PFLUGERVILLE, Tex. — After a string of exploding packages terrorized Austin for nearly three weeks, police said the search for a serial bomber ended in a suburb outside the Texas capital when the suspect blew up an explosive inside his car as officers closed in.
Authorities said the suspected bomber — identified as Mark Anthony Conditt, 23, of Pflugerville, Tex. — was killed after the blast early Wednesday morning. Police tracked him down to a hotel north of Austin and followed Conditt as he drove away, officials said, eventually forcing his car to stop.
As multiple officers neared his car, banging on his car window, Conditt detonated a bomb inside, knocking back one of the approaching Austin SWAT officers, police said. Another SWAT officer fired his gun at Conditt, who suffered “significant injuries from [the] blast,” said Brian Manley, the interim Austin police chief. It was not immediately clear if Conditt was killed by the explosive or the gunfire.
Manley said Wednesday evening that authorities found a 25-minute “confession” on Conditt’s phone.
In this recording, made hours before his death, Conditt described all of the devices officials found “with a level of specificity,” Manley said. Conditt never discussed terrorism or hatred as a possible motivation, Manley said. Instead, the recording appeared to be “the outcry of a very challenged young man, talking about challenges in his personal life, that led him to this point,” according to the police chief.
While Manley called on the community to remain vigilant, he also offered a calming note, saying the recording discussed all of the known explosive devices.
Earlier on Wednesday, Manley said the violent end of the manhunt marked an end to “three very long weeks for our community.” But he and others had also warned it was not known with certainty if the deadly campaign — which began with devices left at people’s homes, moved to an explosive rigged with a tripwire and then included two shipped through FedEx — had ended, or if any other bombs were still out there.
“There could be other packages out there,” Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio office, had said earlier Wednesday afternoon. “We think we’re on top of this, but we just don’t know.”
This came on the heels of a tense period in Austin as five bombs exploded in the city and nearby, killing two people and injuring four others, spreading fear of an attacker police described as skilled and capable of shifting tactics.
The investigation expanded, growing to include hundreds of law enforcement officials scouring Central Texas, before zeroing in on Conditt, a 23-year-old former student at Austin Community College who lived in Pflugerville, a small city in suburban Austin.
Manley said police believed Conditt was tied to all of the explosions this month. Officials had tied Conditt to the explosions first through his cellphone, said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who said authorities were able to track his movements while “he was little more than a suspect.”
The series of bombings began March 2, with a blast that killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, a father of a young daughter. Police initially said they thought it was an isolated incident. Then, 10 days later, another explosion killed Draylen Mason, a college-bound 17-year-old known for his passion for music. Mason’s mother was also injured. Another explosive injured Esperanza Herrera, a 75-year-old Hispanic woman visiting her mother, hours later.
Authorities said they were considering whether at least some of the victims were targeted because of their race. Relatives also wondered if any family connections played a role: House’s stepfather, is friends with Mason’s grandfather Norman, and both are prominent fixtures at a local black church.
Why the bombs were left at these specific homes or sent to other people was not answered in the recording confession, police said.
Just hours after police had pleaded with the bomber to reach out and speak to them on Sunday, an explosive rigged with a tripwire went off in southwest Austin, injuring two white men walking through the neighborhood. Investigators said this suggested a worrisome ability to shift gears and attack people at random.
Early Tuesday morning, the case shifted suddenly with an explosion at a FedEx facility outside San Antonio. A package that was being shipped to Austin detonated, while investigators said they intercepted another sent through the same company in the Texas capital, and they quickly tied both to the same person responsible for the earlier bombings. FedEx said it gave investigators “extensive evidence” about those packages as well as the person who shipped them.
Other clues had emerged linking Conditt to the bombings, Abbott told reporters during a call Wednesday. The red SUV that officers had followed in Round Rock was seen at locations linked to the explosions.
The FedEx shipments offered a significant moment, because investigators were able to obtain surveillance footage of Conditt walking into a FedEx store in south Austin 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.
