a tick­ing time bomb

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Tanita Matthews

After a fourth bomb blew apart the po­lice’s racial mo­tive the­ory, the race was on to catch Austin’s se­rial bomber be­fore he struck again

Clues he left in his weapon of choice would help the FBI catch the Austin Se­rial Bomber, but after Mark Con­ditt’s sui­cide, even for­mer FBI pro­filer and Un­abomber task force mem­ber James R. Fitzger­ald strug­gles to pro­vide any mo­tive be­hind his dev­as­tat­ing crimes

There was noth­ing sus­pi­cious about the morn­ing of 2 March 2018, as 39- year- old Austin res­i­dent An­thony Stephan House read­ied his eight- year- old daugh­ter for school. Just be­fore 7am he stepped out onto his porch in the Har­ris Ridge neigh­bour­hood of Austin, Texas, to re­trieve a pack­age that had been left for him. Al­most im­me­di­ately the pack­age in An­thony’s hand ex­ploded. A few doors down, a neigh­bour heard the blast and rushed into the street to in­ves­ti­gate, only to see his neigh­bour stand­ing, dazed and bloody, be­fore he col­lapsed and died on his doorstep.

Austin didn’t know it yet, but this would be the first of seven pack­ages in 19 days that would send Texas into a frenzy. Lo­cal law en­force­ment and even­tu­ally the FBI raced against the clock to catch the lat­est ‘ un­sub’, a man they would even­tu­ally iden­tify as 23- year- old Austin res­i­dent Mark Con­ditt. Not since the in­fa­mous ‘ Un­abomber’ Ted Kaczyn­ski had such ter­ror been ig­nited over un­known parcels and pack­ages. Con­ditt’s cap­ture would come too late, after the mas­ter­mind be­hind the Texas at­tacks det­o­nated a bomb as law en­force­ment closed in, killing him­self and leav­ing au­thor­i­ties with more ques­tions than an­swers.

Red Wire, Blue Wire

What had hap­pened to An­thony was un­usual and bizarre, and for more than a week po­lice were clue­less as to just how the ex­plo­sive de­vice had worked its way into the hands of the de­ceased. Austin Po­lice Depart­ment ( APD) Chief Brian Man­ley an­nounced that, al­though the vic­tim’s death was sus­pi­cious, it was be­ing treated as an “iso­lated in­ci­dent”. It was later sug­gested that the vic­tim had been wrongly tar­geted. Po­lice had vis­ited An­thony’s street only the pre­vi­ous week dur­ing a drugs bust on a sep­a­rate house a few doors

Bombers have a ‘ wait- and- see’ el­e­ment to their per­son­al­ity... they can con­tain their frus­tra­tion, their anger, their emo­tions, it’s a drawn- out process

down, and po­lice spec­u­lated that the pack­age was in­tended for a sus­pected drug dealer in the neigh­bour­hood. Even more up­set­ting to the African- Amer­i­can pub­lic was a the­ory, voiced by APD As­sis­tant Chief Joseph Cha­con, sug­gest­ing that the vic­tim had ac­ci­den­tally det­o­nated the bomb him­self by mis­take. How­ever, on 12 March an­other deadly pack­age ma­te­ri­alised, this time on the doorstep of 17- year- old east Austin res­i­dent Draylen Ma­son.

A gifted bass player, he had al­ready been ac­cepted into the But­ler School of Mu­sic at the Univer­sity of Texas. Be­fore his death he had been await­ing news of his ap­pli­ca­tion to the prestigious Ober­lin Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic. As many as 1,500 stu­dents had ap­plied, and Draylen’s life was cut short just days be­fore he could re­ceive word that he was one of

130 ap­pli­cants ac­cepted by the se­lec­tive Texas mu­sic school. Pick­ing the mun­dane brown box up off his porch just be­fore 7am, Draylen was killed by the ex­plo­sive de­vice in­side. Stand­ing close be­hind him, his 40- year- old mother was also badly in­jured by the blast.

In the wake of the sec­ond bomb, re­ports were emerg­ing that the in­ci­dents were re­lated – the first vic­tim’s grand­fa­ther was a close friend of the sec­ond vic­tim’s step­fa­ther, and both at­tended the same church in what is re­garded as a poor area in Austin’s African- Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. This in­tri­cate de­tail and link sent shock­waves through the city as lo­cal law en­force­ment at­tempted to crack the code be­hind the mys­tery bomber’s puz­zle.

