Technology's role in finding Austin package bomber

By Mario Diaz - Reporter

HOUSTON - Hours before Austin serial bomber Mark Conditt ended his life with a single detonation along I-35, Channel 2 Investigates focused on what law enforcement described as the game-changing development in the case: the bomber relying on FedEx to carry out his sinister spree.

Law enforcement described it as a game changer in the investigation.

The reason is simple, according to Mitchel Roth, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University: Bombers are in rare company.

"The only type of criminal that has been compared to a bomber is kind of like a poisoner," he said.

Former U.S. State Department Counterterrorism agent Fred Burton has first-hand experience in the pursuit of a bomber. He was hot on the trail of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

Burton is now based in Austin as chief security officer for Stratfor Enterprises.

“I've made bombs, I've gone to the schools to investigate bombs, in order to get these bombs right, you've really got to practice or you really got to know what you are doing," Burton said.

In the Austin case, Conditt successfully detonated six of seven bombs, including the last suicidal blast.

The wave of bombings was executed at an unconventional high-speed tempo, according to Burton.

"The pace of these devices ... specifically, laser-focused on Austin, I have not seen this before," he said.

To provide some context, the Unabomber, Ted Kcyzinski, detonated 16 bombs over nearly 20 years before being captured.

Following 9/11, there has been a global campaign to strengthen technology surveillance in the public and private sector. Cellphones, search history, ATM or credit card uses, surveillance -- and as seen in the Austin case, even tracking numbers on a FedEx box – help create a cybertrail of forensic evidence.

Burton says vast databases and the ability to tap into them instantaneously has revolutionized investigations.

"Instead of thumbing through old bombing reports, you can now do that with artificial intelligence and computer-aided systems so it's night and day," Burton said.

Roth said digital evidence is now pivotal in every case in ultimately generating an arrest, and, "It concludes most of these investigations."

Following a detonation at one FedEx facility and the locating of another bomb intact at a separate facility, law enforcement was able to rapidly enhance their profile of the bomber on two fronts.

The first, according to Burton: "You are able (to) look at the sophistication of the actual bomber and compare that to the actual training that you might get in the military or in my case in federal law enforcement at, for example, the FBI bombing crime scene schools."

As for the second? The failed detonation also allowed investigators to pinpoint the location from which the packages were sent. This helped secure surveillance images of Conditt and identify him. All of these factors played a key role in securing a federal complaint and search warrant to examine Conditt's internet search history as well as to ping his mobile phone through cellular triangulation. A digital DNA trail was rapidly developed and helped stop him cold.

U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, who is the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security in Washinghton, D.C. ,and represents the state’s 10th District, told Channel 2 Investigates this everything changed when Conditt stepped foot into an Austin FedEx.

“Walking into the FedEx office was his fatal mistake, and thank God he did that,” McCaul said.

Roth said this is the reason why crime sprees of the past no longer last so long.

"Some people say, 'Well, why is it that you don't hear a lot about serial killers anymore?' Well, forensic science and digital technology and everything has gotten so good, it's hard for a person that commits a series of crimes to continue to be successful for such a long period of time," he said.

Copyright 2018 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.