AUSTIN, TX — Law enforcement officials staged a hastily called press conference on Monday revealing new details related to their investigation into the serial bombings that sparked widespread panic last month before the suspect blew himself up as police closed in.
Much of what was disclosed, however, were details largely already in the public record. Portions of the newly unsealed affidavit confirmed officials found various similarities among the detonated devices, leading them to conclude the terror campaign was the work of a single person who’s since been identified as Mark Anthony Conditt, 23, of Pflugerville. All six of the detonated parcel bombs contained shrapnel, officials revealed at the press conference.
One new detail emerged related to a March 18 explosion that injured two bicyclists who happened upon a package left along the street curb. One witness told investigators of having seen a sign near that package that read "Drive Like Your Children Live Here" when the tipster returned home around 8:25 p.m. that hadn’t been there before. U.S. Attorney John F. Bash, who spearheaded the press conference, said the sign may have been used as part of the triggering device to detonate the package.
That detonation along Dawn Song Drive in Southwest Austin seriously hurt two men, Colton Mathes and Will Grote, when they inadvertently tripped an attached wire as they pushed their bicycles along the street, unaware that the sign had been placed there to obscure the detonation device.
A spokesperson for St. David’s South Austin Medical Center previously told Patch the two men were in good condition. A friend of one of the men recently confirmed this to Patch, saying his injured friend is expected to make a full recover from his injuries.
More detailed information on bomb-making purchases was disclosed centered on the discovery of two more devices detected on March 20. The first device exploded at a FedEx facility in Schertz while the second one was intercepted at a FedEx location in Southeast Austin. The latter package utilized PVC pipe casing with a metal pipe inside it surrounded by shrapnel. The rigged device used the flap of the package as the triggering device, sparking the explosion upon opening, according to the affidavit.
Officials also disclosed that on Feb. 27 — nearly two weeks before the first bombing that killed Anthony Stephan House at his home along the 1100 block of Haverford Drive — the suspect purchased several items from a Frye’s Electronics store in the 12700 block of North MoPac Expressway (Loop 1) that were among the ingredients found in the other parcel bombs. The purchases at the store were already known to the public after word leaked out, the sole light shed on Monday being that the materials were found in all the detonated packages.
Conditt’s lack of sophistication in making his purchases through easily traced credit card transactions was laid bare in the affidavit: "The customer utilized a U.S. Bank credit card issued to Mark Conditt, who according to Texas Department of Public Safety driver’s license records, resides at 403 2nd Street N., TX, 78660," the affidavit reads. "Conditt has a 2002 Red Ford Ranger with an extended cab registered to him," the document continues, suggesting that cross-referencing his presence at the store was easily accomplished, likely as a result of surveillance camera footage once the pattern of purchases was established at specific stores.
Indeed, investigators noted having found surveillance footage from a Home Depot store in Round Rock showing Conditt buying the aforementioned "Drive Like Your Kids Live Here" sign used in the March 18 explosion. The suspect also bought work gloves matching those seen on surveillance footage from one of the FedEx locations Conditt visited when he started mailing parcel bombs in a departure from his earlier tactic of leaving packages on doorsteps.
A confidential source was shown the images, confirming to investigators it looked like Conditt and verifying his ownership of the red pickup truck: "A confidential source (CS1) with multiple contacts with Mark Conditt was interviewed in March 20, 2018," the affidavit reads.
"CS1 was shwon a single photo of Mark Conditt and identified the photograph to be Mark Conditt. CS1 was then shown the Home Depot video footage from March 13, 2018…" the affidavit continues. "CS1 told law enforcement that the photograph looked like Mark Conditt. When asked how confident he/she was, CS1 said he/she was 98 percent confident that the customer in the House Depot footage was Mark Conditt. CS1 was shown the [redacted] footage of the red pickup truck…and told law enforcement that the truck looks like Conditt’s truck. When asked how confident he/she was, CS1 replied ’70 percent.’ "
Many questions left unanswered
And so it went. Prior to the 5 p.m. press conference on the tenth floor of the U.S. Attorney’s Office at 816 Congress Ave., reporters wishing to attend were asked to arrive no later than 3:45 p.m. to allow enough time to check into a reception desk, go through security protocols (reporters were frisked, scanned and had the contents of their bags examined) and be seated by 4:15 p.m. A subsequent 5:40 p.m. telephone conference was set up for reporters unable to attend the press conference announced Monday by officials on short notice.
Reporters await start of the April 9 press conference on the Austin serial bombings investigation
The sheer number of officials present suggested the press conference would be richly detailed. In addition to Bash, ten officials were there flanking the U.S. Attorney: First Assistant U.S. Attorney Ashley Hoff; Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michelle Fernald, Michael Galdo and Matt Harding; FBI San Antonio Special Agent Christopher Combs; Fred Milanowski of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Austin Police Department Interim Police Chief Brian Manley; Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore; Travis County 1st District Attorney Mindy Montford; and Travis County Assistant District Attorney Keith Henneke.
