For three weeks, a major metropolitan area was on edge as random acts of violence made everyday activities strategic decisions. Police and law enforcement, from local cops to the FBI to the ATF, were everywhere, suddenly and constantly the center of attention. More than anyone, the chief of police was the commanding presence, at times revealing much, at other times little—but always projecting an air of confidence meant to calm a population that grew increasingly anxious.
No, not Austin. Washington.
And while the Texas incident seems to be over, the Washington incident suggests it may be weeks before the Austin community can let go of the fear that has rippled through it.
In October 2002, a series of shootings in Montgomery County, Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C., left ten people dead, three wounded, and a region in turmoil. One man was killed mowing the grass, another pumping gas; one woman was shot at a gas station vacuuming her van.
The D.C. sniper case was the precursor to the Austin bombings, the one that created a template for a massive police response, coordination and cooperation among local and federal officials, and a top local cop as the face of authority.
“I know people were on edge. That was the first day. Three weeks later, people were petrified,” said Tom Manger, who is now chief of police in Montgomery County but at the time of the 2002 shootings was chief of police in Fairfax County, a neighboring Virginia county home to one of the fatalities. He was part of the Sniper Task Force, formed ad hoc with hundreds of federal agents and state and local police, similar to the 500 federal agents who worked with Austin police.
“When the first couple of shootings occurred, we all took notice in the D.C. area,” he told Texas Monthly. After the third shooting, Manger put two marked cruisers on a bridge that anyone driving on the Beltway into Virginia would see.
As the shootings continued, the response ramped up with hundreds of FBI and ATF agents descending on Rockville, Maryland, renting a building next to police headquarters. Schools were on daily lockdown, with recess indoors and no activities outdoors. Gas stations put up tarps to protect people as they pumped gas and shoppers were advised to run into stores in a zigzag pattern to make themselves more difficult targets. The D.C. area set up a tip line—”it was just flooded,” said Manger—and a hierarchy was created for briefings.
At the top was Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose, whose deep voice and stern demeanor became the face of the investigation for anguished residents. “We briefed every day—sometimes three or four times a day,” said Lucille Baur, a spokeswoman for the county who coordinated appearances on the morning television programs.
The Austin Police Department mirrored that approach: interim police chief Brian Manley was a constant and reassuring media presence. It was a lesson learned on the fly by the Washington area law enforcement. “We really needed to make sure the message was consistent and not having people say things that weren’t accurate,” said Manger. “We wanted to send a message that we, law enforcement, are doing everything we could.”
The caution was in not saying too much. “You want to be transparent, but you don’t want to give away evidence that will harm the investigation.” That was the message that was repeated constantly in Austin, especially when Manley appealed to the bomber, now identified as Mark Anthony Conditt, last Sunday to contact officials—and then a different type of bomb exploded in a different part of town. “It’s a high-risk strategy,” said Manger of reaching out directly to the suspect. But he said it was key to try to draw him out to identify him. “In the case of Austin, they pretty quickly found out where he was.”
In the D.C. case, a tip finally led investigators to a site in the state of Washington where the perpetrators—John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17—had done target practice with the same gun and ballistics used in the shootings. The police put out the word on the car they were driving and a truck driver saw it parked at a rest stop in the early hours of October 22, 2002. Police surrounded the vehicle and the two were taken into custody. Their motive: a murky combination of revenge against an ex-wife and dominance of a younger man by an older man. Muhammad was executed in 2009 and Malvo is serving multiple life sentences.
So how did the keep-the-public-informed strategy of the D.C. Sniper Task Force work out? “There was no keeping people calm,” Manger said. “‘We’re doing everything we can’ was the mantra. That’s the best you could do.”
And it was a blueprint that served Austin well.
“It’s a good comparison,” said terrorism expert Jonathan Wood, director of global risk analysis at Control Risks, a London-based security company, of the Austin bombings and the D.C. sniper cases. “It underscores how rare the lone-wolf terrorist-type campaign is in the U.S. An independent threat with no clear motivation is quite uncommon.”
With the bomber now dead, the investigation is still in very high gear as law enforcement searches for a motive and warns the public to remain vigilant because there may be more packages. “For the next couple of weeks, you’re going to see a lot of trepidation and concern about suspicious packages,” said Wood.
While many, including members of the African-American and Hispanic communities, were critical of the authorities’ initial response (the first four victims, including the only two fatalities, were members of minority groups), Austin law enforcement gets mostly high marks from experts for its approach to informing the public. Danny W. Davis, a professor of homeland security at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, said of the Austin response, “I think they did a good job. There was never any doubt about who was in charge. Austin police chief Manley was in charge.” Asked if the Austin bombings would be part of the curriculum, Davis said, “Absolutely! It will be a case study.”
Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical analysis at Austin-based Stratfor Inc., said, “I think they did a very good job. It was more challenging than the D.C. sniper case. The bomber didn’t leave them notes and cards or make a call the way they did in Washington.” Appealing directly to the bomber “was not a misstep,” he said. “Why not take that step when we don’t have much else to go on?”
Manley is now being suggested as a permanent police chief. As for Moose, his proposed book and movie deals ran afoul of county ethics rules and he resigned in June 2003. There was a book—Three Weeks in October: The Manhunt for the Serial Sniper, a New York Times best seller—and a TV movie. Moose briefly returned to the police beat as a beginning officer in Honolulu but is now retired and living in Florida.