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Mystery grows in Austin bombings as explosions continue

Baffled by a string of bombings that have killed two and injured several others, Austin police repeated their call Monday for the bomb-maker to contact authorities and explain his motives. An explosion on Monday, set off apparently at random by a tripwire, changed the picture that had been emerging of targeted attacks aimed at blacks.

The first two bombings killed African-American men at their homes, but Sunday night’s blast injured two white men walking outside in a mostly white neighborhood.

The Austin Police Department has not ruled out the possibility of hate crimes. Police Chief Brian Manley was asked at a press conference Monday why they haven’t yet called the series of explosions “terrorism.”

“That’s been the question all along. Is this terrorism? Is this hate-related? And we’re early on in the investigation. Today, we’ve only gotten into the preliminary phases. As the day moves on, that is something we are going to analyze. We are clearly dealing with what we expect to be a serial bombing at this point,” Manley said. “We will have to determine if we see a specific ideology behind this or something that leads us along with our federal partners to make that decision.”

Police believe the perpetrator intended to “send a message,” but they don’t know what it is. Manley called on the perpetrator to contact the authorities.

“We’ve opened ourselves up for a message, and that’s why we asked him to contact us and gave him phone numbers to contact us at,” Manley said. “We won’t understand what the motive might be behind this or the reason behind this until [we] have an opportunity to talk to the suspect or the suspects involved.”

The first package bomb killed Anthony Stephan House, a 39-year-old African-American, on March 2 when he picked it up outside his home in north Austin. The second package bomb killed Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old African-American, on March 12 after he opened it at his home in east Austin. According to memorial fund for Mason, his mother, Shamika Wilson, was also injured in the blast.

Slideshow: Package bombings in Texas >>>

Police at cordoned-off site of an incident reported as an explosion in southwest Austin, Texas, on March 18, 2018. (Photo: Tamir Kalifa/Reuters)

Nelson E. Linder, the president of the NAACP’s Austin branch, told Yahoo News that House’s stepfather was Dr. Freddie Dixon, a retired pastor and educator, and that Mason’s grandfather was Dr. Norman Mason, a dentist. The older men, prominent members of the local black community, were close friends. Mason attended Wesley United Methodist Church, where Dixon was once a minister.

“The first two bombings clearly targeted African-Americans or certain families,” Linder said. “We didn’t say they were hate crimes because it had a personal angle.”

The third bomb critically injured Esperanza Herrera, a 75-year-old Hispanic woman, later in the day on March 12. But she had picked up a package that wasn’t addressed to her and was apparently not the intended target.

“The target was another black person named Erica Mason who they thought was related to Norman Mason. Clearly, these first three bombs were targeted toward prominent families,” Linder said. “Last night, everything changed.”

The victims on Sunday were white men in their early 20s. Authorities maintained the scene overnight so it could be examined in daylight. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI arrived to assist in the investigation.

Linder said the bomb on Sunday clearly shows the culprit is a threat to everybody — regardless of color.

Federal investigators survey the scene near Galindo Street in Austin, Texas, on March 12, 2018, where a woman in her 70s was injured in an explosion. The incident was the second reported explosion that day and the third in two weeks. (Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)

“We never said these were hate crimes, although we need to keep our minds open. We thought this was personal — based on vengeance and jealousy,” Linder said, adding that none of the blasts hit obvious targets in hate crimes, such as civil rights leaders and community organizers. “They were targeting certain families, not racial people who were political in our community. They’re more personal than political.”

Early Tuesday, a package bound for Austin exploded at a FedEx facility in the city of Schertz, just northeast of San Antonio. According to local police, one person was treated at the scene for minor injuries and released.

The Rev. Sylvester Chase, the senior pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, told Yahoo News that violence “happens all the time in America, but it only hits home when it hits people in your family or close to people you know.”

The community watched Mason grow from a little boy into a talented musician and an impressive young man.

“When these things come, we don’t even have an answer and it hurts even more when they are young,” Chase told Yahoo News. “We like to think that those coming after us have years left to go. It makes you reassess what’s important in life and the relationships that you have.”

He said it’s not appropriate to describe the bombings as hate crimes until there is more evidence.

“I don’t like to accuse anything or anyone until there’s more evidence. We don’t have any proof right now. I wouldn’t want anyone to judge me or anyone in my community,” Chase said. “It’s a scenario that might be, but we don’t know for sure. I am praying that it’s not a hate crime, and that in this day and time we are getting beyond that in America.”

Authorities investigate the scene in East Austin after a teenager was killed and a woman was injured in the second Austin package explosion on March 12, 2018. (Photo: Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Austin police are offering a $100,000 reward for a tip leading to the identification of the perpetrator. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office is offering an additional $15,000.

During the Monday news conference, ATF Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski said the tripwire mechanism makes that device the suspected serial bomber’s most sophisticated to date. He said a tripwire bomb can easily be detonated by passersby.

“Tripwire is a victim-activated switch [that] literally uses some kind of wire. And when there’s pressure put on that wire, it activates or detonates the device. It can be either from tripping over it or picking up the package — any tension that’s put on that wire.”

Milanowski said the use of a tripwire underscores how important it is that civilians call law enforcement to examine any suspicious packages before touching them.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs said at the news conference that the FBI brought more than 350 special agents to support the police department. He reiterated that the presence of tripwire changes the nature of the threat.

“It’s more sophisticated. It’s not targeted to individuals,” Combs said. “Very concerned that with tripwire, a child could be walking down the sidewalk and hit something.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Austin Police Department revealed that it responded to 420 calls about suspicious packages between 8 a.m. Monday and 8 a.m. Tuesday. This brings the total number of calls to 1,257 since around 8 a.m. on March 12.

The White House did not comment on the bombings until Tuesday, when President Trump called them “terrible” and the work of a “very, very sick individual — or maybe individuals.”

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