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On the other side of Austin's racial divide, fear lingers after death of serial bomber

Federal agents discuss the latest on the investigation of Austin, Texas, serial bomber Mark Conditt.

The serial bomber who terrorized the Texas capital for three weeks is dead, but many on the city's predominantly minority, blue-collar east side where the blasts began said they have been left with lingering fears about the attacker's motives.

"I wish I were sorry, but I am not," Mark Conditt said in the cellphone recording he made hours before he blew himself up in his SUV on Tuesday while being pursued by police, a source told the Austin American-Statesman.

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Conditt described himself in the video as a "psychopath" who'd been disturbed since childhood and vowed that if authorities closed in on him, he would walk into a crowded McDonald's and blow himself up, the source said.

Conditt, 23, was white, home-schooled by a middle-class family on the city's suburban north side. An evangelical Christian, he blogged about his opposition to abortion and homosexuality. It's not clear why the first in a series of bombing targeted African Americans and Latinos east of Interstate 35, which slices through the city and has a history as a racial divide.

The first attacks — March 2 and March 12 — killed two African American men and injured two women, one African American and one Latina. Because the bomber dropped packages at specific addresses on the brick-home-lined streets, investigators initially said the attacks might be racially motivated. But on Sunday the bomber left a package rigged to a tripwire in a wealthy mostly white suburb, injuring two white men in their 20s. Investigators shifted theories and said the motive could be more complicated.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said the confessional video recovered from Conditt's cellphone showed his motive was not racial enmity or terrorism, but rather "personal challenges." Manley did not detail the video or specify what he meant by "challenges." Investigators also have not disclosed where the final packages were destined. One of those packages exploded on a conveyor belt at a FedEx processing center outside San Antonio; the other was recovered from a FedEx facility near the Austin airport.

After Conditt died, state troopers notified several residents of potential danger in Cedar Park, west of where he lived. The recovered package was destined for southwest Austin, according to a screenshot obtained by San Antonio's KABB-TV.

Relatives, friends and neighbors of the victims of the initial blasts want to know more about the bomber's motives and any potential accomplices.

On Thursday, the father of the first bombing victim thanked investigators in a letter to the city but also asked what motivated the attack that killed his 39-year-old son, Anthony.

"Hopefully, the death of the bomb maker suspect ends the ring of fear and terror in the Austin area," Elliot House wrote. "Although it leaves a few questions," he added, that his family shares with that of 17-year-old victim Draylen Mason — "both being black and the only deaths in the series of bombings. We are plagued with how they were selected and why."

Draylen's family also released a statement through their pastor thanking police and adding, "The most recent chain of events have brought some sense of closure that our beloved has received justice."

The Rev. Gary Renfro, who ministers on the east side and released the statement, acknowledged that questions linger.

"We're all just kind of hoping the authorities will find some more information that gives some kind of idea why, what motivated him to do what he did, to target the individuals. Was it random or did he have a reason for what he did?" Renfro said.

Community leaders had criticized police for being slow to respond to the bombings. At an east Austin town hall last week, residents questioned whether police would have responded quicker and in full force had the victim been white or lived west of I-35.

Once the heart of the city's "negro district," the area where the first bombing occurred was designed decades ago by the City Council to segregate Austin's black population, said Eric Tang, an associate professor of black and Asian American studies at the University of Texas.

Mexican Americans, meanwhile, were relegated to an area to the south, and by the end of the 20th century gentrification pushed them farther east, the area where the third bomb exploded.

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"There's a general sense that there hasn't been enough information shared about what exactly the motives were and how one could rule out certain motives so quickly," said Tang, who recently published a survey of gentrification on the east side. "There's still fear.… It lingers for them. It's a community that feels invisible, a community that feels it's being erased and nobody really cares that this is happening to them, and, at worst, people would like to see them go."

Nelson Linder, president of the city's chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said it was too soon to dismiss the attacks as being without racial motive.

"There's still too many unanswered questions to reach that conclusion. We're going to be doing more research on who Mark Conditt was," Linder said. "They don't think this guy had a racial motive. We can't accept that. We have not come to that conclusion yet until we find out who this guy is."

Rickye Henderson stands outside his home in east Austin.
Rickye Henderson stands outside his home in east Austin. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske/ Los Angeles Times)

East side neighbors agreed that Conditt's death only raised more questions.

"When I found out it was him, I became even more scared," said Rickye Henderson, who lives down the street from the site of the second bombing and knew House. "It's an injustice for the police to not tell us.… Austin knows they have a racial problem. I do believe there was some racial involvement in the situation."

Conditt had two roommates, who were detained, questioned and released by investigators, but not identified. Authorities said the men did not appear to have been involved in the bombings, and were cooperating.

The mother of one of the men told Austin's KXAN-TV that she was shocked to learn her son was taken in for questioning.

"I know my son is not involved in this," said Jennifer Withers, who is African American.

On Galindo Street, where 75-year-old Esperanza "Hope" Herrera was wounded in an explosion March 12, neighbors still worry about the bomber's motive.

Estella Chavez lives across the street and remembers hearing the pop of the explosion, then rushing outside to see her friend on the ground, crying softly. A neighbor covered her with a blanket and kept repeating her name. She never answered. She remains in critical condition, and may lose an arm and a leg, Chavez said.

Chavez wonders whether Conditt had accomplices, and if the neighborhood and routine things like the daily mail delivery will ever feel safe again.

"I wish he would have lived and gone through the consequences like this poor lady," Chavez said. "She didn't deserve this."

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