Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Austin Bombing Suspect Bought Some Materials at Home Depot
New York Times
MARCH 21, 2018

Law enforcement responded to an area of Round Rock, Tex., where the police say a bombing suspect blew himself up in his vehicle. Credit Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

PFLUGERVILLE, Tex. — An intense, three-week manhunt in a series of bombings that has terrorized Austin, Tex., came to an explosive end on Wednesday when the suspect, a 23-year-old unemployed man who had purchased bomb-making materials at a local Home Depot, drove into a ditch and blew himself up.

The suspect, Mark Anthony Conditt, whom authorities had identified via surveillance footage and other clues left behind in one of the country’s worst serial bombing cases, was dead at the scene, the authorities said. One police officer was blown back by the blast and another officer fired his weapon.

“The danger that has been causing so many people in Austin and across Texas to be so concerned has been eliminated,” Gov. Greg Abbott told local television.

Officials said Mr. Conditt’s motive was not immediately clear, but a picture of his life was beginning to emerge: He was a home-schooled student who never graduated from community college. He described himself on a blog as “not that politically inclined” but expressed conservative views on issues like gay marriage and the death penalty. Friends and neighbors described him as a loner.

“Sometimes he was a very intense person,” said Jeremiah Jensen, a friend from the local home-schooling community in Pflugerville. “He could sometimes get frustrated. There were times he could get angry over a misunderstanding.”

A city that has been on edge for weeks as several makeshift bombs exploded without warning — on doorsteps, on a sidewalk and, most recently, in a FedEx shipping center — saw the long-running drama coming to an end. But authorities warned that with the bomber’s obviously extensive preparations, it might not be entirely over.

“Two very important things before we can put this to rest. One, we don’t know if there are any other bombs out there and if so, how many and where they may be,” Mr. Abbott said on Fox News.

“Second, very importantly, we need to go throughout the day to make sure that we rule out whether there was anybody else involved in this process,” he said.

Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, told a local television affiliate that Mr. Conditt bought at least some of his bomb-making supplies from a Home Depot in Pflugerville, a small town about 20 miles northeast of Austin where the suspect lived.

“He did have a battery pack, and he had nails,” Mr. McCaul said.

The crucial break for investigators, Mr. McCaul said, came when Mr. Conditt walked into a FedEx office to mail a package earlier this week.

“From there, we could get surveillance video of him, get his vehicle, his license plate number, identify the individual, go to the Home Depot where he bought the stuff, and eventually, with his cellphone, be able to locate him, which they did this morning,” Mr. McCaul said.

A federal criminal complaint charging Mr. Conditt with unlawful possession and transfer of a destructive device was filed on Tuesday night, the authorities said Wednesday, along with a warrant for his arrest.

Also on Wednesday, the Austin Police said they had detained Mr. Conditt’s two roommates. One was questioned and released; the other was still being questioned as of Wednesday afternoon. Neither roommate was identified.

Earlier in the day, local police and state troopers went door-to-door in the five blocks around Mr. Conditt’s house and told residents they were evacuating the area for their safety as federal agents worked to remove and dispose of homemade explosives found inside the residence.

As they arrived, federal agents notified neighbors, and then approached someone at Mr. Conditt’s home, said Mark Roessler, 57, an information technology manager who lives across the street.

“I watched the truck come down the street and shove the car out of the way, and they started announcing, ‘This is the F.B.I. We’re here to serve search warrants,’” Mr. Roessler recounted. “And then within a few minutes this individual came out the front door. They were giving him clear instructions, had him remove his shirt, and walk toward them.”

Mr. Roessler said he had never seen the person who emerged from the house. “He was wearing some dark pants and a white T-shirt, looked like he had just woken up,” he said.

A string of bombings this month have put Austin, Tex., on high alert.

Law enforcement authorities spent hours closeted with Mr. Conditt’s parents in their white clapboard home with an American flag hanging outside.

“We do not understand what motivated him to do what he did,” the Austin police chief, Brian Manley, told reporters.

Mr. Conditt was a quiet, “nerdy” young man who came from a “tight-knit, godly family,” said Donna Sebastian Harp, who had known the family for nearly 18 years.

He was the oldest of four children who had all been home-schooled by their mother, Ms. Harp said, but he had also attended Austin Community College, although college officials said he did not graduate.

“He was always kind of quiet,” she said. “He was a nerd, always reading, devouring books and computers and things like that.”

She said there had never been any hints of violence, until Wednesday morning, when she received a text message from Mr. Conditt’s mother. It read, “Pray for our family. We are under attack” — a reference to a spiritual assault by Satan, Ms. Harp said.

The Conditt family is affiliated with Calvary Chapel of Austin, according to the church’s office manager, Dean Miller. It is an evangelical church that meets in a former grocery store in Pflugerville. Its members believe the Bible prohibits same-sex marriage.

