SWAT Team member Michael Ridge said the March 2018 operation "moved too fast" for him to get nervous
Yesterday at 11:59 AM 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
army of federal, state and local investigators thought they had
uncovered the identity of the man whose acts had killed two people and
His name was Mark Conditt. And law enforcement thought they knew where the 23-year-old was.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
As the team prepared to arrest Conditt, he started his SUV and began driving.
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.
Team member Michael Ridge, sandwiched between other officers in one of
the vans, said the operation moved too fast for him to get nervous.
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.”
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
“We knew the potential risk for others to be injured if he wasn’t quickly detained,” Radtke said.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Austin bombings: Click here for our complete coverage of deadly explosions
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.”