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'Your Heart Just Sinks': Police Chief Brian Manley Recalls Austin Serial Bombing Case One Year Later

Then-interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and other law enforcement officials brief the media March 19, 2018, after an explosion in Southwest Austin.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Then-interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and other law enforcement officials brief the media March 19, 2018, after an explosion in Southwest Austin.

At around 7 o’clock on the morning of March 2, 2018, 39-year-old  Anthony Stephan House was killed when a package bomb left on the porch of his North Austin home exploded. The bomb turned out to be the  first of five bombs that would go off over the next few weeks, killing 17-year-old Draylen Mason and injuring five others. The bomber later killed himself in a separate bomb explosion.

One year later, KUT is revisiting the investigation, and the impact and aftermath of the bombings.

In March 2018, Austin Police had on their hands a serial bomber, a scared but strong city, and communities of color angry because they felt police ramped up the investigation only after white people were hurt.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley recalls the moment almost a year ago when federal and local law enforcement tracked down and surrounded the bomber – whom Manley would later describe as a "domestic terrorist."

"I couldn't see over the crest of the hill when I heard the command come over the radio," Manley says. "I heard 'detonation, detonation, detonation.' So, I knew a bomb had gone off. And I just didn't know whether anybody was hurt."

What Manley heard was a transmission describing the bomber's suicide in a car on I-35 in Round Rock.

That action brought to an end a frightening and perhaps unprecedented time in the city's history.

KUT talked with Manley recently about how the investigation into the bombings unfolded:

On criticism that police were slow to ramp up the investigation because the first three victims were people of color:

I absolutely understand the concerns. I can tell you from the investigative perspective – and I think it's evidenced by all of the press conferences – we were repeatedly saying, "We do not have a motive."

And as we got further into the series of the bombings, we were saying we have nothing that indicates that this is terrorism or hate-related, but we also can't rule that out and we want to make sure we don't limit our focus and then miss something. So, we're going to cast the widest net and consider any possible theory until we have reason to go down one particular path.

On identifying and tracking down "people of interest" early in the case:

Early in the investigation – really, after that day of March 12 – when we had two bombings in the period between March 12 and March 18, we had developed a couple of suspects again in partnership with the FBI. These were persons of interest, and we were actively working to understand who these individuals were [and] their backgrounds. And there was a significant amount of effort being placed on focusing on these individuals. They were under surveillance, so that we would know where they were.

And that's why on March 18, when that fourth bomb went off, we immediately realized that it could not be these initial two persons of interest because we knew where they were.

On the significant – and frightening – implications of the bomber using FedEx to send package bombs:

Ultimately, what we learned was that that bomb [found in Schertz, Texas, on March 20, 2018] actually was dropped off at a FedEx facility in Austin and was just routed through the Schertz warehouse headed back to Austin. The FedEx facility and the technology that they have – they were able to give investigators information very early on about where that fifth bomb originated. And that's what led us to the FedEx facility where he dropped that off.

That, too, was a moment of concern because now what that brought into play was whether or not the mail system was going to be compromised. If he's now advancing to using bombs through either the U.S. postal system or in this case the FedEx system, those packages end up on planes sometimes.

On what he regards as one of the biggest "missteps" in the investigation:

As we were staging resources for what we thought might be execution of a search warrant that evening, we wanted an ambulance to stage in the neighborhood so that it would be ready in case someone got hurt.

When we moved forward with the operation – in a communication error between our communication center here in Austin and the communication center up in Pflugerville because the bomber's residence was in Pflugerville – that ambulance was instead dispatched to the actual address. And we had an ambulance crew that responded to that to the bomber's house.

And as soon as we recognized that, within several minutes we were immediately trying to recall that. However, the ambulance had already made it to the residence and had already made contact at the door. ... They said, you know, "We received the call from 911." So there was a person at the door who stated, "We didn't call 911." They had a conversation for a short time.

And, you know, the paramedic was saying something to the extent of that – "We received a call to come here." And that person then yelled back into the home, "Hey, did you call for an ambulance?" And what we knew was a male voice yelled back, "No, I didn't call." So thankfully the ambulance was able to get in and get out. No one was hurt.

But what we did not know at that point was who was that second male voice in the home. We were able to determine that the person that opened the door was not the bomber because obviously the techs saw him. We could not account for who that second voice was. So we were having to make decisions on whether or not we were going to execute the search warrant that night.

Understanding the danger of serving that search warrant under the best of conditions – whether we wanted to do it during the darkness of night. And then the biggest unknown was the bomber. Was he there? And if he was not in the home, and we went ahead and executed that search warrant, he would know that we were on to him and our concern was where will he go. What will he do with the expectation he would flee and become violent. ... I made the decision that we were not going to attempt to execute the search warrant that night.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

I feel very lucky to have been born and raised right here in Austin, Texas. An English teacher at my high school, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, once suggested to the class that we tune in to KUT 90.5 for Paul Ray’s “Twine Time.” I have been a public radio fan ever since.