Police first focused on drug case in Austin bombings. They were wrong.


Highlights

Early on, police focused on the idea that the first bomb have been meant for a suspected drug dealer.

Later, investigators focused on the personal finances of the first victim.

In the days after an explosive killed a man in North Austin, investigators crafted a loose theory that they developed in the absence of other clues: that a small package that killed the 39-year-old father was mistakenly left at his front door, and its intended target was a suspected drug dealer who lived nearby.

Over the course of the past 10 days, as they tested that hypothesis — only to see it melt away — they shifted their focus and began looking more thoroughly into the personal finances of Anthony Stephan House, who was the first person killed in a series of three blasts, law enforcement officials told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.

Police initially called it an isolated attack, a theory they quickly abandoned Tuesday, as two more package bombs killed a 17-year-old and left a 75-year-old woman seriously wounded.

Now detectives are trying to stitch together new possibilities, as they face questions about whether they erred in telling the public in the days after House’s death that the community should not be alarmed.

READ: NAACP urges caution for members, residents

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley acknowledged that police had looked into whether House was a mistaken victim, but declined to comment on other investigative leads.

However, he said Tuesday that he recognizes that officials might have sent a confusing public message by first saying that House’s death was a homicide, then later calling it suspicious.

He said detectives sought that classification shift to include all possibilities about how House died.

“I understand the manner in which this change was conveyed has caused concern for the family and for that I apologize,” he said. “This change in no way was meant to cast a shadow on Mr. House … this reclassification in no way impacted the level of investigation that was being done on this case.”

Also Tuesday, Manley confirmed the identity of 17-year-old Draylen Mason and said a 75-year-old woman injured by a package bomb — previously identified as Esperanza Herrera — remains in the hospital with life-threatening injuries. He also said that a reward for information about the case has increased to $65,000.

Investigators remained on the scene of the two explosions Tuesday, and Manley said the case continues to be investigated by a special task force that includes federal agents.

The drug dealer theory

Early on, officials said, police focused on the idea that House might have been an unintended victim.

Defense attorney Mark McCrimmon said on the day of House’s death, police for hours questioned one of his clients who was involved as a suspect in an ongoing drug case.

McCrimmon told the Statesman that investigators were canvassing the neighborhood and realized that a man he represents is a suspected drug dealer. He said they suspected that the device might have been intended for him and left at the wrong house.

Two weeks before the attack, police had arrested that man, seized drugs in his home and “a significant amount of money,” McCrimmon said.

READ: How to identify a suspicious package

“They thought it was a good lead to see if the suppliers were trying to make a statement and punish him for losing the weed and money, and that they were going to kill him,” McCrimmon said. “As he put it to the cops, ‘How do I pay them back if I’m dead?’ They said, ‘Well, sometimes it sends a message.’”

“He said that he knows these people and that they would not do that, that this is not what this is about,” McCrimmon said. “Obviously it looked like a good lead when you don’t know anything.”

McCrimmon declined to identify his client.

He said police did not contact him again after March 2, and he said he assumes investigators abandoned their theory.

Sources said investigators then turned to House’s personal finances and were pursuing leads that money might have been tied to the attack.

It is unclear what prompted the interest in his finances or what, if anything, detectives had learned. House previously worked as a hedge fund manager and is listed as the president of House Capital Management LLC in Texas secretary of state documents, though his LinkedIn page indicates the company has been sold to a private investment group.

In 2016, House filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in federal court, claiming between $100,001 and $500,000 in debt.

The department’s statements about House’s death, including their former belief that there was no ongoing threat to the public, have caused concern to some in the community, including Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

READ: Motive remains a mystery in Austin explosions 

“I could second-guess that,” he said. “There may be some valuable lessons, and that is going to be addressed at the proper place and time.”

Law enforcement experts say it is important, particularly early in an investigation, for detectives to remain open-minded about the case while at the same time following the evidence.

“You don’t want to come up with a theory so soon,” said Gregory D. Lee, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who helped train law enforcement officers for the FBI. “When the evidence points elsewhere, you may have overlooked things that could have been more helpful.”

Mike Bouchard, a retired assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and former chief of its arson and explosives division, said it is difficult to know whether police too vigorously pursued one theory to the detriment of other possibilities.

“Only they know what the facts were at the time, and you can only follow what you have at the time,” he said. 



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