For investigators, a race to decode hidden message in Austin bombings


Experts say bombers often are trying to send a message with their deadly explosions.

The clues can be obscure and not immediately apparent to law enforcement.

If the package bombs that have killed two Austin residents and seriously injured a third in recent weeks turn out to be the work of a single person, he or she will join a tiny but grim fraternity — serial killers whose weapon of choice was an explosive device.

The group is so small that police and psychologists’ efforts to draw meaningful conclusions about its members has met with uneven success. An FBI profile of the Unabomber identified him as an uneducated man in his 30 or 40s who probably worked menial jobs. But Ted Kaczynski was a 53-year-old hermit who held several advanced college degrees.

Even within the minuscule group of deadly serial bombers, there are important distinctions, experts said.

Some of the killers identified by forensic crime researchers selected their targets carefully. Thirty years ago, Walter Moody had a bomb delivered to an Alabama judge he felt was responsible for his misfortunes.

Other killers saw their deadly explosives as a dramatic protest against particular groups, with the individual identities of their victims apparently unimportant. In England, David Copeland’s 1999 bombs targeted blacks, Asians and gays.

Still, researchers have identified some broad characteristics that police turn to in trying to identify deadly bombers. All have been white men. While they have varied educational attainment, they were of above-average intelligence and mechanically inclined.

Almost always, they were furious.

“The one thing they have in common is their motive is more out of anger,” said Mike Aamodt, a Radford University professor emeritus who has tried to isolate characteristics of different serial killers.

As the families of victims grieve their losses and African-American and East Austin communities worry for their safety, investigators continue to search for the person or persons responsible for constructing and placing the deadly packages that killed 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House on March 2 and, 10 days later, killed 17-year-old Draylen Mason and seriously wounded Esperanza Herrera, 75. They will analyze physical evidence and interview people who might shed light on the crimes.

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Police have yet to identify a suspect or suspects in the attacks. Experts said they will try to burrow inside the mind of the type of person who would use bombs to sow death and fear. More than other weapons, they say, explosives contain embedded clues about their users — not just materials and construction, but also traces of their aggrievement and, thus, motive.

“Every bomb has its own personality, which reflects the personality of the bomber,” Maryanne Vollers wrote in her 2006 book, “Lone Wolf,” a profile of Eric Rudolph’s bombing murders. “In effect, the bomb is the bomber. Now the investigators have to figure out: What is the bomber saying about himself and his motives?

“A bomb is more than a weapon, it’s a statement.”

Bright, meticulous and focused

Aamodt said his interest in serial killers started as a young forensic psychology professor, when his students became fascinated by the subject. But he discovered there were few studies that systematically dissected the specific type of repeat killer — defined by the FBI as a person who commits two or more homicides on two or more separate occasions.

He started collecting information in 1990, from media accounts, court documents, books, government information troves and other public sources. Today, the Serial Killer Database Research Project is co-managed by Florida Gulf Coast University and employs students to keep it current. It contains detailed profiles of about 5,000 serial killers whose crimes occurred from 1900 to the present, and of their 13,993 victims.

The database tracks 175 variables about each of the crimes. They range from simple demographics, such as age, race and location, to more detailed facts such as a killer’s IQ, his (the overwhelming majority are men) method, motivation, victim preferences and how long it took for police to arrest him.

Out of the thousands of people represented in the project, only seven killers meet the definition of someone who has used a bomb to murder two or more people in separate incidents. Together, they have killed 18 people, but injured many more. (Aamodt acknowledges his database does not include individuals from terrorist organizations such as ISIS whose bomb-making or deployment might be responsible for multiple deadly explosions.)

Of the seven serial bombers who killed more than two people, four were Americans. In addition to Kaczynski, Moody and Rudolph, James Genrich murdered two people in western Colorado in 1991.

BACKGROUND: Bombs in Austin attacks constructed from readily available materials

Experts say that bombers generally tend to be brighter, and more mechanical and meticulous than other killers. Three had a science or engineering background. (Others worked in a restaurant, in construction and editing.) All three of the serial bombers that Aamodt has been able to find test information for had unusually high IQs. Measured at 165, Kaczynski’s was highest.

Most, but not all, conducted their terror campaigns briefly, over the course of a few days. But not all.

Rudolph, best known for placing a bomb in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics there, set bombs that killed people a year and a half apart. He was arrested in 2003 after hiding out in the thick woods of North Carolina.

Kaczynski’s three victims were killed over the course of a decade.

Motives often arcane

Most bombings are one-off crimes and injure more people than they kill. But Brian Jenkins said many of the characteristics that appear to define serial bombers hold true for their less-lethal counterparts as well.

