Inside the Austin bomber’s life: Questions of friends, faith, sexuality


Highlights

Many steps separated the 23-year-old Conditt from his oldest friends and set him on a course of loneliness.

Investigators have struggled to find a confidant who could provide a window into Conditt’s life and motives.

Forensic searches uncovered evidence that he used Grindr, a dating app, to exchange messages with gay men.

Several years before embarking on a bombing spree that terrorized Austin, Mark Conditt had turned against his family’s devout Christianity and declared himself an atheist.

It was the first of many steps that separated the 23-year-old from his oldest friends and set him on a course of increasing isolation. He lost his job in the tech industry less than a year before the bombings. Investigators have struggled for weeks to find a single confidant who could provide a window into his life.

His roommates told authorities Conditt kept his bedroom door locked and dodged questions about why.

During the race to stop the attacks and in the weeks after, investigators also obtained information indicating that Conditt was questioning his sexuality. As a 17-year-old, he had written that homosexuality is “not natural,” echoing the teachings of his religious education, and raising the prospect of inner turmoil in his final months.

On the day Conditt killed himself with his own bomb, ending the string of attacks that killed two others and injured four, interim Police Chief Brian Manley declared Conditt “a very challenged young man,” a remark that drew criticism from some who thought it was too sympathetic to the bomber. Manley later made it a point to publicly refer to Conditt as a “domestic terrorist.”

Six weeks later, the answer to why Conditt carried out the attacks remains stubbornly elusive. Investigators who have analyzed a recorded confession he left say Conditt appeared to treat the bombings as an experiment that started with him wondering whether he was capable of building explosives and whether he would get caught.

However, officials also say it likely will be impossible to fully understand his purpose. Despite spending countless hours studying his life, they still have few clues to his motive but say they are confident in ruling out possibilities such as politics, racially motivated hate or links to international terrorism.

For this story, the American-Statesman has confirmed details of the investigation and Conditt’s life with four law enforcement officials closely involved in the case.

The revelation that Conditt might have been struggling with his sexuality in some ways echoes the case of Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old who shot and killed 49 people at the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse in 2016.

Both men came from staunchly religious backgrounds that frowned upon homosexuality. Mateen’s attack, at the time the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, sparked debate over whether a socially engendered “internalized homophobia” partially motivated the violence. In recent months, evidence suggesting Mateen was not gay has come to light, and investigators have cast doubt on that conclusion.

In 2012, when he was a student at Austin Community College, Conditt wrote a blog post opposing gay marriage for a government and politics class.

“Just look at the male and female bodies. They are obviously designed to couple,” he wrote. “I do not believe it is proper to pass laws stating that homosexuals have ‘rights.’ What about pedophilia or bestiality?”

But two men who lived with him told detectives they thought Conditt might have been gay, and forensic searches uncovered evidence that he used Grindr to exchange messages with gay men.

If he were gay, Conditt would have struggled with coming out, given his family and social circles, said Sierra Jane Davis, a transgender woman who also grew up in the Pflugerville home-school community and knew Conditt.

“It’s not something we talked about, but I do know that it would have been difficult for him and his family,” Davis, 23, said.

It’s unclear if Conditt’s family ever learned about his struggles with sexuality. His parents have denied repeated interview requests, and a family spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

Despite his rejection of their religion, Conditt’s parents tried to help him find a sense of purpose in his early adult years. His father bought a home nearby that Conditt lived in, and the two renovated it together. Conditt acted as the property manager for the home, which is at the end of a small neighborhood street. He was in charge of finding roommates and collecting the monthly rent.

Investigators are still trying to piece together how Conditt learned about explosives. They are hopeful that several older computers found in his home that are currently being examined might reveal clues. The Statesman also confirmed that investigators identified a person they thought might have taught Conditt some skills about building bombs. That person has since been cleared of any suspicion, as were Conditt’s roommates.

The fact that the two people killed in the bombings, Anthony Stephan House and Draylen Mason, were black led many to believe the attacks were racially motivated. But investigators continue to say they have found no evidence of that in Conditt’s communications, online activity or in his home.

Investigators who have scrutinized the biggest clue in the case — a 28-minute confession Conditt recorded as he learned police were closing in on him— say he never identified what specifically drove him to harm others and spoke in the recording, which has not been publicly released, about the attacks with no sense of feeling or empathy for the victims or their families. The Statesman reported two days after Conditt died that he called himself a “psychopath” and says he felt as though he had always been one. He ended the tape saying, “I wish I were sorry, but I am not.”

