognized ideology.”

“It may be a mystery [as to] what was internally motivating him forever,” Bash added.

Authorities say they nonetheless do not have a motive, however the bomber did depart behind a 25-minute manifesto recorded on his telephone.

In his manifesto, District Lawyer Margaret Moor stated he threatened to “walk into a crowd at McDonald’s and blow up everyone that’s in there with this last bomb that’s in my pocket.”

“He purposely said he has no remorse,” added FBI agent Chris Combs. “On that tape, there is no mention of terrorism, hate crime. He says he’s a psychopath and he likes killing people.”

Regulation enforcement officials say they intend to maintain the manifesto recording beneath wraps.

“What should be remembered is the victims and the first responders like the chief’s SWAT teams that risked their [lives],” Combs stated. “There is no value in that audiotape going out there, except being held up by other people who want to do bad things.”

As for the associates and households of Conditt’s victims, they’re left with shockwaves of ache from loss and by no means figuring out why.

“There’s always moments where I…don’t believe that this has actually happened,” stated Patrick Slevin, victim Draylen Mason’s music instructor. “We’ve lost someone truly special.”

They stated they cling to reminiscences and previous pictures.

“I still feel like I’m walking in a fog. I miss him so much,” Melanie Home Dixon, the mother of Conditt’s first sufferer, Stephan Home, stated. “I just miss his essence. I just miss him. And that’s not getting better. I thought maybe at first it was going to be okay. But as time has gone on, it’s just gotten worse for me.”

A yr later, the police and federal agents who hunted the Austin bomber can tick off the hours of investigation they took on and the terabytes of knowledge that have been reviewed from Conditt’s electronic units, but they still do not know why this man decided to terrorize this city and destroy so many lives in the process.

“To be perfectly transparent, we don’t [know] a lot more than we knew, you know, a week or two after he killed himself,” stated the ATF’s Milanowski. “We don’t know why he picked these targets. And we probably will never know that. All investigative information leads us to believe that they were randomly selected. And so, you know, we just don’t know. We never were able to make a connection…so we do know that he was a psychopath. We do know that he enjoyed killing people. We just don’t know why he picked these people.”

For his part, the FBI’s Combs stated the Austin bomber probe is a testomony to good detective work, however that’s not what has stayed with him.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he stated. “I think of when I was on those bombing scenes and those poor people that got killed and got injured. … I agree with Fred, the sense of accomplishment, that we were able to come together in 19 days, track this bomber down and stop him from doing any more bombs. I could not be prouder of that. But it’s still hard to be here and think about all those poor people that got hurt and injured.”

ABC News’ Halley Freger, Lauren Effron and Allie Yang contributed to this report.

This report was featured on the Tuesday, March 12, 2019, episode of ABC Information’ every day information podcast, “Start Here”:

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