Last week, I wrote about Spring Break here in the Austin area, and suggested ways to stay safe (and out of jail!) during the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival. SXSW has grown increasingly massive every year, commanding media attention all over the world. As expected, the capital city is in the news again this year. Unfortunately, this year's write-ups are not detailing top “up-and-coming” artists of the music scene--the usual draw that brings countless worldwide travelers to Austin every time Spring Break rolls around.
Today the front pages of the Austin-American Statesman and the New York Times are talking about an unprecedented Central Texas phenomenon: deadly home deliveries. At a time when most of us are still mourning last month's randomly-chosen teen victims of a south Florida shooter, our own community has been visited by a series of equally random and senseless murders.
THE NEWS REPORTS:
- Two residents are dead. and others severely injured, from bomb-laden packages delivered to the doorsteps of three Austin homes.
- The unfortunate first victim, 39-year old Anthony Stephan House, died on March 2nd after a package detonated on his porch in the 1100 block of Haverford Drive in Northeast Austin.
- A bit over a week later, at 6:45 a.m. this past Monday, another Austin resident—a 17-year-old—died from an exploding package that also injured a 40-year-old woman at the home.
- Mere hours later that same day, a 75-year-old woman was victim to yet another deadly parcel sitting on the front porch of her home in the 6700 block of Galindo Street. She's in critical but stable condition, thank goodness.
- None of the packages were mailed through the U.S. Postal service, nor did they bear markings of typical vendors or services like Amazon, UPS, or FedEx. These were hand-deliveries, likely during late-night or morning hours.
- The boxes themselves weren't unusual in appearance or size, so victims had no reason to be on guard.
- We don't know if the victims were individually targeted or chosen at random.
- According to the Washington Post, a connection between two of the victims has surfaced. It seems that grandfathers of the two dead male victims knew each other. House was a stepson of former historic Austin church pastor Freddie Dixon; the 17-year-old's grandfather was a friend of Dixon's.
- Authorities are uncertain as to whether this connection is mere coincidence.
- Because the recipients of packages were either African-American or Latino, some have speculated that ill will against minority groups could be a motivating factor.
STATUS OF THE INVESTIGATION
The Austin Police Department is getting a boost from investigators including the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). Even as they scramble to prevent further casualties, this is an admittedly tough case to crack. It's a race against time, and area residents are understandably nervous about potential explosions on their own doorsteps.
Austin and surrounding suburbs spread impressively across a map, and these packages have been left at homes on both north and south ends of town. Even with the number of investigators involved in working this case, we realize that police monitoring cannot completely protect the homes and lives of almost one million people in the Austin Metro area. In the meantime, Austinites continue to keep their eys on the news and exercise caution with any package deliveries.
COMMUNITIES PAY A HIGH PRICE FOR MURDERS
With over 20 years of high-level criminal law defense experience, I have handled dozens of murder--and capital murder--cases with motives ranging from pure self-defense to all-our personal vengeance, greed, and hate. While our country has its substantial share of homicides, a truly random attack is quite rare. In the coming days, investigators will unquestionably piece together remnants of devices and narratives. They're hoping to reveal not just a perpetrator, but a motivation for the events. In a case with so little in the way of evidence, these are their best tools in a race to prevent further fatalities. in the end, a lot of expensive man-hours will go into the investigation--a mere fraction of the final bill.
In humanity's standard list of primal fears, "murder" stays near the top. Homicides aren't just terrifying, though...they're expensive. In a 2010 blog post (since lost to the vagaries of the interwebs), I cited a fascinating study indicating that every episode of murder--all extremely rare events--costs $17 million, payable by the local community. These costs include:
"...victim costs, criminal justice system costs, lost productivity estimates for both the victim and the criminal, and estimates on the public's resulting willingness to pay to prevent future violence."
Beyond the financial drain a community suffers from murder, fear and trauma also take their toll--sometimes haunting citizens for generations. Violent memories can be deeply rooted and easily triggered. On occasion, a loud noise still reminds me of IRA bombs I heard exploding near my London flat in 1993. Those blasts were deployed n a nearby Underground station and caused no injuries. In comparison, our local events are violently escalated, with potential to haunt the victims' loved ones and the entire community for decades to come.
WHO IS THE BOMBER?
In cases like the one at hand, local investigators seek help from government profiling specialists to hone in on a possible suspect. The expertly-trained profilers, in turn, look to in-depth studies of those who have committed similar offenses.
Psychiatrists studied “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski after his conviction, and described him as “a serial vandal", "trying to feel important and powerful", "of an above-average intelligence", with "unknown, untapped destructive capabilities". They also commented that “people who've chosen explosive destructiveness are typically those who take a lot of pride in their intellect, but are underachievers, and socially inept." Kaczynski wasn't driven by ideology nor belief, but rather an inflated ego that ended up being his downfall. One researcher commented, "You're dealing with a person who is so caught up in getting attention for himself that he may make the mistake of doing something destructive enough to end up in prison for a long time...at which point, he'd realize, ‘Was it worth it?'". In our central Texas bombing case, is the perpetrator seeking attention, revenge, payback, or vengeance? In time, we'll know much more.
Our central Texas community shares two goals with investigators and law enforcement: those of ending violence and disabling its perpetrators. As police seek the individual responsible for local bombings, those of us working both inside and outside of the criminal justice system ask the same question: "Why did this happen? How can prevent it from happening again?"