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Police Respond to Sixth Explosion in Texas as Serial Bomber's Terror Continues




“It’s such a random sending of these bombs,” said Nelson W. Wolff, the top elected official in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. “You’ve got somebody out there, or possibly more than one person, that’s obviously got a system going, and that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be changed from one town to the other.”

The explosions — the fifth was at a FedEx center near San Antonio early Tuesday morning — do not destroy evidence of the bombs’ origins so much as blast it into many bits and pieces. DNA and other more technical fingerprints can remain. Switches, relays and homemade circuit boards often survive. If the explosive was contained in a pipe, then the inside walls of that pipe, even in tiny fragments, will be smudged with residue from the explosive it held, experts say.

While investigators have been tight-lipped about the details of the case, bomb experts and federal agents described an intense detective drama unfolding throughout Central Texas.

Photo

The scene of an explosion at a FedEx center in Schertz, Tex., about 60 miles south of Austin.

Credit
Eric Gay/Associated Press

The F.B.I. confirmed Tuesday night that the two latest packages located at FedEx facilities near San Antonio and Austin airport were connected to the earlier explosions. With six devices now tied to the case and no arrests yet, panicky residents have flooded 911 with more than 1,200 suspicious-package calls since March 12. Still, with every new bomb discovered, the evidence grows and, investigators hope, the space between the hunter and the hunted narrows ever so slightly.

Specialists from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who are working the case have honed their skills, and their eyes, for years. The A.T.F. has long run a five-day “post-blast investigator” course for law enforcement around the country. Typically, once the classroom portion of the course has ended, the agency will blow up a car on a demolition range using a real car bomb, and the students will comb the range afterward for parts and pieces of the device that exploded.

At the scene of the first package explosion in Austin, a red brick house on Haverford Drive in northeast Austin where the first victim, Anthony Stephan House, 39, was killed, a large chunk of the white-painted wall next to the plywood-covered front door has been removed, probably by investigators who want to recover minuscule bomb fragments from it.

“The Unabomber put ‘FC,’ which stood for Freedom Club, on his bombs, so the investigators will be looking for any signatures that could give them some investigatory leads,” said Clinton R. Van Zandt, a former profiler with the F.B.I. who worked on the case. The bomber, Theodore Kaczynski, was a mathematics professor turned recluse whose crudely fashioned bombs killed three people and injured 24 others over a 17-year period beginning in 1978.

One new potential block of evidence emerged on Tuesday from the Austin bomber’s use of FedEx.

The package that exploded shortly after midnight Tuesday at the FedEx center in Schertz, outside San Antonio, was shipped from the Austin area and was bound for Austin as well. Another suspicious package discovered on Tuesday also was shipped via FedEx, and it, too, contained explosive material, a law enforcement official said.

Both packages were mailed from a FedEx store in Sunset Valley, a small city within Austin, and a statement from FedEx suggested that they were sent by the same person.

The second package was turned over intact to law enforcement, marking the first time investigators will get their hands on one of the serial bomber’s unexploded devices. They may also be able to get video images of the person who shipped it.

“We have provided law enforcement responsible for this investigation extensive evidence related to these packages, and the individual that shipped them, collected from our advanced technology security systems,” FedEx said in a statement.

Explosions in Texas

Tuesday illustrated the shifting, fast-paced tempo of the case. Austin police called in a bomb squad at the FedEx center near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where the unexploded package was found. The facility remained sealed off hours later as police and federal agents continued hunting for clues.

“We are still investigating,” Austin police spokeswoman Destiny Winston told reporters at the scene.

In the span of 18 days this month, the case has unfolded at five explosion sites in two cities, and prompted neighborhood lockdowns in Austin and operational disruptions at three FedEx facilities.

The explosion at the FedEx site in Schertz, which caused a worker to complain of ringing in the ear, signaled yet another shift in tactics for the bomber.

The first three devices were in packages that were left on doorsteps, but the fourth was triggered by a tripwire strung across a sidewalk. The fifth was the first to have been shipped. Investigators have said the bomber had to possess some level of skill to build and transport devices without them blowing up prematurely. It appeared that the blast on Tuesday represented, for the bomber, a premature detonation.

Homemade package bombs delivered to homes and offices have become surprisingly common. Since 1990, dozens of men, women and children have been wounded or killed in package bombings around the country, in explosions that were not connected to the Unabomber case. The culprit, in many of those cases, was an ex-husband, an ex-boyfriend, a stalker or a relative seeking revenge or an inheritance.

The frequency of the attacks illustrates just how easy it has become for a person with no explosives training to make and deliver a package bomb. According to A.T.F.’s most recent public report on bomb incidents, there were 439 bombings in 2016, up from 400 the year before.

In January 2000, in the Boston suburb of Everett, Sandra Berfield, a 32-year-old waitress, was killed after she opened a package containing a pipe bomb that was left on her doorstep. A handyman who had stalked her for years, Steven S. Caruso, was convicted in her murder. The authorities said he used a readily available toy rocket-launcher component in his bomb. He had put her sister’s return address on the package to make sure his target opened it.

What We Know About the Bombings and Explosions in Austin and San Antonio


In Austin, investigators may have more clues to work with than the bomb-maker might expect.

“A bomber often believes that the device itself is consumed in the thermal effect of the blast, and that he is giving himself distance from the criminal act,” said a federal agent and explosives expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “They think they have autonomy, but they don’t.”

Investigators now are going so far as to reconstruct the bombs that exploded, using similar materials. “Each one of these devices is being rebuilt to help investigators figure out what they are looking for,” the federal agent explained. “It is like putting a puzzle together.”

Ed Davis, the former Boston police chief, who has been involved in investigating several bombings including the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, said rebuilding the bombs was critical in that case.

“It helps them determine the sophistication of the device and the level of expertise involved in building it,” Mr. Davis said. “Then it limits the number of people you are looking at. It provides a certain class of possible suspects.”

Bomb experts and those who study serial killers said the search for clues is time-consuming and complex, but far from impossible. Some said it was clear that the Austin bomber had already built the devices in advance before launching the first attack, because the use of different triggering mechanisms takes time. Others said the suspect or suspects had shown a major vulnerability: By dropping off the packages themselves or shipping them at FedEx, they exposed themselves or their vehicles to being captured on surveillance video or seen by witnesses.

Then there is the shrapnel. The first four devices that exploded in Austin contained shrapnel — small metal pieces like nails that are included in a bomb to make it wreak more havoc on people who are nearby when it goes off.

“Shrapnel is critical to this analysis,” said Mr. Van Zandt, the former F.B.I. profiler. “If investigators look at the shrapnel from all five devices and see the same kind of nails or ball bearings, for instance, that would connect the devices to the same bomb builder. Investigators could then canvass hardware stores in Austin, or all over Texas for that matter, looking for someone who bought quantities of these things.”

The locations of the explosions is also significant. All of the four bombings in Austin occurred in residential neighborhoods near highways and major thoroughfares, suggesting to investigators that the suspect may be doing significant getaway planning and may not even live in Austin. Investigators have sought home security camera footage that could help solve the case.

Law enforcement officials have taken the unusual step of speaking directly to the suspect or suspects at news conferences, asking them to call 911 to talk to the police and explain the message behind the attacks. Mr. Van Zandt said that for some serial bombers, such an invitation may be hard to resist. But he added that there was another benefit to such communication between the hunters and the hunted.

“If we give them an opportunity to talk, they are not bombing,” he said.

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