Some­one who knows all about de­cod­ing the iden­tity of a se­rial bomber is for­mer FBI agent, foren­sic lin­guist and pro­filer James R. Fitzger­ald, who helped the FBI to build a pro­file of se­rial bomber Ted Kaczyn­ski in the 90s, when the unit was hunt­ing down the cul­prit be­hind a 17- year- long killing spree, mail­ing pipe bombs to univer­si­ties and air­lines across the coun­try. As a foren­sic lin­guist and pro­filer, James set about as­sess­ing the Un­abomber’s 35,000- word man­i­festo ‘ In­dus­trial So­ci­ety And Its Fu­ture’, pro­vid­ing the FBI with clues that ul­ti­mately led to the cap­ture of one of the most in­fa­mous killers in US his­tory.

Fitzger­ald told us that while he knew noth­ing about the first bomb­ing in Austin be­cause of the lim­ited me­dia cov­er­age at the time, “when the sec­ond bomb­ing oc­curred, ev­ery­thing came to­gether” and lo­cal law en­force­ment came to re­alise that the in­ci­dents were con­nected. “Austin, Texas is not a small city by US stan­dards,” Fitzger­ald told us, “but they didn’t have many se­rial bomb­ing in­ci­dents in their past, if any, so they reached out to the FBI, and the Bureau of Al­co­hol, Tobacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives was also in­volved. In al­most every case when there’s a mul­ti­ple ju­ris­dic­tional ef­fort un­der­way, a task force will be es­tab­lished, and in al­most all cases the FBI is cho­sen to lead that task force.”

Barely five hours later, a third bomb det­o­nated at a res­i­dence in Mon­topo­lis, in­jur­ing 75- year- old Esper­anza Her­rera. The third bomb, how­ever, had been ad­dressed to a

dif­fer­ent home a few doors down, so po­lice were per­plexed why it was left on this doorstep. Esper­anza was un­re­lated to the first two vic­tims, so it left in­ves­ti­ga­tors scratch­ing their heads about who the bomber was and why he was tar­get­ing his vic­tims.

FBI crim­i­nal pro­filer John E. Dou­glas pointed out dur­ing his ca­reer that what has hap­pened and why it has hap­pened can pro­vide crim­i­nal pro­fil­ers with clues about who the per­pe­tra­tor is, and as Fitzger­ald ex­plained to us, se­rial bombers have their own unique code. “Bombers have a ‘ wait- and- see’ el­e­ment to their per­son­al­ity,” he told us, “they can con­tain their frus­tra­tion, their anger, their emo­tions, it’s a drawn- out process, which is usu­ally re­flec­tive of their per­son­al­ity. They can de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion to some ex­tent and are happy to just read about it on the In­ter­net or watch it on the news.”

With the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties wis­ing up to the fact that the bombs were the start of some­thing on a much grander scale, Con­ditt was out there some­where rel­ish­ing the havoc. One of the big­gest mys­ter­ies sur­round­ing se­rial bombers is their mo­tive: while cul­prits such as Kaczyn­ski or Eric Ru­dolph were typ­i­cally an­gry at their tar­gets, where such anger comes from and how it boils over into a mur­der­ous plot is of­ten ques­tioned. “Many times the crime is not about profit or greed,” Fitzger­ald told us. “There’s no fi­nan­cial ben­e­fit to it. There may be some ex­cep­tions to that rule on a very in­di­vid­ual ba­sis, but gen­er­ally they’re more ide­o­log­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cally ori­ented. It’s not a sex crime, he’s not us­ing a bomb to gain any sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion, and you could al­most say re­venge would be the third cat­e­gory of why a se­rial bomber would of­fend. But when you have dis­parate vic­tims

like we’ve had here, with no sex or ex­tor­tion de­mands made – at least not yet – that makes FBI agents and FBI pro­fil­ers’ jobs even more dif­fi­cult, be­cause you don’t have the nor­mal mo­ti­va­tions in that re­gard.”

Fitzger­ald ex­plained that through­out his ca­reer, which took off in the mid 90s thanks to the Un­abomber case, he has learned that such of­fend­ers may not have had the best grades in school or col­lege ( al­though Kaczyn­ski is an ex­cep­tion), but their in­tel­li­gence is cen­tral to their plan. “If you’re a suc­cess­ful se­rial bomber you’re prob­a­bly the bright­est or at least among the bright­est of all the types of vi­o­lent crim­i­nals,” he told us. “A se­rial bomber has to know how to safely and ef­fec­tively con­struct an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice, and it’s not like the old days where some­one hooks a wire to it and stands with a plunger 100 feet ( 30 me­tres) away, you have to make these things so you can trans­port them. You’re not go­ing to build these things where your vic­tim lives or where your tar­get lives, so you have to safely trans­port them and have them det­o­nate at the ap­pro­pri­ate time when the most dam­age will be done. So with se­rial bombers you have all these fac­tors in play and your lack of in­tel­li­gence won’t just get you caught, your lack of in­tel­li­gence could cause you to lose hands, or in­deed your life.”

