Central Texans are exhaling a collective sigh of relief at the news that suspected serial bomber Mark A. Conditt is dead.
For much of March, the 23-year-old Pflugerville resident held the city captive as it held its breath awaiting the next explosion. In all, five bombs detonated, not counting the one he turned on himself March 21. Add to that at least one that failed and potentially, officials said, others that might have been in the works.
The loss to the community runs deep — two Austin residents were killed and four injured.
At times like these, we are grateful for the tireless efforts of law enforcement — the Austin Police Department, FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and others — in bringing this phase of the case to closure in a way that saved lives. They stepped up big time, running down leads, examining evidence and piecing together a puzzle as they worked around the clock, knowing that the bomber intended to strike again. And again. Until he was stopped.
That happened early March 21. As authorities closed in on him in Round Rock, Conditt blew himself up in his vehicle, according to local and federal law enforcement sources. From the little we know now, Conditt was akin to the guy next door from a good family who gave little if any reason to suspect him of a nefarious act.
At this point, we all would be wise to follow the advice of Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley, who cautioned that Central Texans stay vigilant for possible other explosives because, “we do not know where (the suspect) has been in the past 24 hours.”
Even as one critical phase of the investigation ends with Conditt’s death, other phases continue, including constructing the motive behind the bombings and a full timeline of events, and gathering information about his life, how he learned bomb making and the materials he used to do so. Authorities have yet to rule out whether Conditt had collaborators.
Certainly, there is an expectation that law enforcement and city officials provide answers to Central Texans who for much of March have been in the dark about the terror in their midst.
Those answers are crucial for healing. The dead included members from prominent families in Austin’s African American community. Anthony Stephan House, 39, the father of an 8-year-old daughter and a Pflugerville High School and Texas State University graduate, was killed when he opened a package left on the front porch of his Northeast Austin home on March 2.
Police initially called it an isolated incident before the bomber struck again on March 12. Austin lost a budding talent in Draylen Mason, 17, whose skill as a double bass player won him admission to the University of Texas Butler School of Music. His mother also was injured in that attack.
Later that day, another package bomb seriously injured Esperanza Herrera, 75, who is beloved by family and friends. Those explosions sent fear and shock through the city’s minority communities because the bombs went off in neighborhoods where many African Americans and Latinos live. Community leaders understandably raised questions about whether the explosions were hate crimes that were racially motivated. Those questions linger.
On Sunday came the explosion that left all of Austin feeling vulnerable and unsafe because it was random, activated by a trip wire aimed at anyone who stumbled across it. Two men in their mid-20s did: Will Grote and Colton Mathessuffered injuries that sent them to a local hospital.
Authorities clearly learned more about the bomber from each of those scenarios. It was the last explosion on Tuesday, however, at a FedEx facility in Schertz (near San Antonio) and another bomb that didn’t explode at a Southeast Austin FedEx that apparently revealed the bomber’s identity and helped clinch the case.
The investigation does not end with Conditt’s death. His actions in targeting Austin residents feel personal. How else does one explain that he chose to leave bombs on doorsteps or streets in residential neighborhoods, bypassing larger targets that would generate more attention? Consider that his targets excluded Austin’s core that includes the Capitol, University of Texas at Austin and Austin’s downtown hotel and entertainment district. He avoided events that draw thousands of tourists, such as SXSW, to focus on people who already live here. Why?
It’s a mystery we hope will be solved.
As law enforcement continues investigating those and other issues, they likely will look at lessons learned and incorporate them into policing and safeguarding a city that no longer can been seen through the lens of a small town, even with violent crime rates that mirror those in many smaller cities.
The bombings also raised questions about whether the attacks should be branded as terrorism. The narrowest legal definition of terrorism, which focuses on violence by people or groups who are aligned against the nation, may not apply here. But there is no doubt Conditt’s bombing campaign inflicted widespread fear and drew a massive federal law enforcement response.
There are lessons we all can learn. As Manley reminds, public safety is a shared responsibility. See something, say something. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that getting to know our neighbors can help us better take care of one another. Good advice from our leaders.
We say Central Texans should stay vigilant beyond this episode and remember and honor our lost and injured neighbors.