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Austin police search for bombing motive, say explosives made with 'skill and sophistication'

Police and federal investigators continued searching Tuesday for answers about a string of packages that have exploded at homes in Austin this month, killing two people, seriously injuring two others and unnerving the city at a time when it is flooded with visitors for the South by Southwest Festival.

While police have not provided specific details about the explosive devices, they have said the three packages that detonated at three homes several miles apart over an 11-day span appear to be related — and the work of a person or people who know what they are doing.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said Tuesday that “the suspect or suspects that are building these devices” have been able to construct and deliver deadly bombs without setting them off at any point.

“When the victims have picked these packages up, they have at that point exploded,” Manley said on KXAN, an Austin television station. “There’s a certain level of skill and sophistication that whoever is doing this has.”

[ Three ‘powerful’ package explosions in Austin that killed 2 are connected, police say ]

Precisely what motivated the attacks remained a mystery Tuesday, though officials have said they do not believe there is any connection between the bombings and the festival. Officials have urged people to use caution, telling them to call 911 if they see a potentially suspicious or unexpected package, with Manley saying that police had responded to more than 150 such calls between Monday morning and Tuesday morning.

Authorities said they were looking into whether the bombings could have been a hate crime, noting that the two people who were killed — an adult man and a teenage boy — were both black, while an elderly woman seriously injured Monday is Hispanic.

Police were also looking into connections between the victims themselves. The two victims who were killed were both related to prominent members of Austin’s African American community, and they have relatives who are close, leading families to wonder whether these connections played some role.

“Are you trying to say something to prominent African American families?” said Freddie Dixon, stepfather of Anthony Stephan House, the 39-year-old killed in the first explosion on March 2. “I don’t know who they’ve been targeting, but for sure, they went and got one of my best friend’s grandson. Somebody knew the connection.”

Dixon said he is good friends with Norman Mason, whose grandson was the teenager killed in the explosion early Monday morning. The teenager has not been formally identified by police, though they say that could come Tuesday. Mason’s wife, LaVonne, confirmed that her grandson was the 17-year-old victim but declined to comment further.

Manley, asked on television Tuesday morning about the ties between the two victims who were killed, said police were “going to look into … if there is any connection there that would be relevant to the investigation.”

Dixon said he used to be the pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, which the Masons attend, and he and Norman Mason were longtime friends and fraternity brothers. Dixon said he spoke with Norman Mason on Monday, describing him as understandably distraught.

“It’s not just coincidental,” Dixon said. “Somebody’s done their homework on both of us, and they knew what they were doing.”

Dixon said while he knew of no one who bore a grudge against his stepson, he could not help but think about his and Mason’s family ties and their prominence in Austin’s African American community.

“My diagnosis: Number one, I think it’s a hate crime. Number two, somebody’s got some kind of vendetta here,” he said, remarking of the third victim, a Hispanic woman who he said he did not know: “Is she a diversion to throw this off, and lead to something else?”

Manley said police continue searching to see if there is any ideology that could have motivated the attack. He also said authorities remain uncertain whether the people hurt or killed were the specific targets of the attacks.

🚨If you receive a package that you are not expecting or looks suspicious, DO NOT open it, call 911 immediately. RT- Help us spread this message. 🚨

— Chief Brian Manley (@chief_manley) March 12, 2018

Authorities had initially said the first blast — a March 2 explosion that killed House — was “suspicious” but likely “an isolated incident” that posed no ongoing danger to the community.

The explosion “sounded like a cannon,” said Kenneth Thompson Sr., who lives across the street from the house where the first explosion occurred.

The police narrative of an isolated explosion suddenly shifted Monday when a pair of blasts went off. The first explosion early Monday morning killed the teenager and seriously injured an adult woman. Later in the morning, investigators at that scene had to rush miles away to respond to the second explosion, which seriously injured a woman identified by her relatives as Esperanza Herrera.

Authorities work on the scene of one of the Austin explosions. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

Police soon said they believed all three attacks were related because of evidence recovered at all three scenes. Rianne Philips, who lives next door to House, said she was alarmed to hear about the bombings Monday but relieved it meant police would be more focused on House’s death.

“They’re not going to let this slide,” Philips said. “It’s really sad, but this means there’s a lot of attention on this now.”

Manley on Tuesday said that authorities believing the first blast was isolated “didn’t slow anything down” in the investigation, stressing that House’s death was still being investigated by Austin police and federal officials alike. After that explosion, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sent a team to help process the scene.

ATF’s involvement ramped up Monday with the second and third explosions. The agency said it was sending members of its National Response Team (NRT) to help with the investigation. That group is activated for particularly large-scale or complicated fires and explosions, including the West, Tex., plant fire in 2013 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said his office is offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or people responsible for the “atrocious attacks.”

Shane Harris in Austin contributed to this report.

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