As a RAND Corp. analyst, Jenkins was an early student of terrorism and terrorists, analyzing many of the political bombing incidents that rocked the country in the 1970s. Later, as an executive for security firm Kroll Associates, he produced a profile of the Unabomber for the company’s clients.

He said when it comes to motive, bombers tend to fall into one of three general categories. The first is ideological — a typical attack planned by a terrorist group. Yet it also can encompass individual bombers, such as Rudolph, who placed explosives at abortion clinics and a lesbian bar for what he later said were political reasons.

Another, less common reason is for financial gain, Jenkins said. Julian Sinanaj, an Albanian hit man, blew up people for money.

The most common category is what Jenkins terms idiosyncratic bombers — people who use explosives to murder for personal reasons. Included in the group are those who attack a person or institution for revenge or a seething private resentment.

As police seek clues uniting the victims in such cases, the investigation resembles an epidemiology study, tracing the various attacks to their shared nexus. One of law enforcement’s most important breakthroughs in solving multi-bombing cases is correctly identifying the intended targets, Jenkins said.

READ: Police question Austin woman they think may have been bombing target

The path is not always a straight line. The so-called Mad Bomber (bombers tend to earn nicknames) detonated dozens of seemingly random explosions across New York City in the 1940s and ’50s. While police contemplated multiple theories over the years, George Metesky was furious at the Con Edison utility company, where he’d been injured as an employee.

When the FBI started investigating the December 1989 bombing murder of federal Judge Robert Vance; and then, two days later, an African-American attorney Robert Robertson, investigators noted both were well-known civil rights advocates. “But that turned out to be a red herring,” an FBI case summary later conceded. Moody blamed the courts for an earlier conviction. Killing Robertson appeared to be an attempt to throw off investigators by trying to make the motive appear racial.

Motives in other bombing cases have proven even more arcane, obscuring any pattern. Lucas Helder left a series of bombs in mailboxes across the Midwest in 2002 that injured a half-dozen people. He’d hoped to create a map of the locations that looked like a smiley face.

An explosive device detonated by Muharem Kurbegovic in 1974 killed three at the Los Angeles airport; soon after, another bomb was found unexploded in a bus station. He became known as the Alphabet Bomber after police determined his motivation was to set bombs in locations whose names provided an anagram for Alien of America.

While the A for airport was obvious in retrospect, less clear was that the bus station locker where the bomb was placed was meant to represent L, said Jenkins, who has studied the case.

Sending a message

Profilers say a bombing typically is intended not only to inflict harm. Often contained in its flying shrapnel and pressurized gasses is a subtext, what experts call homology — a hidden connection between method and motive.

First, there is the explosion, a dramatic and highly public expression of violence and anger. “You want it known that it has occurred,” said Jenkins. But, he added, “It’s not just that the explosion is a public statement. It’s supposed to have some meaning.”

“There are bombers that have grandiose schemes to send a message to the world, and there are bombers that want to send a message only to a few people,” said James R. Fitzgerald, a retired FBI criminal profiler and forensic linguist who worked intensely on the Unabomber case.

The clues can be subtle. Kaczynski’s bombs “had a lot of craftsmanship in them — more than was necessary to make them work,” Jenkins said. “He devoted a lot of care and time to making them” — a signal, perhaps, that the Unabomber considered himself superior in some way.

Searching for such meaning and connecting it to a specific person can be frustrating, however, and ultimately fruitless. Jenkins noted that many bombings in the 1970s went unsolved. (He pointed out, as well, that explosives were much more common and easier to get before the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.)

In some instances, however, a bomber’s urge that his message be received and understood has led police to his doorstep.

Kaczynski, whose package bombs killed three and injured two dozen others, eluded police for three decades. He was identified after he made his violent protests explicit, mailing a 35,000-word, anti-industrialization manifesto to newspapers. His brother read it in The Washington Post and recognized the writing style.

Austrian serial bomber Franz Fuchs sent letters after mailing his bombs in the 1990s explaining their purpose. The Mad Bomber also was ultimately done in by his own words. A Con Edison secretary recognized a phrase in an old letter he’d sent the company — “take justice in my own hands” — that Metesky repeated in his bomb notes.

Now, Fitzgerald said, investigators digging into the Austin explosions must similarly attempt to decode their hidden message.

“There is no doubt this person has expressed their anger in the past but no one seemed to listen to them,” he said. “He did not have the appropriate venue to have his viewpoint manifested. So what does he choose to do? He chooses to put these box bombs on a doorstep.”

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