Investigators focus on Austin bombing victims’ family connections


Highlights

Two bombing victims are members of prominent African-American families that attend the same church.

Authorities are also investigating the possibility the bomber might have made a mistake in third attack.

Law enforcement officials have turned their focus in the investigation of a series of three bombings in Austin on the family connections and friendships between two victims who were killed, trying to determine whether those ties might yield clues to who is behind the attacks.

Anthony House, the first person killed when a bomb exploded on his porch, is the son of the Rev. Freddie Dixon. Dixon is a close friend of Norman Mason, the grandfather of 17-year-old Draylen Mason, who was killed Monday morning in the second package bomb attack.

Both Dixon and Mason are prominent members of Austin’s African-American community.

For 22 years, Dixon was a minister at Wesley United Methodist Church in East Austin and still attends the church along with Mason. Investigators were seeking Wednesday to learn more about the friendship between the two families, and whether anyone would want to target them, or whether the connections are a coincidence, said law enforcement officials familiar with the case

READ: Friends remember Austin bomb victims Draylen Mason, Anthony House

Neither man could be reached for comment Wednesday. Agents have interviewed members of the church as part of the ongoing investigation.

The Rev. Sylvester Chase, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church, said Wednesday that the authorities have not talked to him about the bombings. He emphasized that, while members of their extended family go to church there, the victims themselves were not members. He said he didn’t think the church was the connection.

“We are not involved,” he said. “There’s a story, it’s just not here.”

The church has played a crucial role in the city’s African-American community over the years. For a time, the church hosted classes for nearby Huston-Tillotson University and played an instrumental role in the creation of the Austin Urban League in 1977.

Questions about third attack

Investigators on Wednesday also were trying to learn whether a third attack that seriously wounded a 75-year-old woman was related to one of the families.

Officials said they are investigating whether it is possible that the woman, Esperanza Herrera, was not the intended target. Instead, the third explosive device might have been intended for a person who lives nearby. That person is not a relative of the two families, but the bomber might have made two mistakes: placing it on the wrong doorstep, and thinking the resident was a member of one of the families.

These are the latest of several theories that detectives have pursued in the case.

Police initially thought House’s death on March 2 was an isolated incident. Then came the two additional blasts Monday, leading to national attention on the case and for authorities to step up their investigation, which now involves the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

RELATED: Motive a mystery in three bombings

The American-Statesman reported Tuesday that police initially focused on whether the blast that killed House might have been intended for a suspected drug dealer who lived nearby and was instead mistakenly left at House’s residence.

By the time the second and third blasts happened Monday, they had backed off that theory and had begun focusing on House’s financial dealings.

Officials also have acknowledged that House and Mason were black men, giving rise to fears that the attacks might be racially motivated.

“I grew up in Birmingham in the ’60s and this brings all that back up,” said the Rev. Joseph Parker, pastor of David Chapel in East Austin. “I’m making an assumption that race is at the center of all this, and I do believe that. People are very nervous. It suggests to people in the community that it could just be anyone, and there is an anxiety there.”

Staff writers Elizabeth Findell, Claire Osborn, Jeremy Schwartz and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this report.



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