Deadly Austin bombings were ‘meant to send a message’

A deadly string of unsolved bombings in Texas this month was “meant to send a message,” though Austin Police Chief Brian Manley didn’t say what that message was during a Sunday news conference.

Manley said that he hoped the bomber was watching and would “reach out to us before anyone else is injured or killed.”


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The plea came as local and federal authorities increased the reward for information leading to a conviction in the bombings, which killed two and injured two others earlier this month, to $100,000, Manley said. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was also offering $15,000.

Late Sunday, Austin police were investigating an explosion in a neighborhood in the southwestern part of the city. Authorities said that two men in their 20s sustained non-life-threatening injuries and that they were still examining a suspicious backpack in the area.

The nature of the explosion wasn’t immediately clear, and there was no immediate indication that it was connected to the package bombings that killed Stephen House and Draylen Mason. Both men were African-American members of the same church, Nelson Linder, the local NAACP chapter president, told NBC News last week.

House, 39, was killed on the morning of March 2, while Mason, 17, died on the morning of March 12.

Mason’s 41-year-old mother was critically injured in the explosion. Just before noon that Monday, a third bombing critically injured a 75-year-old Hispanic woman, Esperanza Herrera.

Linder added that someone connected to the House or Mason families was the intended target in the third explosion, although he declined to provide additional details.

Asked Sunday whether the bombings were racially motivated, Manley said it’s possible.

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“We don’t have any evidence,” he said. “What we know for certain is: We have three victims that are victims of color, and we have three package bombs that have exploded on the east side of Austin,” where many of the city’s minority residents live.

Brian Jenkins, an analyst with Rand Corp. who has studied bombings, said in an interview that Manley’s invitation to contact authorities could prove fruitful.

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He pointed to the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who killed three people and injured nearly two dozen more during a bombing campaign that lasted two decades, and his “desire to communicate, to have some kind of pronouncement or manifesto.”

“He made the offer that he’d suspend his campaign if his manifesto was published,” Jenkins said. “The publication of that ultimately led to him being identified.”

Related: FBI requests DNA sample from Unabomber

Communication from Muharem Kurbegovic, who was convicted of a bombing that killed three people at Los Angeles International Airport in 1974, helped police narrow their search and apprehend him, Jenkins said.

Such bombings aren’t easy to solve without communication — or without more “events” to provide more clues, Jenkins said.

“This isn’t like a convenience store holdup,” he said.

There can be few witnesses. Patterns can be difficult to detect. Evidence can be destroyed in the explosion.

“This requires reconnaissance,” he said. “This requires target selection. They have to think about building a device that works. They have to build that device. They have to think about delivering that device in a way that enables them to conceal their identity.”

A key question, Jenkins said, is determining what motivated the bomber or bombers. Were the attacks a one-off event driven by personal grievance — or were they the beginning of something larger?

“These individuals who become serial bombers — they start campaigns and we don’t necessarily understand what their campaigns are,” he said. “Motives that seem reasonable to them are not discernible to us.”

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In 2002, for instance, Lucas Helder planted bombs in mailboxes across the United States in an arrangement that would allow someone looking at the United States from space to see a smiley face.

“Those are things that are not easy for outsiders to figure out,” Jenkins said.

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