I SAID ‘GO!’

In­side the SWAT team that took down the Austin bomber.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Plo­het­ski tplo­het­ski@states­man.com

Around mid­night on March 20, a hand­ful of Austin Po­lice Depart­ment SWAT of­fi­cers climbed into a van and raced north up In­ter­state 35. They were close to catch­ing the se­rial bomber who had ter­ror­ized the city for 19 days.

In the dimly lit park­ing lot of a Rudy’s Coun­try Store and BarB-Q, the team as­sem­bled blocks from where the man’s red Nis­san SUV sat just off the high­way.

They had played out dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios, in­clud­ing that he could have a booby-trapped car loaded with ex­plo­sives or a hid- den bomb tucked un­der his seat. They had called for the depart­ment’s ar­mored ve­hi­cles, but by the time the sus­pect started mov­ing, the ve­hi­cles, which can travel at top speeds of about 50 mph, were still chug­ging up I-35 from po­lice head­quar­ters down­town.

“They were do­ing ev­ery­thing they could to get them there,” said

Lt. Ka­t­rina Pruitt, who su­per­vises the team. “He just went mo­bile too fast.”

They were go­ing to be on their own.

As they sealed their plan, the team agreed their fore­most goal was to end the at­tacks by ar­rest­ing the bomber with­out putting them­selves, the pub­lic or the sus­pect in dan­ger.

“We would have liked to con­tain him and gain con­trol over him to al­low him the abil­ity to peace­fully sur­ren­der,” SWAT team Sgt. Bran­non Ellsworth said.

When those plans quickly crum­bled, team mem­bers say they still knew they had to strike. They say they were left with no op­tion about what to do next.

A few hours ear­lier, the group — which had been on standby at the city’s emer­gency com­mand cen­ter — had heard the news they had long wanted.

An army of fed­eral, state and lo­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tors thought they had un­cov­ered the iden­tity of the man whose acts had killed two peo­ple and in­jured five.

His name was Mark Con­ditt. And law en­force­ment of­fi­cials thought they knew where the 23-year-old was.

Ear­lier that evening, Ellsworth, one of three team su­per­vi­sors, had sent sev­eral squad mem­bers home to rest from what had been gru­el­ing around-the-clock shifts. He knew it was time to pull them back.

“We started build­ing plans of how to deal with that sus­pect,” Ellsworth said.

Of­fi­cer Leighton Radtke got the call while still driv­ing home. With ten­sion mount­ing in the op­er­a­tions cen­ter, he spun his un­marked car around, pressed the gas and rushed to meet his team­mates.

“I think we all re­al­ized the sever­ity of that mo­ment,” he said.

Dur­ing the three weeks of bomb­ings, more than 300 law en­force­ment of­fi­cers from across the coun­try worked on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. All along, the SWAT team, which spe­cial­izes in hostage ne­go­ti­a­tions and tak­ing high-risk sus­pects into cus­tody, faced the pos­si­ble task of ar­rest­ing the bomber once de­tec­tives fig­ured out who and where he was.

The at­tacks started March 2, when Con­ditt planted a bomb at the doorstep of 39-year-old An­thony House. It det­o­nated out­side.

Ten days later, an­other pack­age bomb killed 17-year-old Draylen Ma­son and in­jured his mother, and within hours, a third ex­plo­sion se­verely in­jured 75-year-old Esper­anza “Hope” Her­rera.

The ran­dom blasts put all of Austin on edge and led po­lice to warn against open­ing any sus­pi­cious pack­ages. On the evening of March 18, the pub­lic threat grew more fright­en­ing when Con­ditt used a trip wire to det­o­nate an ex­plo­sive that hurt two men in a South­west Austin neigh­bor­hood.

That week, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion had picked up mo­men­tum af­ter Con­ditt shipped two pack­ages from a FedEx store on Brodie Lane. Se­cu­rity cam­eras pro­vided a glimpse of him wear­ing a blonde wig and base­ball cap. By then, he al­ready had been on in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ radar, af­ter de­tec­tives had plowed through stacks of store re­ceipts from Austin-area re­tail­ers and found Con­ditt had pur­chased var­i­ous bomb-mak­ing ma­te­ri­als.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the bomb­ings is not yet com­plete. In­ves­ti­ga­tors say they are still comb­ing through foren­sic ev­i­dence and scour­ing dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion from Con­ditt’s com­puter. So far, they say they have found no mo­tive in the at­tacks — Con­ditt left an au­dio con­fes­sion in which he refers to him­self as a psy­chopath — and still think the vic­tims were ran­dom.

Last week, the Wil­liamson County district at­tor­ney’s of­fice closed its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into SWAT team of­fi­cer Vin­cent Gar­cia, who shot at Con­ditt dur­ing the at­tempt to ar­rest him. Prose­cu­tors have a pol­icy of pre­sent­ing all po­lice shoot­ings to a grand jury, no mat­ter the cir­cum­stances.

The clo­sure of that as­pect of case opened the pos­si­bil­ity for SWAT of­fi­cers to pub­licly dis­cuss their ac­tions. Four of the 11 agreed to in­ter­views with the Amer­i­can-States­man and KVUE-TV. The oth­ers, in­clud­ing Gar­cia, de­clined, say­ing they want to re­main pri­vate.

As the team pre­pared to ar­rest Con­ditt, he started his SUV and be­gan driv­ing.

By then, chop­pers from the Texas Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety and the Austin Po­lice Depart­ment Austin SWAT of­fi­cer Austin SWAT se­nior of­fi­cer be­gan hov­er­ing over Con­ditt. Of­fi­cers ra­dioed from the air that Con­ditt was “com­ing up to 35 frontage, go­ing to be tak­ing a right turn south­bound.”