Method In The Mad­ness

With two fa­tal­i­ties and two oth­ers se­ri­ously in­jured by doorstep ex­plo­sives, in­ves­ti­ga­tions were al­ready well un­der­way in closely analysing pat­terns in the vic­tims that had been tar­geted. Both of the men who had died were African- Amer­i­can, while the most re­cent tar­get was His­panic. Po­lice sus­pected racism as a fac­tor in the killer’s mo­tives. Mean­while, tech­ni­cians in­spected the bombs for clues about their cre­ator. Ac­cord­ing to Fitzger­ald, “Bombers are very pos­ses­sive of their de­vices, they’re very proud of their hand­i­craft and their work, and they al­most al­ways want to put out there in one form or an­other [ the rea­son] why they did it.”

Dis­cussing how the burnt- out pieces of a com­plex puz­zle holds vi­tal clues to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Fitzger­ald said, “Some [ bombs] will have very distinc­tive wiring pat­terns or det­o­nat­ing de­vices or re­mote con­trol- type de­vices. Yes it can evolve, yes it can change, but the fun­da­men­tal sig­na­ture, if

Bombers are very pos­ses­sive of their de­vices, they’re very proud of their hand­i­craft and their work

you will, of the de­vice it­self will re­main con­stant. It’s not too dif­fi­cult for bomb tech­ni­cians to know if it is in fact made by the same of­fender and with the same so­phis­ti­ca­tion level.”

Fol­low­ing the ar­rest of the Un­abomber in 1996, Fitzger­ald an­a­lysed thou­sands of pages of doc­u­men­ta­tion Kaczyn­ski had writ­ten and stored away in the mis­taken be­lief that no one else would ever read them. What he learned from Kaczyn­ski’s writ­ings about the way such a killer’s mind works is that, “as with any as­pect of life, prac­tice makes per­fect, and the thing about se­rial bombers is the first bomb­ing is al­most never ac­tu­ally the first det­o­na­tion of his de­vices. He’s gone off into the woods some­where, the desert, you name it, and he’s had some prac­tice runs.” It’s a view shared by for­mer FBI chief hostage ne­go­tia­tor and a su­per­vi­sor in the FBI’s’ Be­hav­ioral Sci­ence Unit, Clint Van Zandt.

Al­though nearly a week had passed since the third bomb had det­o­nated, Austin was buzzing with ac­tiv­ity, and the pos­si­bil­ity that a bomb could go off at any stage had left a se­ri­ous im­pres­sion in its res­i­dents. “This re­ally was a case of do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism,” Fitzger­ald said, “we didn’t know who was be­hind it but you don’t have to be­long to a rad­i­cal group of any sort to be a ter­ror­ist – the Un­abomber was a ter­ror­ist and he op­er­ated by him­self.” Po­lice ad­vised res­i­dents to be vig­i­lant when ap­proach­ing un­known parcels and re­ceived more than 250 calls alert­ing them to sus­pi­cious pack­ages, none of which were traps laid by the un­known bomber.

On 18 March two white men, both in their early 20s, walked through a res­i­den­tial street in Travis County and in­ad­ver­tently ac­ti­vated a trip­wire, which det­o­nated an ex­plo­sive de­vice an­chored to a sign­post. Both men were in­jured. No longer were these in­ci­dents iso­lated and no more could po­lice in­sist that these ex­plo­sions were co­in­ci­den­tal, accidental or racially mo­ti­vated. Au­thor­i­ties were forced to

He ad­mit­ted he was be­hind the bomb­ing: “I’m a psy­chopath,” he told who­ever would lis­ten to the video in the af­ter­math of his death

ad­mit that Austin had a se­rial bomber in their midst and that the de­vices were pro­gress­ing with “a higher level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion” and “a higher level of skill”. US news chan­nel CNN de­scribed the lat­est at­tack as an “in­dis­crim­i­nate wakeup call”. The use of a trip­wire as op­posed to a specif­i­cally placed ex­plo­sive prompted in­ves­ti­ga­tors to be­lieve that the bomber was not specif­i­cally tar­get­ing his vic­tims after all and that he or she had “re­ceived some train­ing, per­haps as a mil­i­tary or po­lice ex­plo­sive ord­nance dis­posal tech­ni­cian”.

