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Austin bomber had list of future targets and made a 25-minute 'confession' video

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 3/22/2018 Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Matt Pearce

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PFLUGERVILLE, Texas — Hours after a serial bomber blew himself up as authorities closed in, investigators discovered that the homegrown Texan who terrorized Austin for 19 days left behind a list of future targets and a 25-minute "confession" on his phone, officials said Wednesday.

After hundreds of investigators swarmed Austin in recent days to stop the bomber, it was a combination of high-tech surveillance and old-fashioned shoe-leather investigating the bombings that led officials to Mark Anthony Conditt, an Austin resident who had no clear motive or criminal record.

Conditt didn't appear to be motivated by terrorism or hate, but the confession investigators found on his cellphone was "the outcry of a very challenged young man" dealing with problems in his personal life, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said.

The series of bombs linked to Conditt used similar components that made it easy for officials to link the devices: unusual batteries, apparently purchased online from Asia, and nails used as shrapnel, according to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Trying to find the buyer of the nails, officials "went to every hardware store" in the area to find customers who had made large purchases, and they struck gold with a Home Depot store in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, McCaul said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

"The fatal mistake that led law enforcement to him — because he was pretty good at evading surveillance cameras — was when he walked into Home Depot," McCaul said. Investigators obtained surveillance video of Conditt walking into the store in a wig and walking back out to a vehicle with a license plate connected to his name.

From there, McCaul said, investigators obtained a cellphone number linked to Conditt, which had been turned off for "a while" — until Wednesday morning.

Local resident Adrienne Rubel walks her dog Barney through a media staging area near the home where Austin serial bomber Mark Anthony Conditt lived in Pflugerville, Texas, U.S., March 22. Photos: Bombings in Austin, Texas Slideshow by photo services

When Conditt turned on the phone, McCaul said, investigators were able to pinpoint him at a hotel in Round Rock, which led to a police chase that ended with Conditt killing himself with an explosive in his red SUV. An officer also fired a gunshot at the vehicle, said authorities, who didn't clarify whether that was before or after the explosion.

"If we had not found this man, there would have been more devices and more innocent civilians would have been hurt and been killed," FBI Special Agent Christopher Combs said.

Officials, who discovered a bomb-making room in Conditt's home in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville, still haven't offered any theories for why Conditt embarked on a bombing campaign that left two dead, four injured and an entire city unnerved.

But they discovered at least one chilling piece of evidence after the hunt was over: a "target list" with "additional addresses we believe he was using for future targets," McCaul said.

Even now, figuring out a reason Conditt picked the targets he did is difficult. "It's hard to make any rhyme or reason out of the victims," McCaul said.

Investigators detained and questioned two of Conditt's roommates Wednesday as officials sought to determine whether Conditt had any help in the string of bombings. One of the roommates already has been released, while the other was still being questioned, Austin police said in a statement on Twitter.

Officials also announced they had filed a federal bomb-possession charge and arrest warrant against Conditt late Tuesday, shortly before he died. ABC reported that in the final two packages of explosives that had been sent out by FedEx, the bomber had used the sender name "Kelly Killmore."

"Hundreds of federal, state and local law enforcement officers worked together to identify and locate Conditt," U.S. Attorney John F. Bash said in a statement.

Law enforcement personnel investigate the scene where the Texas bombing suspect blew himself up on the side of a highway north of Austin in Round Rock, Texas, U.S., March 21, 2018. © REUTERS/Loren Elliott Law enforcement personnel investigate the scene where the Texas bombing suspect blew himself up on the side of a highway north of Austin in Round Rock, Texas, U.S., March 21, 2018. A portrait emerged Wednesday of an introverted Christian conservative who had been home-schooled and worked at a manufacturing company before being fired last year.

In a statement released to CNN, Conditt's parents said they were in shock and grieved for the bombing victims.

"We are devastated and broken at the news that our family could be involved in such an awful way," the family said. "We had no idea of the darkness that 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. We are grieving and we are in shock."

In Pflugerville, federal and local law enforcement officials searched two sheds and trash bins outside the Conditts' multistory home. The shades were drawn, and a U.S. flag flew out front.

Austin Police Homicide Detective David Fugitt said Conditt's family has been "very cooperative," adding that officials didn't have any indication the family knew Conditt was involved with the bombings.

"They have gone above and beyond to answer any questions we have had," Fugitt said.

"They're having a difficult time," Fugitt said. "It's understandable with everything they have had to deal with. This is certainly a shock to the conscience. They're taking it in stride. They're having a difficult time as well, which would be expected."

