The suspected serial bomber terrorizing Austin is more sophisticated than originally believed, but the motive behind the attacks remains a mystery, officials said Monday after a Sunday night explosion that wounded two men in Southwest Austin.
The latest incident, the fourth attack in 17 days, signaled to law enforcement that the bomber or bombers have not relented in an effort to hurt or kill, leaving much of the city with an escalating sense of fear. It also demonstrated a new level of skill by the perpetrator in crafting explosives and marked an unsettling move toward apparently random attacks.
The blast, which occurred at 8:32 p.m. Sunday in the Travis Country neighborhood in Southwest Austin, injured two men in their mid-20s, Will Grote and Colton Mathes, according to Julia Thompson, who attended high school with both men and is a family friend of the Grotes’. Both were in good condition at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The bomb appeared to involve an elaborate device that relied on a trip wire. Police have described the previous three incidents as “boxlike” bombs triggered by movement that were left at homes’ doorsteps.
The shift in the type of device led police to question whether the explosion was the result of a copycat — or if it indicated that the bomber has more skill than previously thought. Law enforcement officials told the American-Statesman they fear the bomber intentionally changed methods to undermine more than a week’s worth of pleas from police for residents to be cautious of packages outside their homes.
It also is likely that the latest attacks will cause investigators to go back to the drawing board in searching for a motive after several previous theories collapsed.
The device in the fourth blast indicates “a different level of skill above what we were already concerned this suspect or suspects may posses,” interim Police Chief Brian Manley said. “This changes things.”
Officials were working Monday to collect debris from the blast site to see if the explosive materials are the same items used to craft the previous bombs, which officials say were constructed from household materials.
During a news conference, Manley widened his public appeal, asking residents to remain vigilant and on the lookout for any suspicious item. He also asked for anyone in the Travis Country neighborhood who has security cameras to surrender any images to police.
Christopher Combs, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the San Antonio field division, urged the bomber to reach out to authorities and begin a dialogue.
“We don’t know why the bomber is doing this,” he said. “We don’t know his reasons. We don’t know what’s brought him to this level of violence, and we would really like the bomber to contact us so we can talk.”
‘We are doing everything we can do’
If Sunday’s blast is connected to the three bombs that have killed two Austin residents and injured two others since March 2, it would mark a geographic widening of the bomber’s targets and possibly indicate that he or she is not racially discriminating. The first three bombs took place east of Interstate 35 and hit black or Hispanic residents. The two men injured Sunday night are white.
The first two victims, 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House and 17-year-old Draylen Mason, are connected to two prominent African-American families with ties to an East Austin church and long histories of fighting for racial justice. The third bomb hit a Latina resident and her mother in Montopolis.
Mayor Steve Adler told the Statesman he is trying to strike a balance between urging residents to be cautious while requesting that they remain calm and continue daily life.
“We are going to find out who did this, and we are going to stop it,” Adler said.
He said he has reached out to relatives of the first three victims.
“They are concerned, and they are trying to find answers,” he said. “We are all trying to find answers. I just wanted to assure them we are doing everything we can do … and to repeat the commitment that we are going to find who is doing this, and we are going to stop it.”
As more federal agents poured into Austin on Monday, Adler said the city would do everything possible to ensure that police officers have proper resources to carry out their investigation, which is being jointly led by the Austin Police Department and federal authorities.
Already, about 500 federal, state and local law enforcement officials have joined the case, and members of an elite squad from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been in Austin for a week. Officials said many of those experts are focusing on gathering and examining forensic evidence, while others have fanned out across the city to interview possible witnesses and the victims.
Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement Monday that he would release $265,500 in state money to Austin police and the Texas Rangers bomb response team to purchase seven portable X-ray systems for use in bomb detection.
“I want to ensure everyone in the Austin region and the entire state that Texas is committed to providing every resource necessary to make sure these crimes are solved as quickly as possible,” Abbott said.
‘The randomness is so scary’
Both of the men who were injured appeared to be going to or from the Grote family home, which is near the blast site. Will Grote’s father, William “Butch” Grote, is chief information officer at the Texas Department of Agriculture and has previously worked for the Texas Facilities Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Travis Country residents, some of whom had just returned to Austin from spring break, said they heard sirens and realized a short time later from news reports that there had been an explosion.
Amelia Tyler, who lives about a mile from the explosion site, served in Iraq for two years with the Army Reserve.
“I felt like I left all the explosions in Iraq, and now this happens,” she said. “The randomness is so scary. Bomb blasts are horrible, and no one should experience that.”
Angie Wagner, a Travis Country homeowners association board member who lives in the area of Sunday night’s explosion, said the neighborhood is a quiet, close-knit community.
“This will cause everyone to keep a closer eye on things,” she said. “We just started a community watch program, and they’re about to start their training.”
Throughout Sunday evening and into Monday, residents were being told by police to stay in their homes until they could make sure no other devices were in the area. Police said they needed daylight to finish that process.
Russell Reno has lived in the area for about six months. He said a big reason he chose to move into the neighborhood from Buda was it was relaxed and family-oriented.
He said he had heard about explosions in other parts of the city and was perplexed why someone would target residential areas.
“There are some sick people in the world,” he said.