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‘Who did this and why?’: Austin remains tense after deadly bombings as police look for answers

Austin residents say they feel on edge after package bombs were left at three homes, killing two people and injuring one. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

AUSTIN — Investigators on Wednesday continued scouring this uneasy city for answers about the recent wave of bombs that exploded at three homes, leaving the community anxiously waiting to find out who planted the apparently sophisticated explosives and why.

Police offered no word about a possible motive Wednesday, two days after the most recent explosions at homes in residential areas of the city. Authorities say the three packages that exploded this month — one on March 2, followed by two additional blasts Monday — have followed the same pattern, with boxes left outside homes overnight that detonated when they were picked up or opened.

The resulting carnage has shaken the community. Two people were killed — a 39-year-old construction worker on March 2 and a 17-year-old high school student on Monday — and another two were seriously hurt.

The most recent explosion severely injured Esperanza Herrera, who was visiting her mother’s home. That blast added to the mystery of what could have motivated the attacks because the package that wounded her was addressed to a different home, according to two people familiar with the investigation.

Austin police search for bombing motive, say explosives made with ‘skill and sophistication’

Herrera lost some fingers in the explosion, and doctors had to amputate her leg, said Joe Torres, 38, her cousin. She underwent surgery at an Austin hospital and was in stable condition, Torres said.

“We still haven’t seen her yet,” he said. “We don’t even know what she looks like.”

Herrera’s relatives, who have gathered at the hospital since the blast, are awaiting answers, Torres said.

“Who did this and why?” he asked.

Police have said they are probing whether the attacks were motivated by racial hatred — noting that the two people slain were black, while Herrera is Hispanic — but are not ruling out terrorism or something else. Relatives have pointed out connections between the two people who were killed, noting that they have family members who are close friends and are prominent members of Austin’s African American community.

Anthony Stephan House, killed March 2, is the stepson of Freddie Dixon, who is close to Norman Mason, grandfather of the victim of Monday’s first explosion, Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old senior at East Austin College Prep known for his love of music. The teenager’s mother was also hurt in the explosion.

Some neighbors, relatives and community members have been critical of how authorities responded to the blast on March 2, though officials have defended their handling of that initial explosion.

Freddie Dixon said in an interview earlier this week he was disappointed with how police characterized the first blast, particularly when they backed off the idea that what had occurred was a homicide.

“They didn’t warn the community,” Dixon said. “They just said it was a suspicious death, played it down, like he tried to kill himself.”

The unique terror of Austin’s deadly package bombs

One of House’s neighbors said the two explosions Monday, while tragic, would at least mean that “a lot of attention” is focused on the blast that killed him. Fatima Mann, a community organizer, said that police should have dealt with the issue “when the first explosion went off.”

The Austin Police Department initially described House’s death as “an isolated incident” that posed “no continuing threat to the community.” After Monday’s bombings, police shifted course and said all three blasts were connected.

Police and city officials have defended the initial law enforcement response. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said investigators believed the March 2 explosion might have been a botched attempt at retaliation following a raid on a nearby drug stash house three days earlier. That home, Manley noted, resembled House’s residence on the same block.

“We had a very strong theory that we were working under,” Manley told reporters during a news briefing Tuesday. However, he stressed that police had continued to investigate House’s death, noting that federal officials also were probing what happened.

Austin police search for bombing motive, say explosives made with ‘skill and sophistication’

Mark McCrimmon, a defense attorney, said that on March 2, police sought to interview a client of his who lived in the same neighborhood as House.

This person was arrested about two weeks earlier and had his home raided in a drug case, when police had seized marijuana and “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, McCrimmon said. After the blast, they wanted to know, “Who’s trying to kill you?” McCrimmon said.

McCrimmon said the police theory seemed to be that people in business with his client, upset about the lost drugs and money, intended to retaliate for it but got the wrong house.

“At that point, it was probably the best lead they had,” McCrimmon said.

McCrimmon said his client, whom he declined to identify, had by then been released on bond, and he came to the interview at Austin police headquarters voluntarily. He said police were “forceful but cordial” and tried to convey to him the threat that he, or his roommate, might still face. McCrimmon said they asked his client who might consider him an enemy, and he responded he didn’t have any.

“They used the c-word, cartel, and we kept saying, ‘It’s not a cartel, it’s not a cartel, it’s not a cartel. It’s just pot, and it’s the cost of doing business sometimes,’ ” McCrimmon said. McCrimmon said he never heard again from police and assumed they had moved on to other leads.

Leslie Pool, the Austin City Council member representing the district where the March 2 bomb detonated, said she “absolutely” believed police had taken that explosion seriously enough.

“Police were still actively investigating the incident, and at the time had no way of knowing if other bombs would be set,” Pool, who is traveling outside the country, wrote in an email exchange. Still, she said, “it would have been helpful for the public to know that the March 2 explosion involved a package. That information may have raised awareness without setting off widespread panic in our community.”

Ora Houston, the City Council member representing the district where Draylen Mason was killed Monday, also defended how police handled the first bombing, saying it was unfair for people to second-guess them in the wake of what followed.

“That’s Monday morning quarterbacking,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Yes, with what we know now, something could’ve been done differently, but what we knew at that point was what we knew. So there was no reason to suspect there was going to be an ongoing kind of danger to the community until it happened again.”

She added: “How do you anticipate that it’s going to happen again?”

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, said he believed the first bombing did not generate an urgent response in the community.

“It was almost like a second-day story, and it wasn’t played up in the press, and as a result wasn’t taken seriously,” he said. “It was reported as a random incident and not as murder. The way it was described didn’t give it a lot of urgency.”

Though he didn’t place the blame solely on the police, he said the confusion in their investigation contributed to wasted time.

“When the Austin Police Department changes their classification three times about an incident, that tells you right there that there’s a problem,” he said. “They thought someone was retaliating and bombed the wrong house. They admit their initial theory was wrong.”

Houston, the City Council member, said the community remains uneasy after the most recent bombings.

“I want them to catch the person because the question down here is why?” Houston said. “And nobody can answer that at this point. And then I’m kind of keeping my breath inhaled and waiting for the next shoe to drop. … There’s a sense of, what’s next?”

The tension has spread throughout Austin. Police, who have encouraged people to call 911 if they see unexpected or suspicious packages, said they received 370 such calls between Monday morning and Wednesday morning.

Houston noted that the latest crimes have occurred while tens of thousands of people are gathered in downtown Austin for the South by Southwest festival, which has created a strange contrast. Downtown Austin is like a “bubble” focused on the festival, but when people “go back into the community, then you get the sense that people are being very watchful, very sad, concerned,” Houston said.

On Herrera’s block, investigators were searching homes near the home of Maria Moreno, her mother, who she was visiting Monday when the package exploded. As authorities probed the crime scene, many residents could be seen wheeling suitcases out of their homes and carrying clothes in an effort to move away from the area.

Torres, Herrera’s cousin, said relatives have spoken to Moreno, who has hearing problems. Moreno told relatives that she “could hear people screaming, and the neighbors got there before she did,” Torres said.

“My aunt that lived there, she’s 97 years old,” Torres said. “Esperanza goes by to help her. There’s no reason for anyone to do anything like that.”

Berman and Zapotosky reported from Washington. Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin contributed to this report.