‘A lot of people didn’t understand him’

At the time of the bombings, his father, William Patrick Conditt, was an account executive for the information technology company Insight, according to a LinkedIn page. His mother, Danene Conditt, home-schooled her son and his two younger sisters.

Mark Conditt participated in a Bible study and outdoor activities group called R.I.O.T., which is a commonly used acronym among Christian youth groups that stands for “Righteous Invasion Of Truth.” It comes from a 1995 hit by the Christian rock artist Carman, who sings, “Righteous, to conform to the Bible / Invasion, an armed attack / Of Truth, the real state of affairs / Like a church on the move that will not double back.”

Conditt told his family he was an atheist when he was 18 years old, investigators said, although he sporadically attended various churches after making that decision. He was known in the past to attend the Austin Stone Community Church, although the church says it has no record of him being involved recently.

A statement by the Texas Home School Coalition shortly after Conditt was revealed to be the bomber, which put Texas’ home-schooling community on the defensive, emphasized he had stopped practicing Christianity.

“Raised by both parents in a Christian home, Conditt reportedly walked away from his faith several years ago,” said the statement from the group’s president, Tim Lambert.

Davis said she was close to Conditt until about two years ago – when she told him she had decided to transition. Davis said Conditt didn’t cut her off immediately but fell out of touch with her, as did many of her friends and family members.

“He told me that he couldn’t support my decision to live this life,” she said. “I expected that from everyone.”

She described their group of friends as “home-schoolers who wanted to talk about God with other Christians.”

“He was a quiet guy, but he was always willing to talk,” she said.

Like others who knew Conditt, Davis said she was shocked to learn he was capable of violence or interested in making bombs.

Jeremiah Jensen, another Pflugerville home-school graduate who knew Conditt, said he was a “deep thinker” and an “assertive person” who would sometimes turn others off by becoming combative in conversation.

“A lot of people didn’t understand him and where he was coming from,” said Jensen, 24, who fell out of touch with Conditt four to five years ago. “He loved to think and argue and turn things over and figure out what was really going on.”

Conditt was athletic, Jensen said, and enjoyed rock-climbing and parkour — a form of training that involves finding creative ways around, over and under obstacles.

Jensen said he had hoped Conditt would grow out of his difficulties and was stunned that he was behind the bombings.

“I always thought that he would eventually find his wings and become someone who was stable and had a great inner life and family and go on to live a good life,” Jensen said.

Lacking direction

After his mother graduated him from home schooling, Conditt worked for four years at Crux Manufacturing, a semiconductor maker in Pflugerville, before being fired last summer, said Shane Miller, a co-owner of the business who is a family friend and had known Conditt since he was 9 years old.

Conditt worked in various of roles at the company, from packaging and shipping to project planning.

Miller said that Conditt was not fired because of bad behavior, but because the company had grown rapidly and needed to restructure many of its positions.

“He wasn’t meeting the new expectations of the job role, so he was let go for that reason, but he wasn’t doing a horrible job,” Miller said. “The company grew beyond his experience level, and we needed to get other people involved.”

Miller added that he thought it would be good for Conditt to explore new possibilities and offered to have him do some work at the company while he looked for opportunities. Conditt declined.

“I don’t think he knew what he wanted to do,” Miller said.

After leaving the Crux job, Conditt worked for some time at an Austin-area garage door repair company, investigators said.

Jensen said that, while there are many positive aspects of home schooling, its insularity might have contributed to Conditt’s lack of direction in early adulthood.

“Loneliness can be an issue,” Jensen said. “It’s just very difficult for a lot of kids to find a way to fit in once they are out in the real world. … I have a feeling that is what happened with Mark. I don’t ever remember him being sure of what he wanted to do.”

At the home he remodeled with his father, Conditt sometimes played video games with two roommates, one of whom detectives say he had met through a church organization. The roommates told police after the attacks that Conditt told various stories about why he wasn’t home for long periods when police say he was carrying out the bombings.

On the Sunday that he planted a trip-wire explosive device that injured two men in Southwest Austin, he told them he was baby-sitting his sisters at his parents’ house, they said.

But mostly, the roommates told authorities, Conditt was a man they didn’t really know.

Staff writer Mary Huber contributed to this story.



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