By Tony Plohetski Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas — Sometime around midnight on March 20, a handful of Austin Police Department SWAT officers climbed into a van and raced north up Interstate 35. They were close to catching the serial bomber who had terrorized the city for 19 days.
In the dimly lit parking lot of a Rudy’s barbecue, the team assembled blocks from where the man’s red Nissan SUV sat just off the highway.
They had played out different scenarios, including that he could have a booby-trapped car loaded with explosives or a hidden bomb tucked under his seat. They had called for the department’s armored vehicles, but by the time the suspect started moving, the vehicles, which can only travel at top speeds of about 50 miles per hour, were still chugging up I-35 from police headquarters downtown.
“They were doing everything they could to get them there,” said Lt. Katrina Pruitt, who supervises the team. “He just went mobile too fast.”
They were going to be on their own.
As they sealed their plan, the team agreed their foremost goal was to end the attacks by arresting the bomber without putting themselves, the public or the suspect himself in danger.
“We would have liked to contain him and gain control over him to allow him the ability to peacefully surrender,” SWAT Team Sgt. Brannon Ellsworth said.
When those plans quickly crumbled, team members say they still knew they had to strike. They say they were left with no option of what to do next.
A few hours earlier, the group — which had been on standby at the city’s emergency command center — had heard the news they had long wanted.
An army of federal, state and local investigators thought they had uncovered the identity of the man whose acts had killed two people and injured five.
His name was Mark Conditt. And law enforcement thought they knew where the 23-year-old was.
Earlier that evening, Ellsworth, one of three team supervisors, had sent several squad members home to rest from what had been grueling around-the-clock shifts. He knew it was time to pull them back.
“We started building plans of how to deal with that suspect,” Ellsworth said.
Officer Leighton Radtke got the call while still driving home. With tension mounting in the operations center, he spun his unmarked car around, pressed the gas and rushed to meet his teammates.
“I think we all realized the severity of that moment,” he said.
During the three weeks of bombings, more than 300 law enforcement officers from around the country worked on the investigation. All along, the SWAT team, which specializes in hostage negotiations and taking high-risk suspects into custody, faced the possible task of arresting the bomber once detectives figured out who and where he was.
The attacks started March 2, when Conditt planted a bomb at the doorstep of 39-year-old Anthony House. It detonated outside.
Ten days later, another package bomb killed 17-year-old Draylen Mason and injured his mother, and within hours, a third explosion severely injured 75-year-old Esperanza “Hope” Herrera.
The random blasts put all of Austin on edge and led police to warn against opening any suspicious packages. On the evening of March 18, the public threat grew more frightening when Conditt used a trip wire to detonate an explosive that hurt two men in a Southwest Austin neighborhood.
That week, the investigation had picked up momentum after Conditt shipped two packages from a FedEx store on Brodie Lane. Security cameras provided a glimpse of him wearing a blonde wig and baseball cap. By then, he had already been on investigators’ radar, after detectives had plowed through stacks of store receipts from Austin-area retailers and found Conditt purchased various bomb-making materials.
The investigation into the bombings is not yet complete. Investigators say they are still combing through forensic evidence and scouring digital information from Conditt’s computer. So far, they say they have found no motive in the attacks — Conditt left an audio confession in which he refers to himself as a psychopath — and still think the victims were random.
The Williamson County District Attorney’s Office recently closed its investigation into SWAT team Officer Vincent Garcia, who shot at Conditt during the attempt to arrest him. Prosecutors have a policy of presenting all police shootings to a grand jury, no matter the circumstances.
The closure of that aspect of case opened the possibility for SWAT officers to publicly discuss their actions. Four of the 11 agreed to interviews with the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV. The others, including Garcia, declined, saying they want to remain private.
As the team prepared to arrest Conditt, he started his SUV and began driving.
By then, choppers from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Austin Police Department began hovering over Conditt. Officers radioed from the air that Conditt was “coming up to 35 frontage, going to be taking a right turn southbound.”
Ellsworth also had assembled two teams in two vans, and they, too, can be seen in video footage from the air following behind Conditt at about 40 miles per hour. The three vehicles went through the frontage road and Old Settlers Boulevard intersection before continuing south.
Pruitt says she thinks that by then, Conditt almost certainly suspected police were behind him because of the parade of vehicles and helicopters following him.
SWAT Team member Michael Ridge, sandwiched between other officers in one of the vans, said the operation moved too fast for him to get nervous.
“I was so focused on making sure that I was doing what I needed to do,” he said. “I didn’t really think about this could be our last chance. You rely on your training and think about the mission at hand.”
Ellsworth, also inside one of the vans, said he grew concerned Conditt was about to enter the highway or possibly head toward a public place — a worry that proved legitimate. Conditt said in his audio confession he planned to go to a crowded McDonald’s and blow himself up instead of being arrested.
“We knew the potential risk for others to be injured if he wasn’t quickly detained,” Radtke said.
With the tension at a fevered pitch, Ellsworth called Pruitt, his supervisor, as the vans continued tailing Conditt. He told her he wanted to order a “vehicle assault,” a rarely used tactic in which police intentionally crash into a suspect’s car. Ellsworth hoped it would disable Conditt, pinching him between the two vans.
Pruitt had just left her office downtown and was on the upper deck of I-35, racing to the area, when she got Ellsworth’s call.
“I told him, if it is at all possible, do not allow him to go to populated areas,” she said. “He said, ‘This is what our plans are.’ I said, ‘Go!’
“The vehicle assault was truly not the best case scenario,” Pruitt said.
Ellsworth added, “It was really the only option we had at that time.”
One of the vans got in front of Conditt, providing a barrier for when the one behind him rammed into his back bumper. At that point, there was nowhere for Conditt to go.
SWAT officers, including Garcia and Rob Justesen, threw open the door and jumped from the rear van. Justesen pounded on the passenger window of Conditt’s car three times. Then, an explosion blasted from his SUV, blowing shards of glass from his windows and knocking the two officers back several feet.
Team members say it was likely a life-saving coincidence they went to Conditt’s passenger side; they fear their two fellow officers could have been killed had they gone to the driver’s side.
It happened so fast that the other officers were still getting out of the vans and running toward Conditt when they were rocked by the force of the explosion.
“You know, it’s funny, I don’t remember hearing the blast,” Ellsworth said. “I saw it. I’m sure it was loud, but you are so focused on doing what you can to help your teammate.”
Radtke added, “It was apparent to me that it was something other than gunfire.”
Pruitt said by the time she got to the scene — “That seemed to be the slowest damn drive” — more than 150 officers had already arrived. In the chaos, she searched for her team. She spent about 10 agonizing minutes trying to “put my eyes on everybody.”
Radtke called his wife: “‘We’re OK. My guys are OK. I’ll talk to you soon.’”
In the six months since the explosions, the SWAT Team has returned to its more traditional mission, but with a closer bond.
“We are just a group of guys all focused on one thing, being a professional team and personal friends,” Ellsworth said.
“Quiet professionals,” Radtke said.
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The department honored members in a special ceremony this spring. For weeks after, members say, anytime they wore their team shirts to lunch, people stopped and thanked them.
Ridge said friends and family members have asked him to describe what happened that morning. He is not eager.
“I change the subject,” he said. “It’s not something I want to go around talking about.”
The team says they will always remember their actions that day in a career that promises the unpredictable.
“This was a big incident, and no one downplays that, but tomorrow is a new day,” Radtke said. “The job carries on for us.”