For nearly three weeks, the Austin bomber was able to sidestep police as authorities say he planted a trail of deadly homemade bombs around a city increasingly consumed by anxiety and fear.
And then, on Monday, officials say the suspect walked into a FedEx Office store in Sunset Valley, clad in a strange-looking blond wig, baseball cap and gloves, and mailed two more bomb-laden packages.
Authorities say that misstep triggered a series of discoveries that ended with police locating the 23-year-old at a motel off of Interstate 35 near Round Rock early Wednesday. As SWAT members closed in on the suspect, Mark Conditt, police say he killed himself by detonating a powerful bomb inside his red SUV.
In the wreckage, police found a cellphone that interim Police Chief Brian Manley said contained a 25-minute video “confession,” in which Conditt described all seven bombs that have either exploded or been tracked down by police. “It’s important to point out that we have accounted for all the devices we know about,” Manley said.
Manley added that in the confession, made at some point Tuesday night, Conditt didn’t provide a rationale for why he targeted some of his victims and did not mention terrorism or hate.
“What is clear is that this was a very troubled young man talking about challenges in his own life,” Manley said.
Elected officials from President Donald Trump to Mayor Steve Adler congratulated law enforcement agencies on tracking the suspected bomber down.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore summed it up: “I’m proud to be here today to say we got it done.”
“This was one of the best coordinated federal, state and local efforts I’ve seen,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman. “I know everybody in Austin had a lot of anxiety. Now it’s going to be a time to heal.”
McCaul pointed to two elements that helped law enforcement: the surveillance cameras at the FedEx store that captured Conditt’s image; and the fact that he turned on his cellphone, which allowed police to track him to the motel.
Throughout the day Wednesday, police closed down streets in a four-block radius around Conditt’s Pflugerville home and asked residents not to return until at least 9 p.m. Houston-based ATF Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski said agents found homemade explosives and bomb components in one room of the house, but no completed devices.
Two roommates were questioned by police.
Authorities said Conditt appeared poised to continue his bombing spree; officials found additional addresses in his online search history for Austin and surrounding areas. Late Tuesday, state troopers notified several Cedar Park residents of potential danger. A captured, unexploded package Conditt sent through FedEx was destined for Austin’s 78745 ZIP code, according to a screenshot obtained by KABB in San Antonio.
McCaul said the investigation showed Conditt bought many of his materials at a Round Rock Home Depot, including nails that he packed into his bombs and a sign reading “Slow Down, Children at Play” that he connected to a trip wire in the Travis Country neighborhood on Sunday night.
After Conditt’s death, family members and friends of the men whom he killed expressed their relief and hope that loved ones can start to move forward.
“The most recent chain of events have brought some sense of closure that our beloved has received justice,” said the family of 17-year-old Draylen Mason in a statement.
The family also thanked law enforcement officials “who have worked diligently on this case” and said they were “humbled by the overwhelming support of the community and of those who loved Draylen as we did.”
Mason was the second of two African-American men to be killed by the first two bombs. Jeff Lewis, a close friend of Anthony Stephan House, who was the first to be killed by a package bomb, said he was elated by Wednesday’s news.
“God answers prayers,” he said. “I’m just thankful that it’s over. It’s a huge relief. Now it’s time for the healing process for all these other families that are affected.”
Relatives of Conditt also released a statement Wednesday, asking the media to respect their privacy: “We are devastated and broken at the news that our family could be involved in such an awful way. We had no idea of the darkness Mark must have been in. Our family is a normal family in every way. We love, we pray and we try to inspire and serve others. Right now our prayers are for those families that have lost loved ones, for those impacted in any way, and for the soul of our Mark.”
One clue to Conditt’s perspective emerged in a series of blog posts he wrote when he was a 17-year-old Austin Community College student. He wrote that homosexuality is “not normal,” that he was opposed to gay marriage and abortion and that he supported doing away with the sex offender registration system.
A close high school friend on Wednesday told the American-Statesman that Conditt was a smart, opinionated and intimidating presence.
“When I met Mark, he was really rough around the edges,” said Jeremiah Jensen, 24, who was home-schooled in the same Pflugerville community as Conditt. “He was a very assertive person and would … end up being kind of dominant and intimidating in conversation. A lot of people didn’t understand him and where he was coming from. He really just wanted to tell the truth. What I remember about him, he would push back on you if you said something without thinking about it. He loved to think and argue and turn things over and figure out what was really going on.
“I have no idea what caused him to make those bombs. Whatever it was, I wish he would have reached out to me and asked for help or something.”
In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, FBI Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs vowed that the bureau would see the investigation through to its conclusion.
“We’ll be here as long as it takes with our partners to figure out what happened, why it happened, and how it happened. We’re committed to staying here with the #AustinPolice Department for as long as it takes,” he wrote.
Adler said over the last three weeks, he had seen the Austin community start to fray.
“The legacy of this event for us should be to walk across the street and introduce ourselves to our neighbors,” the mayor said.
(This story was reported from Pflugerville, Round Rock and Austin.)
©2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.