The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Austin bomber was frustrated with his life, authorities say

On March 21, law enforcement officials identified the suspected Austin bomber as Mark Anthony Conditt of Pflugerville, Tex. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

PFLUGERVILLE, Tex. — He worked with his dad around their modest yellow house on Second Street, fixing up a newly purchased home in an old-fashioned, close-knit neighborhood — the kind of place where residents check in on one another.

Mark Anthony Conditt seemed to fit in. Having been home-schooled, the 23-year-old was close to his family, including his sisters. As he neared graduation, he took a government course at Austin Community College and described himself on a class blog as conservative but “not that politically inclined.”

People who knew him say Conditt was quiet and shy.

“Everyone has questions, and everyone wants answers, and we are just shocked,” said Mark’s grandmother Mary Conditt, who lives in Denver. “This is not the Mark that I know or the grandson that I know. I don’t know who this person was that did all of this.”

But Mark Conditt’s violent plans were revealed, police say, in a string of bombings that terrorized Austin this month.

Cornered by police Wednesday, Mark Conditt detonated explosives inside his car before dawn and ended a bombing campaign that killed two, injured several others and injected anxiety into a city renowned for its creativity and cool. The terror began with devices left at people’s homes on March 2 and March 12, then moved to an explosive rigged with a tripwire that injured two men this week and two explosives shipped through FedEx.

Interim Austin police chief ­Brian Manley said police believed Conditt was connected to all of the explosions, which they first linked to him through his cellphone, according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Abbot said authorities tracked his movements while “he was little more than a suspect.”

The scene in Austin after a fourth package explosion injures 2

Investigators on March 19 work at the scene of a bomb explosion on Dawn Song Drive in Austin that seriously injured two men March 18. Two people have been killed and four wounded in bombings over a span of less than three weeks. (Jay Janner)

Police found Conditt at a hotel north of Austin and followed him as he drove away and eventually veered off the road. His red SUV was the same vehicle that had been seen at locations linked to the explosions. As officers neared Conditt’s vehicle, he detonated a bomb that knocked back one of the approaching Austin SWAT officers. Another officer fired his gun at Conditt, who suffered “significant injuries from [the] blast,” Manley said.

It was not immediately clear whether Conditt was killed by the explosives or the gunfire.

Police said Wednesday evening that Conditt seemed motivated by frustration with his life.

Manley described a 25-minute recording left on Conditt’s phone as “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”

Mary Conditt, 83, said she last saw her grandson in December when he traveled with his family to her house for Christmas. Conditt described him as having strong conservative political beliefs but said he wasn’t reactionary and spent considerable time researching political viewpoints before he took a stand.

Mark Conditt recently moved into a house that he and his father had renovated. He invited two roommates to live with him, Mary Conditt said.

“We are of course grieving, broken and disappointed,” Conditt said. “I don’t know what else to say. . . . I know who Mark Anthony Conditt was to me, to his family, for all of his life, and this is not the Mark Anthony Conditt that we knew.”

Earlier in the investigation, authorities said they were considering whether at least some of the victims were targeted because of their race. The package bombs were left in predominately black and Hispanic neighborhoods of East Austin, killing Anthony Stephan House, 39, a money manager, and Draylen Mason, a college-bound 17-year-old known for his passion for music.

Another bomb severely injured Esperanza Herrera, a 75-year-old Hispanic woman visiting her mother.

Relatives also wondered whether a family connection played a role: House’s stepfather is friends with Mason’s grandfather Norman, and both are prominent fixtures in the black community.

But the tripwire bomb authorities say Mark Conditt set Sunday night appeared to target a white neighborhood, perhaps the children who would have been walking to school the following morning.

What police in part focused on — and were assisted with by Conditt when he walked into a FedEx office and was caught on camera — was Austin’s affinity for online and other home-delivery services that made front-porch packages something no one would think twice about. It suggested someone with a knowledge of the city and its habits.

“You just don’t know,” said Rey Casanova, a 42-year-old real estate agent in Pflugerville who said he and his wife buy “everything” online but haven’t for the past two weeks. “You don’t know what’s going to come in the mail.”

But, ultimately, none of this explains why Conditt, who attended a Christian church, veered toward violence, how he made bombs law-enforcement officials described as sophisticated, or why he decided that Austin and its residents should be a target.

Police detained two of his roommates who might know more about why Conditt, who would remain inside when neighbors chatted with his dad, became what authorities characterized as a “serial bomber.”

“It’s a very good family,” said Mark Roessler, 57, a neighbor. “His father was very friendly and very likable. You can tell he was a loving father, just really enjoying spending a lot of time with his son.”

Police are interviewing those who knew Conditt, scouring a social media footprint that seems modest at most and tracing his final movements, some caught on film as he used a south Austin FedEx office to mail his final bombs.

The FedEx shipments offered a significant moment because investigators were able to obtain surveillance footage of Conditt walking into the FedEx store wearing a wig and gloves, Abbott said. Investigators also determined that Conditt purchased signs like the one used to anchor the tripwire-rigged device that detonated Sunday night, Abbott said.

Conditt was not a military veteran, an early theory given the explosives expertise. Abbott told reporters Wednesday that he appeared to have bought the bomb components from Home Depot, and federal investigators are examining his Internet search history to see how self-taught his bomb-making skills might have been.

The public profile he left comprises a series of writings on his political views, socially conservative but far from radical. He opposed abortion and same-sex marriage; he lived on the periphery of a Texas city known as a liberal island in a largely red state. But no evidence so far has emerged of radicalization.

In 2010, Conditt enrolled in Austin Community College, a small campus in the large shadow cast here by the University of Texas at Austin.

He spent two years there as a business administration major but did not secure a degree, according to the school. Kyle Ghedi, who coincided with Conditt at the school but did not recall him, said the government and politics class was “half in class and half online” and that most students didn’t socialize with one another.

“You just go to class, and you don’t really talk to anyone, and no one really makes friends there,” Ghedi said. “Everyone is just there to go to class, and once class is over, you leave there. No one is sticking around to make friends, like a university.”

Conditt also worked beyond the renovation he was taking on at home with his dad. He was employed by Crux Manufacturing, a semiconductor manufacturer that occupies a set of mostly windowless buildings about four miles from the Conditt family home.

“We love and grieve with our city, and we continue to pray for the victims and their families who were affected by these recent tragedies” said John Yeng, communications director of the Austin Stone Community Church, which Conditt once attended. “We are cooperating with law enforcement with any pertinent information we can find that may be of help as they continue their investigation.”

Craig, Wilson and Berman reported from Washington. Kristine Phillips in Pflugerville and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.