U.S. Attorney John F. Bash, flanked by several other law enforcement officials at the press conference
Yet upon receiving a copy of the redacted affidavit, veteran reporters waiting for the press conference to begin — adept at quickly scanning such documents to scan for new information — quietly groused at the dearth of detail contained.
But the press conference yielded more unanswered questions than a definitive accounting of events. Several of the reporters attending had expected an audio recording Conditt made the day before detonating one of his lethal parcel bombs on himself as he was cornered would be released. At an earlier press conference last month, Manley said the 28-minute cell phone recording was tantamount to a confession.
Asked if there might be other suspects in the case (it was later learned Conditt had roommates), Bash was vague: "There are no other suspects in custody at this time, and we have no reason to believe that there are other suspects, but as I said, the investigation is ongoing so I don’t want to close the book on that."
Patch zeroed in on a portion of the partially redacted affidavit revealing the package that exploded just before noon on March 12 was actually addressed to 6706 Galindo St., where a detonation there seriously injured 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera — the oldest of the victims for whom a GoFundMe account has been set up along those for other victims of the Austin bombings or their family members they left behind.
Since the package contained was addressed with such geographical specificity, Patch asked: Does that mean victims were targeted? Residents up to now have been led to believe targets were random, with parcel bombs left on doorsteps without identifying information. This assertion has been used by Manley to quell rumors that the bombings were racially motivated or devoid of ideology.
On that point, Bash was similarly vague: "I think when people have spoken of random, they mean the lack of a connection between the suspect or between the different targets, not that there was no address on the package."
Patch also learned the bomber likely purchased bomb-making materials at the Breed & Co. store licensed to sell Ace Hardware materials, having learned that investigators descended upon the neighborhood stop during and after the bombings as part of their investigation. The store located at 718 W. 29th St. — two blocks west of Guadalupe Street and three blocks east of Lamar Boulevard — was not mentioned in the affidavit, despite four people very close to the situation alerting Patch of investigators’ visits for more information.
Bash wouldn’t specify if there were other stores visited by Conditt for his deadly materials, other than the two referenced: "You know, I don’t want to say if there were or there weren’t because theres’s still an investigation going on," he said. "And whether there were or weren’t is not part of the public record, and then I’d have to start answering other questions."
Audio confession, footage of standoff likely won’t be released
What was made clear at the press conference — albeit through strong inference if not fully stated intention —is that a protracted battle will likely emerge between law enforcement officials hoping to keep the contents of that footage secret and those wanting it released.
"We do have some concerns with the release of that audio tape," Combs said. "The reason we do is that when we look at past active shooters or mass murders what we find is they study previous events, and we find sometimes these videos or those postings are — I hate to use the word inspirational, but it’s inspiration for future people who are thinking about these acts. We’ve discussed this issue with our federal and local partners: Is there a value in releasing the audio?
"We are concerned that it could inspire other people to do other acts," Combs continued. "The subject in the audio confession says a number of statements that concern us, and we don’t want that to live forever in the Internet. There’s obviously a discussion between public disclosure and openness, and I understand that 100 percent. But from a review of looking at active shooters and a review of past criminals, we are very concerned, and the last thing we want is for this to inspire somebody else."
Existing footage of the moments leading up to the bomber’s suicide as police closed in likely won’t be released anytime soon, either. Police located Conditt in Round Rock in the early morning hours of March 21, prompting a vehicle pursuit. In trying to elude capture, Conditt drove into a ditch before blowing himself up with his last explosive device rather than be apprehended.
Video footage of Conditt’s last stand exists, but it might not ever be released — at least not anytime soon, Manley told reporters: "So there is video that we have of the take-down of the suspect in this incident of the bomber, and there is still an ongoing investigation because as you all will recall, it also resulted in an officer involved shooting after he detonated that bomb," Manley explained. In the throes of the self-inflicted detonation that killed Conditt, one of the Austin officers at the scene reflexively fired a shot at the suspect. "So that is still an ongoing investigation, and we’re going to wait for the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office to close out their review of that case," Manley said.
Some in the community have argued for disclosure of the confession tape to discern if the bombings were racially motivated. The first two victims (and the only two to die in the serial bombings) were black, and the local chapter of the NAACP has spearheaded calls for Conditt’s audio confession to determine if race played a factor in his attack. House, a father of an eight-year-old girl and Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old musical prodigy with a bright future snuffed out by an exploding package, were the two fatalities during the campaign of terror. Both victims were black, and many residents want to know if the African American community was targeted in the attacks.
But even given the dearth of specificity at the gathering, one assurance was made clear. To their knowledge, no other explosive devices are believed to be out there left by the bomber before his suicide. But Bash asked for the public to remain vigilant, and call 911 if a suspicious package is spotted.
To some members of the citizenry terrorized by the campaign of terror unleashed on a wide part of the region, that final revelation of the absence of more parcel bombs likely brings the closure they need. But to others — particularly members of the African American community still wondering if their population was targeted and might be targeted again — questions remain, and may never be fully answered to gain a peace of mind that continues to be desperately sought.
Watch video of the full press conference below:
>>> Photos by Tony Cantú, including top image of Austin Police Department Interim Chief Brian Manley answering reporters’ questions