Conditt took classes at Austin Community College from 2010 to 2012 and was home-schooled, according to college officials and social media posts from his mother, who said he graduated high school in 2013.

"He's thinking of taking some time to figure out what he wants to do ... maybe a mission trip," said a Facebook post by Danene Conditt announcing his graduation, which included a photo of Mark Conditt.

In an old blog under Mark Conditt's name, started apparently as part of a community college class assignment, the author wrote in 2012 that he was conservative but "not that politically inclined." He wrote posts opposing abortion, favoring the death penalty and arguing that gay marriage should be illegal.

"I view myself as a conservative, but I don't think I have enough information to defend my stance as well as it should be defended," read the blog's biography page. "The reasons I am taking this class is because I want to understand the US government, and I hope that it will help me clarify my stance, and then defend it."

In a post in favor of the death penalty, the author wrote, "Living criminals harm and murder, again — executed ones do not." The blog's final post is dated May 2012.

One of Conditt's former friends, Jeremiah Jensen, 24 — who was home-schooled in Pflugerville and attended the community college at the same time as Conditt — said that Conditt's blog posts for class were being taken out of context in media reports.

"Certainly a lot of the home-school community in Pflugerville, Texas, is conservative, and a lot of kids were raised that way," Jensen said. "I think a lot of people jump to conclusions and want to make him out to be a conservative terrorist. But I think it has more to do with loneliness and anger than it has to do with anything else."

Conditt was smart, "strait-laced" and "definitely came off as a little intense, and it was hard for him to get along with people and make friends," said Jensen, now a freelance journalist living in Dallas. "A lot of people didn't really understand him or how to speak his language."

But "he was actually a very kind person, when I knew him," said Jensen, adding that the two had not spoken for several years.

Community college officials said that Conditt was a business administration major and did not graduate, but that he left in good academic standing.

"We are working with Austin Police Department to provide any information they need," college spokeswoman Jessica Vess said in an email.

Information about Conditt's home-schooling could not be obtained from Texas state education officials. "Texas has no authority over home-schooling, and we don't keep any type of school records on such," said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Jeff Reeb, a neighbor of the Conditts since they moved to the area 17 years ago, described Conditt as "a quiet youngster" who played with his grandson.

Conditt, who had two younger sisters, moved away from home in recent years and bought a house but returned to visit, Reeb said.

On Conditt's blog in 2012, he listed his hobbies as cycling, parkour, tennis, reading and listening to music. The Conditt home has a deck, a trampoline, a treehouse and a pool in a large, grassy yard.

"They're church-going people, extremely good neighbors. I like them a lot," Reeb said, adding that he was surprised to see reporters arrive on his street, the first clue the bombing suspect could be someone he knew.

Reeb said he saw the Conditts daily and last saw Mark visit his parents last week — which would have been after the bombings began.

"I was hoping they were wrong," Reeb said of reports identifying Conditt as the bombing suspect, adding that he didn't recognize Conditt in surveillance video from an Austin FedEx store that showed the bomber with long blond hair. "I'm not sure I still believe it. It makes no sense whatsoever."

One of the Conditt family's neighbors, Beverly Canales, 56, a stay-at-home mom, said she did not know the family, although her two daughters, ages 23 and 24, attended Austin Community College about the same time Mark Conditt did.

They were scrutinizing photos of the suspected bomber Wednesday, comparing them to high school yearbooks and trying to remember whether they had seen him.

"Our little town of Pflugerville had our own Unabomber," she said.

Conditt worked for several years at a local semiconductor manufacturer, Crux Manufacturing, before he was fired in August for poor performance, according to KVUE-TV.

The business' owner, who spoke to the television station anonymously, said Conditt "seemed like a smart kid who showed a lot of promise" and worked in purchasing and sales.

"He was very quiet and introverted" and did not have any confrontations with management, the owner said, adding that he was given several warnings for not meeting expectations before he was fired. "He would prioritize things in his own way."

Investigators began zeroing in on Conditt over the last two days, and officials were moving to make an arrest at a hotel in the suburb of Round Rock when Conditt began driving away, Manley, the police chief, said at a news conference.

The vehicle ran into a ditch, and as officers approached, the driver detonated an explosive that killed him and knocked one officer back, Manley said.

Conditt's death followed days of rapid developments in the case.

On Tuesday, a bomb inside a package exploded on a conveyor belt at a FedEx shipping center in Schertz, northeast of San Antonio and about 60 miles from Austin. One worker was treated at the scene for minor injuries.

It was the fifth in a series of bombings this month. A sixth bomb was found intact at another FedEd facility near the Austin airport.

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(Hennessy-Fiske reported from Pflugerville; Pearce from Los Angeles.)

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