The Unusual Suspects

Did Austin anarchists torch the Governor’s Mansion?

December 2008By Comments

Arson at the Governor's Mansion Texas’s biggest whodunit began in the early-morning hours of Sunday, June 8, in downtown Austin, when several passersby noticed that the porch of the Governor’s Mansion was in flames. “The entire front of the mansion is on fire!” cried one woman in a panicked call to a 911 dispatcher. “It’s huge! It’s a huge fire!” When firefighters arrived, just before 2 a.m., flames were sweeping through the first and second stories and into the attic of the 152-year-old Greek Revival—style building, and soon the entire 8,920-square-foot structure—which had been home to forty governors, among them Sam Houston and the forty-third president—was ablaze. (Luckily the mansion, which had been undergoing a $10 million renovation that was to have included the installation of a sprinkler system, was uninhabited at the time; the governor and his family were living temporarily in West Austin.) More than one hundred firefighters fought the blaze, which took nearly five hours to contain, as smoke drifted through downtown. By dawn, the mansion’s graceful white Ionic columns were scorched and blackened, and the charred roof, which had buckled, appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Governor Rick Perry’s spokesperson, Robert Black, called the damage “extraordinary, bordering on catastrophic.”

Later that day, as the fire smoldered, state fire marshal Paul Maldonado made an unsettling declaration: The mansion had been the target of arson. To the embarrassment of the Department of Public Safety, only one state trooper had been guarding the building when it was torched, and just thirteen of the twenty security cameras on the mansion grounds had been operating that night. But a surveillance camera had captured the image of a man throwing a Molotov cocktail at 1:27 a.m. He appeared to be white and in his twenties, Maldonado would later tell reporters at a June 16 press conference. He was approximately five feet nine to six feet one and, Maldonado pointed out, physically fit, since he had managed to scale a barrier on the grounds and throw a Molotov cocktail “with enough force to cause it to create a fireball.” In other words, he looked like a lot of guys in town. The suspect had even been wearing Austin’s most ubiquitous item of clothing, a University of Texas ball cap.

The psychological profile that Maldonado provided hardly narrowed the field either. “He may be known to get angry and express strong opinions about the government, Governor Perry himself, the death penalty, the renovation of the mansion, or other political issues,” he said at the press conference. (“That doesn’t exactly thin the herd in this town of political know-it-alls,” wrote the Austin American-Statesman’s John Kelso.) Maldonado did add, however, that the arsonist’s “skill in deploying his incendiary device suggests he has practiced constructing and throwing these devices.” He ended by addressing the perpetrator directly. “We do feel you had a message,” he said. “We’re not quite sure what that message is, and we would like to hear from you.” Then Maldonado issued a warning: “This investigation will never cease until you are identified.”

Nearly six months have passed since then, and the mystery has only deepened. The Texas Rangers, assisted by the ATF and local law enforcement agencies, are still investigating. The DPS, which released grainy surveillance footage of the perpetrator walking outside the mansion—and a videotape of the same person, or perhaps another individual, running from the fire—made a plea for the public’s assistance as long ago as July 29, with little to show for it. Arson is a notoriously difficult crime to solve; according to FBI statistics, arson investigations have an 18 percent clearance rate, compared with a 61 percent rate for murder, 54 percent for aggravated assault, and 40 percent for rape. The very nature of a fire makes it challenging to investigate: Key evidence is, of course, often destroyed, and there are rarely eyewitnesses. A house that had persevered for more than a century and a half—built when Texas was still a slave state and Austin was a settlement of about three thousand people—was undone with a single decisive throw of a bottle. Yet we are no closer to knowing who set the fire, or why, than the day it happened.

If the arsonist was trying to make a statement, what was it, exactly? And of all the Texas landmarks he could have chosen, why the Governor’s Mansion? How has he managed to keep such a low profile? Radio talk show host Alex Jones, Austin’s most celebrated conspiracy theorist, has made the dubious claim on The Alex Jones Show that there was “a very good chance the fire was an inside job” meant to help the DPS expand its counterterrorism mandate. (“DPS had an amazingly sluggish response that night,” Jones told me. “The whole thing stinks to high heaven.”) In the absence of any arrests, speculation about the arsonist’s identity has only flourished. He was a lone nut. A disgruntled state employee. Someone with a grudge against Governor Perry or even the mansion’s preceding inhabitant, George W. Bush. Or perhaps he was affiliated with the Republic of Texas, the separatist group that believes Texas is an independent nation.