A lit­tle more than 48 hours later the bomber struck again. This time a pack­age det­o­nated in­side a FedEx Ground fa­cil­ity in Schertz, in­jur­ing one em­ployee. Within hours an­other pack­age was in­ter­cepted at a sep­a­rate FedEx fa­cil­ity south­east of Austin, It was de­ter­mined that the same per­son had sent both pack­ages from a FedEx store in Sun­set Val­ley. With six bombs, mul­ti­ple vic­tims and var­i­ous meth­ods, the race to find the bomber was as in­tense as ever.

The big­gest break­through in the case came from the se­cu­rity footage at the Sun­set Val­ley FedEx of­fice, show­ing the killer on cam­era. A red 2002 Ford Ranger with no li­cence plate was spot­ted ap­proach­ing the build­ing. Dressed in a blond wig and wear­ing pink rub­ber gloves, a man had posted the bomb- laden pack­ages un­der the name ‘ Kelly Kill­more’. Clint Van Zandt dis­cov­ered in his orig­i­nal re­search on the bomb­ings that the un­det­o­nated pack­age was ad­dressed to a lo­cal Austin spa and meant for “a young white fe­male who cur­rently at­tends the same com­mu­nity col­lege as did Con­ditt, in his case from 2010- 2012.” Ac­cord­ing to Van Zandt, Mark Con­ditt “was not a client at the spa, and nei­ther the in­tended vic­tim nor her co- work­ers knew the bomber.”

Bomb tech­ni­cians re­alised that parts of the bomb were sim­i­lar and had been made from com­mon house­hold in­stru­ments and in­gre­di­ents. They be­gan scour­ing lo­cal stores and look­ing at re­ceipts and strange pur­chases, a move that pro­vided them with “crit­i­cal ev­i­dence” that the bomber had been snaking through the city un­de­tected. Van Zandt, au­thor of Fac­ing Down Evil: Life As An FBI Pro­filer And Hostage Ne­go­tia­tor, ex­plained, “Some of the bomb com­po­nents, and the bomber’s distinc­tive pink con­struc­tion gloves, were all found for sale in a lo­cal Home De­pot. Pur­chase re­ceipts can be iden­ti­fied by item, date and method of pay­ment, and then the date and time of the re­ceipt can be com­pared with the store’s sur­veil­lance cam­eras, both in­side and out­side of the store. This is to get a pic­ture of the pur­chaser, and per­haps his ve­hi­cle as he drove away: yet an­other clue. Then there were the unique bat­ter­ies used to power the bombs – in this case, bat­ter­ies that were pur­chased from an over­seasre­lated seller via the In­ter­net. A search for pur­chasers of these bat­ter­ies, es­pe­cially if you al­ready have a per­son of in­ter­est, yielded yet an­other clue.”

Fed­eral search war­rants ob­tained the sus­pect’s IP ad­dress and they found sus­pi­cious Google searches re­lat­ing to the cre­ation of home­made bombs. Van Zandt ex­plained how “sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy played a large part in this race to catch a killer. The FBI brought in their Cel­lu­lar Anal­y­sis Sur­vey Team, one with the abil­ity to iden­tify every cell phone in the vicin­ity of every in­di­vid­ual bomb­ing, and then de­ter­mine what phones were at more than one crime scene, with the owner of that phone im­me­di­ately be­com­ing a per­son of in­ter­est.”

“I’m A Psy­chopath”

By the early hours of Wed­nes­day 21 March, the law was clos­ing in on Con­ditt, but he was ready. With po­lice on the bomber’s tail on In­ter­state 35 in Round Rock, ap­prox­i­mately 30 kilo­me­tres out­side of Austin, Van Zandt later the­o­rised that Con­ditt had stud­ied the ac­tions and meth­ods of se­rial bombers be­fore him and that “like many prior of­fend­ers, he elected to com­mit sui­cide be­fore al­low­ing him­self to be ex­posed to so­ci­ety, not as an evil ge­nius type of mad bomber, but an emo­tion­ally and so­cially chal­lenged in­di­vid­ual who seems to have cho­sen to pun­ish so­ci­ety for their be­lieved in­jus­tices against him.” Aware that his spree was about to end as law en­force­ment fol­lowed him down In­ter­state 35, Con­ditt det­o­nated his last known bomb, killing his fi­nal vic­tim – him­self. The ve­hi­cle he was driv­ing erupted into a fire­ball be­fore those who had hoped to be able to bring him to jus­tice could strike.