What may have motivated the bombings remained a mystery Wednesday, as did how the bombs were constructed and whether anyone else assisted in the attacks.
Abbott said he expected law enforcement officers to find a “treasure trove of information” inside Conditt’s home that would explain his motivations.
“This is something that there is no rationale for, but we can try and understand what his motive was,” Manley, the police chief, said.
Authorities said Wednesday they had filed a federal complaint and obtained an arrest warrant for Conditt on Tuesday night. He was charged with one count of unlawful possession and transfer of a destructive device, according to federal court documents. The complaint affidavit against Conditt remains under seal, but a cover sheet showed that it dealt with charges from March 2 through March 20, the period during which bombs exploded in Austin and outside San Antonio.
Just hours after the complaint was filed, an explosion and two gunshots rang out near the Red Roof Inn in Round Rock, Tex., said Frank de la Fuente, who was staying there.
“He blew himself up down here,” Jeremy Lowe said at the Red Roof Inn, pointing toward a nearby hotel.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said his city was breathing a sigh of relief after multiple days of terror.
“They are confident that they have someone who has been responsible for these bombs going off,” he said on the “Today” show. “As a community we’re just really relieved and just incredibly thankful for this army of law enforcement that has been in our community here for the last week or so.”
After news emerged that Conditt lived in Pflugerville, the city’s sleepy residential streets were crowded by police and media vehicles and partially shut down. The FBI said Wednesday afternoon that agents were working to remove homemade explosives from an address in Pflugerville, Tex., owned by Conditt’s parents and where he was believed to have lived.
Police said earlier they had spoken to his two roommates, one of whom was questioned and released and the other was being questioned Wednesday afternoon. Neighbors were been evacuated from homes in the surrounding area as authorities worked on the scene, the FBI said.
In a brief statement released through a family friend, the Conditt family expressed sorrow at what had happened.
“The family is grieved not only for their loss for but also for the loss of those affected by these heinous actions,” Eddie Harp, who’s been friends with the Conditt family for 15 years, read from a short, printed statement while standing outside the Conditts’ home. “The family’s present focus is on dealing with their shock and loss and cooperating with the police investigation. If you are a praying person, please join us in praying for the families of all who have lost loved ones.”
On Wednesday morning, officers in tactical gear descended on the three-bedroom home owned by the Conditts and smashed one of the house’s windows. An officer with a megaphone yelled that the FBI was there with a search warrant, said Mark Roessler, 57, a neighbor.
Roessler said the Conditts bought their home about two years ago and Mark Conditt began to remodel it with his father before moving in. Mark Conditt was “quiet, introverted, polite and clean-cut,” Roessler said, and never seemed to have many visitors.
During the home’s renovations, Roessler had been inside the house, and on Wednesday morning he said FBI agents asked him to draw a sketch of the home’s interior while authorities prepared to go inside.
Nancy Reeb, a neighbor and friend of the Conditts, said the family moved to the neighborhood when Mark Conditt was 5 years old.
“He’s just a kid. They played outside. They didn’t watch violent movies. They weren’t violent people,” Reeb said Wednesday. “Everything you think is right to raise their kid, they did it.”
Conditt attended Austin Community College between 2010 and 2012, majoring in business administration, but did not graduate, according to the school. He took general education classes on the school’s Northridge and Round Rock campuses, a spokeswoman for the school said Wednesday.
During his time at the school, Conditt had taken a government course that required students to put political blog posts online. His blog, which was school officials confirmed was authentic, included several posts put online during the period when he was at the school. One post said gay marriage should be illegal, another argued against sexual offender registries and a third offered a defense of the death penalty.
“Living criminals harm and murder, again – executed ones do not,” the post stated.
Berman and Flynn reported from Washington. Moravec reported from Austin. Devlin Barrett, Julie Tate and Alice Crites contributed to this report, which has been updated.