The Unusual Suspects

Did Austin anarchists torch the Governor’s Mansion?

Arson at the Governor's MansionTexas’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

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