In September the Dallas Morning News reported the most tantalizing story thus far, that investigators were reviewing the cases of two Austin anarchists who had been arrested during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul for possessing a stash of Molotov cocktails. Under the headline “Texas Governor’s Mansion Fire Probe Turns to Austin Men Arrested at Republican Convention,” the newspaper quoted a “high-ranking state law enforcement official,” who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying there were “enough similar characteristics in the two cases to justify a review.” Naturally, when I contacted Gerardo De Los Santos, the assistant chief of the Texas Rangers, as well as DPS spokesperson Tela Mange, they would not say whether the men were under investigation. But the notion that anarchists were to blame, and that they were hanging around Austin talking about revolution, seemed hopelessly out-of-date—as if we were living in a simpler, pre-Dellionaire era, when Charles Whitman was a recent memory.

The two anarchists in question, it turned out, were not the clove-cigarette-smoking variety but part of a new generation of political protesters who advocate such confrontational tactics as those carried out during the 1999 World Trade Organization riots, in Seattle. Brad Crowder, who is 23, and David McKay, a year his junior, were part of a group of eight Austin activists who went to St. Paul in late August, along with thousands of other protesters from around the country, to try to disrupt the Republican National Convention. The plan was to block roads and create chaos in the streets in order to prevent delegates from reaching the convention site, a strategy that resulted in clashes with police and the arrest of more than eight hundred protesters, mostly on misdemeanor charges. According to a federal affidavit, the Austin group brought a rented trailer with them to St. Paul that contained 34 homemade riot shields, which they had fashioned out of stolen traffic barrels. They never had the opportunity to use the shields, however, since police seized them on August 31.

McKay then apparently had a falling out with others in the group and devised another plan. On an FBI audio recording that a federal informant secretly taped during a meeting with him on September 2 in St. Paul, the Austinite described how Molotov cocktails that he and Crowder had made would be thrown at vehicles in a parking lot cryptically described in the affidavit as a place that is “used by marked and unmarked law enforcement vehicles and is visibly patrolled by individuals wearing U.S. Secret Service vests.” (Crowder was already in jail, having been arrested for disorderly conduct.) When the informant asked McKay about the possibility that police officers might be injured, he allegedly replied, “It’s worth it if an officer gets burned or maimed.” The following day, St. Paul police raided the apartment where McKay and the informant had met, seizing gas masks, helmets, and eight Molotov cocktails, as well as some rather quaint weaponry: slingshots. Crowder and McKay are now being held without bond in Minnesota as they await trial on federal weapons charges.

Though the connection between the St. Paul case and the Governor’s Mansion fire seemed tenuous to me—Molotov cocktails are hardly difficult to make—Fred Burton, a counterterrorism expert for Stratfor, a private intelligence company in Austin, told me that he believed the similarities between the two cases warranted further examination. “I don’t have access to the current investigative file, but in my humble opinion, the nexus is very compelling,” he said in October. “You have an Austin-based anarchist group that has constructed Molotov cocktails before, has demonstrated a willingness to commit acts of violence, and has the philosophy and the psychological mind-set to carry out this kind of crime. And then you have a very symbolic target, the Governor’s Mansion, where our seated president used to live.” Whoever committed the crime had conducted “extensive reconnaissance beforehand and was very methodical,” he added.

Burton, the former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, predicted that any Texas-led investigation of Crowder and McKay would first focus on the electronic record—text messages, e-mails, cell phone calls—to see where they were at the time of the fire. “That will either bury them or refute that they were involved,” he said. Burton also suggested that any fragments of the Molotov cocktail that were recovered from the Governor’s Mansion could be compared with the eight Molotov cocktails seized in St. Paul, which were made using empty wine and liquor bottles, a mixture of gasoline and motor oil, tampons that had been soaked in lighter fluid, and rubber bands.