Ellsworth also had as­sem­bled two teams in two vans, and they can be seen in video footage from the air fol­low­ing Con­ditt at about 40 mph. The three ve­hi­cles went through the frontage road’s in­ter­sec­tion with Old Set­tlers Boule­vard be­fore con­tin­u­ing south.

Pruitt says she thinks that, by then, Con­ditt al­most cer­tainly sus­pected po­lice were be­hind him be­cause of the pa­rade of ve­hi­cles and he­li­copters fol­low­ing him.

SWAT team mem­ber Michael Ridge, sand­wiched be­tween other of­fi­cers in one of the vans, said the oper­a­tion moved too fast for him to get ner­vous.

“I was so fo­cused on mak­ing sure that I was do­ing what I needed to do,” he said. “I didn’t re­ally think about this could be our last chance. You rely on your train­ing and think about the mis­sion at hand.”

Ellsworth, also in­side one of the vans, said he grew con­cerned Con­ditt was about to en­ter the high­way or pos­si­bly head to­ward a pub­lic place — a worry that proved le­git­i­mate. Con­ditt said in his au­dio con­fes­sion he planned to go to a crowded McDonald’s and blow him­self up in­stead of be­ing ar­rested.

“We knew the po­ten­tial risk for oth­ers to be in­jured if he wasn’t quickly de­tained,” Radtke said.

With the ten­sion at a fevered pitch, Ellsworth called Pruitt, his su­per­vi­sor, as the vans con­tin­ued tail­ing Con­ditt. He told her he wanted to or­der a “ve­hi­cle as­sault,” a rarely used tac­tic in which po­lice in­ten­tion­ally crash into a sus­pect’s car. Ellsworth hoped it would dis­able Con­ditt, pinch­ing him be­tween the two vans.

Pruitt had just left her of­fice down­town and was on the up­per deck of I-35, rac­ing to the area, when she got Ellsworth’s call.

“I told him, if it is at all pos­si­ble, do not al­low him to go to pop­u­lated ar­eas,” she said. “He said, ‘This is what our plans are.’ I said, ‘Go!’

“The ve­hi­cle as­sault was truly not the best-case sce­nario,” Pruitt said.

Ellsworth added, “It was re­ally the only op­tion we had at that time.”

One of the vans got in front of Con­ditt, pro­vid­ing a bar­rier while the one be­hind him rammed into his back bumper. At that point, there was nowhere for Con­ditt to go.

SWAT of­fi­cers, in­clud­ing Gar­cia and Rob Juste­sen, threw open the door and jumped from the rear van. Juste­sen pounded on the pas­sen­ger win­dow of Con­ditt’s ve­hi­cle three times. Then, an ex­plo­sion blasted from Con­ditt’s SUV, blow­ing shards of glass from his win­dows and knock­ing the two of­fi­cers back sev­eral feet.

Team mem­bers say it was likely a life-sav­ing co­in­ci­dence they went to Con­ditt’s pas­sen­ger side; they fear their two fel­low of­fi­cers could have been killed had they gone to the driver’s side.

It hap­pened so fast that the other of­fi­cers were still get­ting out of the vans and run­ning to­ward Con­ditt when they were rocked by the force of the ex­plo­sion.

“You know, it’s funny, I don’t re­mem­ber hear­ing the blast,” Ellsworth said. “I saw it. I’m sure it was loud, but you are so fo­cused on do­ing what you can to help your team­mate.”

Radtke added, “It was ap­par­ent to me that it was some­thing other than gun­fire.”

Pruitt said by the time she got to the scene — “That seemed to be the slow­est damn drive” — more than 150 of­fi­cers had al­ready ar­rived. In the chaos, she searched for her team. She spent about 10 ag­o­niz­ing min­utes try­ing to “put my eyes on ev­ery­body.”

Radtke called his wife: “‘We’re OK. My guys are OK. I’ll talk to you soon.’”

In the six months since the ex­plo­sions, the SWAT team has re­turned to its more tra­di­tional mis­sion, but with a closer bond.

“We are just a group of guys all fo­cused on one thing, be­ing a pro­fes­sional team and per­sonal friends,” Ellsworth said.

“Quiet pro­fes­sion­als,” Radtke said.

The depart­ment hon­ored mem­bers in a spe­cial cer­e­mony this spring. For weeks af­ter, mem­bers say, any­time they wore their team shirts to lunch, peo­ple stopped and thanked them.

Ridge said friends and fam­ily mem­bers have asked him to de­scribe what hap­pened that morn­ing. He is not ea­ger.

“I change the sub­ject,” he said. “It’s not some­thing I want to go around talk­ing about.”

The team says they will al­ways re­mem­ber their ac­tions that day in a ca­reer that prom­ises the un­pre­dictable.

“This was a big in­ci­dent, and no one down­plays that, but to­mor­row is a new day,” Radtke said. “The job car­ries on for us.”

AMANDA VOISARD / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Austin SWAT mem­bers of­fi­cer Michael Ridge (from left); of­fi­cer Leighton Radtke; Lt. Ka­t­rina Pruitt, who su­per­vises the team; and Sgt. Bran­non Ellsworth were part of the team in­volved in the fi­nal scene of the se­rial bomber case. “I think we all re­al­ized the sever­ity of that mo­ment,” Radtke said of the show­down when the team closed in on 23-year-old Mark Con­ditt.

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

On March 21, of­fi­cials in­ves­ti­gate the ve­hi­cle of Austin bomber Mark Con­ditt. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the bomb­ings is not yet com­plete. So far, no mo­tive has been found.

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