Federal authorities have joined Austin police in investigating a mysterious string of three bombings in 10 days that have left two people dead and three wounded after opening packages left at their doors.
The package bomb attacks come as nearly half a million visitors converge for South by Southwest, a time when national attention is usually focused on Austin for celebrity sightings and other entertainment news. Two blasts hours apart Monday intensified the mystery of who is targeting residents in neighborhoods that stretch from the city’s northern borders to Southeast Austin — and why.
Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said investigators think the incidents are related but have no motive. He said officials are trying to learn what connections the victims have, if any. The youngest victim, a 17-year-old, was killed Monday; the oldest was a 75-year-old woman who was hospitalized after a bomb exploded at her house.
Manley said multiple people live in the homes where the “boxlike” explosive devices were left at front doors.
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“We will leave no stone unturned,” Manley, who stood with Mayor Steve Adler and federal and local law enforcement officers, said from the scene of the third incident. “We will not allow this to go on in our city.”
The attacks prompted local and federal officials to plead for Austin residents to refrain from opening packages that they do not recognize or expect or that appear suspicious. They said additional resources are available to help determine whether such packages are safe.
“I want the public to be aware and cautious,” Manley told reporters. “Until we find who committed this act, it is appropriate for residents to be concerned.”
In a matter of a hours Monday, authorities put together a task force of Austin police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Manley said additional officials from Washington were en route to Austin. The Texas Department of Public Safety is involved as well, and a $15,000 reward has been offered.
In a statement Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott offered condolences to the victims. “The state of Texas will provide any resources necessary to ensure the safety of our citizens and quickly bring those guilty to justice,” he said.
The first victim
Anthony Stephan House died March 2 after police found him at home in the 1100 block of Haverford Drive about 6:55 a.m. First responders took the 39-year-old to a hospital, but he died of his injuries shortly after the blast.
His death remained under investigation at the time of the two blasts Monday, but officials had previously said that they did not think the public was at risk.
After the second explosion, Manley said that “we do see similarities” between the incidents, but he declined to elaborate.
Between the second and third attacks, Manley acknowledged that both victims were black men and raised the possibility that the attacks might be race-related. He also repeated that detectives are unsure of the bomber’s motivation.
Authorities have not released any details about the devices that caused the explosions or named anyone who might have been involved.
On Monday, the front door of House’s home had been replaced by plywood and neighbors said they were still shocked that something like that happened in their otherwise quiet neighborhood. They said House had a wife and a young daughter they sometimes saw together.
Sunil Verma heard the boom and remains jittery.
“We get packages every day,” he said. “I told my wife not to open any packages.”
House was a senior project manager with Texas Quarries, a Cedar Park-based limestone fabricator, according to his LinkedIn page. He previously worked as a hedge fund manager and is listed as the president of House Capital Management LLC in Texas secretary of state’s office documents, though his LinkedIn page indicates the company has been sold to a private investment group.
In 2016, House filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in federal court, claiming between $100,001 and $500,000 in debt. According to court filings, House had a 6-year-old daughter at the time of his bankruptcy.
According to his LinkedIn page, House earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, finance and financial management services from Texas State University in 2008. More recently, he attended Austin Community College in 2017, studying engineering, according to public records.
Detectives initially classified House’s death as a homicide, then stepped away from that classification and labeled it suspicious. On Monday, Manley said they again had classified it as a homicide.
House’s family has declined to comment.
Police learned of the second incident about 6:45 a.m. Monday when residents in the 4800 block of Oldfort Hill Drive, near East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Springdale Road, began calling authorities to report an explosion.
Manley said a preliminary investigation found that a 17-year-old went outside the home and found a package near the front door. The victim, whose name was not released by police, opened it, and the device exploded, killing him and injuring a woman in her 40s.
LaVonne Mason, co-founder of the Austin Area Urban League, told the Washington Post on Monday that her grandson was the 17-year-old victim killed Monday.
Manley said explosives experts “have pieced together what the construction of the explosive device was” but said he was not sharing that information with the public.
He added that officials have determined that the device was not sent through the U.S. Postal Service and said he did not believe it was delivered by a professional carrier, such as UPS or FedEx.
While still at the home on Oldfort Hill Drive, officials were alerted to the second case Monday in the 6700 block of Galindo Street. Manley said that a package detonated as the woman attempted to remove it from her porch.
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Relatives told the Post that the woman injured in the third blast was Esperanza Herrera. They also said her mother, Maria Moreno, was hurt.
Yasmin Navarro lives in the house across the street from the one where the explosion happened.
“I’m scared for everyone’s safety,” she told the American-Statesman in Spanish. “It hurts me a lot that she’s hurt, or that something else is going to happen.”
Medics said one victim in the third blast was an elderly Hispanic woman who had potentially life-threatening injuries.
In a statement, U.S Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said, “Austin is no place for hate. Our local and federal law enforcement officials are taking every reasonable step to investigate these cowardly acts of violence.”
Finding the killer
Jeff Key, a former explosives specialist for ATF, said investigators will be focusing on tracing the component parts of the devices and searching for connections between the victims.
“Typically, bombers figure out to build a bomb that works. They probably tested it in some manner, and once they figure out how to build it that way, they build it that way over and over,” said Key, who co-owns a North Carolina-based private investigations firm that specializes in fires and explosives.
“Anytime you have an explosion or a fire, most people would assume that the evidence is either burned up or destroyed, but a surprising amount of evidence can be located,” Key said. “The ATF explosive specialists and their laboratory are quite adept at recovering evidence that frequently can lead to determining the components of the device.”
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Key said the bomber appears to have successfully developed a “triggering mechanism.”
“There’s going to be a triggering mechanism of some type. Whether it’s movement or some other way of doing it, there’s a triggering mechanism. And apparently that triggering mechanism functioned in all three cases,” he said.
Without going into detail, police said Monday that assembling the devices and their triggering mechanisms probably required a certain level of skill and that the explosives involved are powerful.
Key said that while there are many ways to build bombs with easy-to-obtain chemicals and materials, “high explosives,” such as dynamite, are harder to come by.
“High explosives are supposed to be stored properly and securely, so it would be a little more difficult to obtain high explosives — unless you’re in a job that gives you access to them,” Key said.
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