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U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul: "Working as a team" was key to catching Austin bomber

Last month's bombing spree "would have overwhelmed any major city police department," Austin's interim police chief told a congressional committee as he thanked state and federal agencies for their help in tracking down a serial bomber.

Flanked by federal agents, interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley speaks at a press conference about the fourth bombing in Austin on Monday, March 19, 2018.

The efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement during the Austin serial bombings last month is a success story for law enforcement cooperation during a tragedy, lawmakers and officials said Wednesday at a U.S. House Homeland Security Committee hearing in Washington D.C. 

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, praised local and state law enforcement for their swift — and collaborative — response when it came to catching the Austin serial bomber.

McCaul, the committee's chairman, compared the information sharing between federal, state and local law enforcement in Austin to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, an attack that left three people dead and injured at least 264.

“During the Boston bombings, we ... found that there were a lot of errors and gaps made, particularly when it came to information sharing,” McCaul told The Texas Tribune prior to Wednesday’s hearing. “We had the police commissioner of Boston not knowing anything about the case … and in his words, ‘didn’t know he had a terrorist in his own backyard.’"

Wednesday’s hearing came nearly a month after Mark A. Conditt, the man who police say was responsible for five bombings in Austin, blew himself up as officers attempted to arrest him in Round Rock, north of Austin, ending a string of attacks that killed two people, injured at least five others and shook Texas' capital city. A sixth bomb was found at a FedEx distribution center near the Austin airport but didn’t detonate.

The manhunt for Conditt came to a close after police tracked him to a hotel. As they waited for more officers to arrive, he drove away. Police followed, and Conditt drove into a ditch, where an officer fired at him and Conditt detonated a bomb in the vehicle. He died at the scene.

McCaul said Wednesday that the pursuit of Conditt, which represented the largest mobilization of law enforcement since the Boston bombing, revealed a “significant cultural shift” within the FBI to work hand-in-hand with local authorities during such attacks. Rather than take the lead, the FBI followed the direction of interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, who McCaul said was "the leader of the investigation." 

“As I reflect on the five-year anniversary of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, the importance of collaboration between federal, state and local law enforcement partners is only reaffirmed,” said William Evans, the commissioner for the Boston Police Department. “This is so true for the recent bombings in Austin, which remind us all of how quickly tragedy can descend upon innocent citizens.”

Several panelists and committee members emphasized the need for the federal government to financially support state and local law enforcement.

We have to back up our talk with money,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York. “This is not a political issue.”

“I can’t emphasize the need for federal dollars enough," said Manley. "If we don’t have the money available to conduct those training exercises, our communities will be less safe.”

During his testimony, Manley praised the federal and statewide resources deployed to help catch Conditt. In addition to Austin police, more than 500 federal agents worked the case along with Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and bomb technicians from Houston and San Antonio. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also released $265,500 in emergency funding for Austin police to buy seven bomb-detecting X-ray systems.

“The serial bombing spree that occurred in Austin would have overwhelmed any major city police department,” Manley said. “The partnership among all agencies is also of note as everyone worked together constructively …  avoiding any ‘turf’ issues that could have slowed the operation and left the Austin community at risk for a longer period of time.”

Manley said there's no reason to believe there are other suspects, though his department is still investigating the case and combing through Conditt's computer records to seek his motivations for the attacks. 

“Austin will continue to be the vibrant and inviting city we were before these attacks, but we are forever changed,” Manley said. “We will not forget the lives of Anthony House or Draylen Mason, senselessly taken by the serial bomber.”

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