Po­lice later dis­cov­ered a video. Recorded on the sus­pect’s own phone at 9pm the pre­vi­ous evening, Con­ditt made a con­fes­sion of sorts and threat­ened that he would make his way into a crowded McDo­nald’s restau­rant and blow him­self up if he thought he was be­ing fol­lowed. He ad­mit­ted he was be­hind the bomb­ings: “I’m a psy­chopath,” he told who­ever would lis­ten to the video in the af­ter­math of his death. Through­out the 25- minute video, which has not been re­leased to the pub­lic, Con­ditt was de­void of any re­morse: “I wish I were sorry but I am not,” he said, adding that he felt he had been dis­turbed since his child­hood.

With the sus­pected se­rial bomber dead, news of his iden­tity quickly trav­elled through the cap­i­tal of Texas, as res­i­dents learned that the un­em­ployed 23- year- old from the Austin sub­urb of Pflugerville had grown up the el­dest of three chil­dren, who were all home- schooled by their mother. Now a young adult, he had shared his home with an AfricanAmer­i­can room­mate, fur­ther putting paid to the the­ory that the se­rial bomber was a racist. “If his mo­tive might have in­cluded racism, why did he take a black room­mate into his house?” Clint Van Zandt said. He de­scribed

Con­ditt not as a se­rial bomber, but as a spree bomber: “He did not have the req­ui­site emo­tional cool­ing off pe­ri­ods be­tween of­fenses that con­trib­ute to the def­i­ni­tion of a se­rial of­fender. Never mind a la­bel, he was a killer with the full po­ten­tial to con­tinue killing were he not stopped by an army of 1,000 law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, ones who brought every in­ves­tiga­tive tool in their col­lec­tive in­ven­to­ries to track this man down.”

When dis­cussing the video they had found on the al­leged bomber’s phone with the press, APD Chief Brian Man­ley said, “He does not at all men­tion any­thing about ter­ror­ism, nor does he men­tion any­thing about hate, but in­stead it is the out­cry of a very chal­lenged young man, talk­ing about chal­lenges in his per­sonal life.” His fam­ily de­scribed them­selves as a “nor­mal fam­ily in every way,” who were “dev­as­tated and bro­ken” to have been caught in the mid­dle of Con­ditt’s crime, and of­fered their sym­pa­thies to the fam­i­lies af­fected by Con­ditt’s killing spree. They in­sisted they had “no idea of the dark­ness” Con­ditt har­boured in his mind. With no clues on his so­cial me­dia ac­counts or in his fi­nal con­fes­sion, APD Chief Man­ley said they might never know the rea­son be­hind the at­tacks.

With Con­ditt’s bomb­ing spree over, Fitzger­ald said the city of Austin, like any­where af­fected by such an ex­treme sit­u­a­tion, is still healing from the fall­out. “It does take its toll on a com­mu­nity,” he said, “when it hap­pens right in your neck of the woods, your neigh­bour­hood and you know the peo­ple who are be­ing killed, or are just like you, even if you didn’t know them, that def­i­nitely leaves men­tal scars on peo­ple, and I’ve no doubt they’ll be there for years to come.”

In an era where a pack­age or a par­cel sent through the mail is an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence, Con­ditt chose to use this line of de­liv­ery to tar­get his vic­tims

above While at first it ap­peared that Con­ditt was tar­get­ing mi­nori­ties in poor neigh­bour­hoods in Austin, his third bomb, which det­o­nated on Dawn Song Drive in Travis County, was a pre­dom­i­nantly white neigh­bour­hood, leav­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­fused as to the bomber’s mo­tiveright In his sup­posed video con­fes­sion, Con­ditt blamed him­self for al­low­ing him­self to get caught by go­ing to the FedEx build­ings, where he was cap­tured on cam­era mail­ing two pack­age bombs to his vic­tims As Con­ditt’s rep­u­ta­tion grew, so did the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of his meth­ods when tar­get­ing his vic­tims. The spree bomber planned to mail one of his pack­ages to a young woman in east Austin, but it was in­ter­cepted

be­low Mark Con­ditt’s car, which he was driv­ing when po­lice pur­sued him down In­ter­state 35. The blast from Con­ditt’s sui­cide bomb knocked down and in­jured one of the of­fi­cers on the verge of ar­rest­ing him, while an­other fired a shot at the sus­pect

above Hop­ing to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of spree bomber 23- year- old Mark Con­ditt, po­lice looked into his home life, but found no ob­vi­ous clues about how a “shy and quiet” boy brought up in a de­vout Chris­tian home be­came a killer

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