It was not immediately clear how involved Mr. Conditt was in the church, but he argued against same-sex marriage in a post he wrote on a blog he created for a political science class at the community college.

“Political protection of a sexual practice is ludicrous,” Mr. Conditt wrote. “I do not believe it is proper to pass laws stating that homosexuals have ‘rights.’”

McKenna McIntosh, another student in the course, said Mr. Conditt’s views as reflected on his blog were “clear as day.” In a biography on the site, Mr. Conditt described himself as a conservative but said he was “not that politically inclined.” His six posts, which date from January to March 2012, also included arguments in favor of the end of sex-offender registries and in support of the death penalty.

“Living criminals harm and murder, again,” he wrote, “executed ones do not.”

In the post, he pointed to Larry James Harper, a Texas fugitive who killed himself in 2001 as the police closed in after he escaped from prison. He compared him to another escapee, George Rivas, who was captured.

It seemed almost to foreshadow his own fate.

“If he had wanted or wished for death, he would have just shot himself, like his fellow Texas 7 escapee, Larry Harper, who committed suicide, rather than be captured and re-incarcerated,” Mr. Conditt wrote.

Detective David Fugitt with the Austin police said Mr. Conditt’s family was cooperating and was allowing investigators to search the property, including several backyard sheds.

“We are devastated and broken at the news that our family member could be involved in such an awful way,” the family said in a statement published by CNN. “We had no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in. Our family is a normal family in every way. We love, we pray, and we try to inspire and serve others. Right now, our prayers are for the families who’ve lost loved ones, for those impacted in any way, and for the soul of our Mark. We are grieving and in shock.”

Real estate records show that Mr. Conditt and his father, William Conditt, bought a house together in Pflugerville in 2017, and family friends said the younger Mr. Conditt was remodeling it.

But neighbors said they saw little of him.

“I think he was pretty much a loner,” said Jay Schulze, a network engineer who lived about two blocks down, adding that Mr. Conditt spent most of his time with his parents.

A neighbor of Mr. Conditt’s parents, Jeff Reeb, 75, said the Conditts had never expressed concerns about their son to him.

“I can tell you nothing about him personally, except that he was a nice, young kid,” Mr. Reeb said. “He always seemed like he was smart. And he always seemed like he was very polite.”

Austin has been in the grip of the wave of attacks since March 2.

The first explosions hit African-American residents whose families are well-known in the city’s black community, though two white men were injured by an explosive triggered by a tripwire on Sunday.

The suspect is believed to be responsible for at least six bombs that killed at least two people and wounded five. Four bombs detonated in various locations in Austin where they had been left. Another detonated at a FedEx distribution center in Schertz, Tex., near San Antonio, and a sixth was found, unexploded, in a FedEx facility near Austin’s airport.

The attacks began when a package bomb detonated on the porch of an Austin home, killing Anthony Stephan House, 39. That was followed 10 days later by two bombs that were found outside homes, one of which killed a 17-year-old man.

The first three bombs were apparently detonated when they were picked up or jostled. Later, a package bomb exploded outside another Austin home, set off by a tripwire. The bombs at the FedEx centers were found on Tuesday.

The suspect’s vehicle was traced to a hotel in Round Rock, just north of Austin, Chief Manley said, where a SWAT team surreptitiously surrounded the hotel and called other specialized units. But the suspect drove away before those teams could arrive.

Officers followed the suspect, who stopped in a ditch off Interstate 35, and SWAT officers approached the vehicle on foot.

“The suspect detonated a bomb inside of the vehicle, knocking one officer back” and slightly injuring him, the police chief said. Another officer fired his gun at the vehicle.

Michael Luna, a guest at a Red Roof Inn near the confrontation, told a local news channel that he heard the explosion from the bomb, which sounded as if it had gone off 100 to 200 yards away, when he was smoking a cigarette in the parking lot. Mr. Luna, who said he had been in the military, said that the explosion sounded like two grenades going off at the same time, and that he heard a pop afterward that might have been gunfire.

The section of Interstate 35 near that confrontation was a traffic nightmare for hours as commuters moved at a glacial pace in the southbound lanes, many of them presumably unaware of what had happened. State troopers barred access at several ramps along that stretch of the highway.

By Wednesday morning, aerial video footage of the area from KVUE, a local television affiliate, showed a red sport utility vehicle with blown-out windows next to a blue tarp, surrounded by investigators’ vehicles.

Manny Fernandez reported from Pflugerville, Tex., Jack Healy from Denver, and Jessica Bidgood from Boston. Reporting was contributed by Jonah Engel Bromwich and Michael Gold in New York and Michael Wolgelenter and Richard Pérez-Peña from London.

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