Austin police search for bombing motive, say explosives made with 'skill and sophistication'
By MARK BERMAN AND MATT ZAPOTOSKY | The Washington Post | Published: March 13, 2018
Investigators in Austin, Texas searched Tuesday for answers behind the string of explosive packages that detonated recently at homes around the city, describing the devices as sophisticated while struggling to identify who had sent them out or why.
Authorities have looked at connections between the victims themselves as they investigate the three explosions at three homes, which have killed two people and seriously injured two others. While the two people killed in the bombings had connections - both were related to prominent members of the city's black community and they have family members who are close - a third victim with no apparent ties to them was injured by a package addressed to someone else, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The mystery unnerved Austin, prompting scores of residents to call 911 after seeing potentially suspicious packages, unsettling the city at a time when it is deluged by visitors for the South by Southwest Festival.
Officials have said they do not see any connection between the bombings and the festival, but they have still warned of the peril caused by the bombs, with Austin Police Chief Brian Manley saying that whoever is behind the attacks has been able to construct and deliver deadly devices without setting them off at any point in that process.
"When the victims have picked these packages up, they have at that point exploded," Manley said during an appearance Tuesday morning on KXAN, an Austin television station. "There's a certain level of skill and sophistication that whoever is doing this has."
Police have said they are not sure if the devices that detonated had all reached their intended targets. The most recent package to detonate injured an elderly Hispanic woman who was visiting her mother's home - but it was addressed to a different home nearby, according to two people familiar with the investigation. The woman who was injured may have been walking the package over to that address when it detonated, these people said.
This suggests that the explosive was not necessarily aimed at the injured woman, who has been identified by her relatives as Esperanza Herrera. The other two bombs killed people whose families have ties, and one of those victims' relatives said he did not know of any connections to Herrera.
The Post could not immediately learn, though, whether the other two packages were addressed to the homes that received them, or whether they had any markings at all. A spokeswoman for the Austin police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Still, the connection between those two slain victims - a black teenage boy and a black 39-year-old man - has prompted their relatives to wonder whether race or their ties played some role in the bombing.
"Are you trying to say something to prominent African-American families?" said Freddie Dixon, stepfather of Anthony Stephan House, the 39-year-old killed in the first explosion on March 2. "I don't know who they've been targeting, but for sure, they went and got one of my best friend's grandson. Somebody knew the connection."
Dixon said he is good friends with Norman Mason, whose grandson was the teenager killed in the explosion early Monday morning. The teenager has not been formally identified by police, though they say that could come Tuesday. Mason's wife, LaVonne, confirmed that her grandson was the 17-year-old victim but declined to comment further.
Manley, asked on television Tuesday morning about the ties between the two victims who were killed, said police were "going to look into … if there is any connection there that would be relevant to the investigation."
Dixon said he used to be the pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, which the Masons attend, and he and Norman Mason were longtime friends and fraternity brothers. Dixon said he spoke with Norman Mason on Monday, describing him as understandably distraught.
"It's not just coincidental," Dixon said. "Somebody's done their homework on both of us, and they knew what they were doing." Dixon said while he knew of no one who bore a grudge against his stepson, he could not help but think about his and Mason's family ties and their prominence in Austin's African-American community. "My diagnosis: Number one, I think it's a hate crime. Number two, somebody's got some kind of vendetta here," he said, remarking of the third victim, a Hispanic woman who he said he did not know: "Is she a diversion to throw this off, and lead to something else?"
Manley said police continue searching to see if there is any ideology that could have motivated the attack.
Police had initially described the March 2 blast that killed House as "suspicious" but likely "an isolated incident" that posed no ongoing danger to the community. The blast "sounded like a cannon," said Kenneth Thompson Sr., who lives across the street from the house where the first explosion occurred.
But on Monday, when two bombs went off hours apart, police shifted gears and said they believed all three were linked. Authorities said they were looking into whether the bombings could have been a hate crime, noting that the explosions killed two black people and wounded a Hispanic woman.
The third explosion wounded Herrera, who relatives said was very close with her mother, Maria Moreno, and often stayed in her home overnight to help provide care.
Jesse Barba, 77, a neighbor of Herrera's, said he rarely saw her because "she was always helping out with her mother."
"She used to come by and pick roses from my yard to take to her mother," Barba said. "She loved them so much I gave her a piece of the bush."
Police have told the community to use caution, telling residents to call 911 if they see a potentially suspicious or unexpected package. People across Austin have heeded that warning, calling authorities about 150 times between Monday morning and Tuesday morning. Nothing dangerous was found after any of those calls, according to Manley.
The police narrative of an isolated explosion suddenly shifted Monday when a pair of blasts went off. The first explosion early Monday morning killed the teenager and seriously injured an adult woman. Later in the morning, investigators at that scene had to rush miles away to respond to the second explosion, which seriously injured a woman identified by her relatives as Herrera.
Manley on Tuesday defended the initial police response to the March 2 blast, saying that authorities believing it was isolated "didn't slow anything down" in the investigation, stressing that House's death was still being probed by Austin police and federal officials alike. After that explosion, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent a team to help process the scene.
The ATF's involvement ramped up Monday with the second and third explosions. The agency said it was sending members of its National Response Team (NRT) to help with the investigation. That group is activated for particularly large-scale or complicated fires and explosions, including the West, Texas, plant fire in 2013 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Community organizers said they planned an event Friday night to help the community discuss what has been happening and potentially talk about raising money for more cameras in East Austin.
"People are angry and afraid," Fatima Mann, an organizer, said Tuesday. "I refuse for people to have to go through life afraid because they don't know if they'll be next. This is an issue that should have been dealt with when the first explosion went off."
Eva Ruth Moravec and Shane Harris in Austin contributed to this report, which has been updated.