Jeff DeGree, McKay’s attorney in St. Paul, told me that to his knowledge, Texas investigators had had one brief interview with his client but no follow-up conversations. (Crowder’s attorney would not comment for this story, and Crowder himself, in a letter from jail, wrote that he’d been advised not to discuss his case.) If Crowder’s MySpace page is any indication (yes, anarchists now have MySpace pages), the two Austinites are not shy about advertising their political activism. His profile, ThoughtRebel, boasts a photo of him dressed in black ninja gear at a protest, another of McKay holding up a sign that says “Abortions Are Neat!” and a snapshot of Crowder standing with three grinning friends who are holding Molotov cocktails. Could these guys possibly have kept quiet all summer about the Governor’s Mansion fire if they had had any involvement in sparking it? And wouldn’t the FBI, which began investigating the group as far back as February 2007, have heard something about the fire from its informant? “There is absolutely no connection between us and that event,” McKay wrote to me from jail about the mansion fire. “I think it has been just another way for [the FBI] to justify their actions and to turn us into domestic terrorists. We are nothing of the sort and we are proud to [be] Austinites and Texans and Americans.” He denied ever wanting to harm police officers, and as for the informant in St. Paul, he wrote, “Many questions about his motivations to crucify us go unanswered.”

Damian Roberts, a friend of McKay’s and Crowder’s in Midland, where the two men are originally from, emphasized that they were nonviolent. Crowder was “the common punk kid who was interested in politics and sharing his point of view with others,” Roberts e-mailed me, while McKay “liked to have fun, he was kind of a wild child, but never a danger to anyone.” Both were “very peaceful” and “wanted to get people to work together more and be less reliant on government.” They had protested the Ku Klux Klan when the group had marched in Midland, and they shared an interest in community building. “They are two of the most compassionate people I know,” Roberts wrote. “They are very intelligent and got led by the informant to the point they are at. Their community-organizing tactics were more of the potluck-skill-share type than of violence. They know more effective ways to get communities working together in gardens than in riots.”

Whether an anarchist, a lone nut, or someone who had an ax to grind with Governor Perry is to blame, and whether an arrest ever comes, there’s still the fate of the mansion itself to consider. To many of the people I interviewed, the notion that someone wanted to destroy the building—a living, breathing piece of Texas history that Ann Richards famously called the People’s House—remained unfathomable. News of the fire had left the mansion’s docents “stunned,” “heartbroken,” and “heartsick,” they told me. Perry himself summed up the sense of loss in a statement he issued in the wake of the destruction: “Though it can certainly be rebuilt, what Texas has lost today can never be replaced.” A former mansion tour guide, Robert Perez, expressed similar sentiments. “I loved the fact that the home was always bigger than those who had the privilege of occupying it, precisely because it belonged to the state of Texas as a whole,” he explained. “The residence was above party affiliations or ideologies.”

Those who are in mourning for the mansion can take solace in the fact that the Legislature, when it convenes in January, will likely appropriate the funds for a renovation to proceed without delay. When I spoke to Dealey Herndon, a State Preservation Board staffer and the new project manager of the rebuilding effort, in October, she was upbeat about the prospect of the building’s being restored to its original glory. “A remarkable amount of it is intact,” she said, crediting the mansion’s meticulous construction and high-quality materials for its structural integrity. “A modern house couldn’t have withstood a fire of that magnitude. But the mansion is beautifully built; the exterior walls, and even the dividing walls that separate each room, are thick and made of brick. When the roof began falling in, a lot of pressure was put on those walls, but the house remained standing.”

Herndon, who oversaw the restoration of the Texas Capitol and the construction of the Capitol Extension, specializes in large historic preservation projects. The portion of the mansion that was hardest hit, she told me, was the entrance. But each of the rooms is still intact, and many signature elements of the house remain standing, including the grand half-turn staircase (Governor James Hogg once drove nails into its banister to prevent his children from sliding down it) and the carved mantel in the library (beneath which Sam Houston reportedly burned a letter from Abraham Lincoln offering the assistance of federal troops if Texas remained in the Union). All the mansion’s furnishings, as well as its windows and doors, have survived, because they were in storage during the time of the fire. The longleaf pine floors, sixteen-foot ceilings, and deep veranda will be restored, and the decorative woodwork that extends throughout the house will be salvaged or, where necessary, re-created.

“We think we can get the mansion back to the way it was,” Herndon said, although she was reluctant to say how long the project might take, because the Legislature still has to determine the timetable for funding. “Once it’s finished, you won’t be able to tell that there was ever a fire.”

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