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Taking down the Austin bomber | Officers talk for the first time

Austin SWAT shares what it was like finally closing in on Mark Conditt to end the terror.

AUSTIN — When the serial bomber attacked Austin this spring, 11 Austin police officers faced an almost impossible decision: Charge toward him, knowing he probably had a bomb, or hold back until it was safe.

That March morning, with their own lives on the line, they decided to strike.

For the first time, members of that elite group tell us about the moment when those 19 days of terror finally came to a fiery end.

These officers said years of training -- and sheer willpower -- took over as they closed in on the elusive bomber.


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Like all of us, they too had lived through nearly three weeks of random attacks. They said they knew in that second that it was up to them to finally bring it to an end.

"You rely on your training, and think about the mission at hand," said Officer Michael Ridge.

Just 11 trained Austin police SWAT Team officers in two vans ...

"We knew the potential risk for others to be injured if he weren't quickly detained," Officer Leighton Radtke said.

... driving toward danger.

"Our main goal is to take everyone into custody safely, including the suspect," Sgt. Brannon Ellsworth said.

And, like all of us, these three officers and their teammates had waited for this moment.

"I think everyone understood in that moment there was potentially a high likelihood of him having a device on him," Radtke said.


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About four hours earlier investigators had alerted the team, which had been on standby throughout the entire ordeal, that they had uncovered the Austin bomber's identity.

Detectives had traced the 23-year-old to a hotel in Round Rock.

During the prior three weeks, the bomber had killed 39-year-old Anthony House and 17-year-old Draylen Mason in a separate blast that also injured Draylen's mother. Three others were also hurt during the spree, including 75-year-old Hope Herrera, and two men who were injured by a blast in Southwest Austin that used a trip wire.

Then, in the early morning hours of March 21, from just a few blocks away in the parking lot of a Rudy's Barbecue, the SWAT team members, led by Sergeant Brannon Ellsworth, hatched a plan to take him down and played out different scenarios about how it could go.

"Our goal was to resolve this peacefully," Ellsworth said.

Before they could move in, the bomber started driving along the I-35 frontage road southbound toward Austin. They feared he was about to get on the interstate, making it even more risky to stop him.

Ellsworth radioed to his lieutenant that he thought it was time to act.

"It was really the only option that we had at that time," Ellsworth said.

The officers used what is called a "pit maneuver" to stop the bomber's red Nissan SUV by intentionally crashing into its rear, pinning the bomber's car between the leading APD van.

Officers Vincent Garcia and Rob Justesen, both of whom declined to be interviewed, ran toward the passenger side. Then, a fireball erupts from the car.

"You know, it's funny. I don't remember hearing the blast," said Ellsworth. "I saw it. I'm sure it was loud at that point but you are so focused on doing what you can do to help your teammate."


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Officer Radtke was inside the rear van.

"It was apparent to me it was something other than gunfire or something like that," said Radtke.

Ellsworth said he immediately bounded from the van to check on his men.

"My first concern as a sergeant on the team is putting my guys at risk," said Ellsworth.

"It was checking on my guys immediately," Ellsworth said.

They had been blown back several feet but were not seriously hurt.

Several other officers, including Radke, made quick calls to their wives as hundreds of police officers descended on the area.

"We're OK, my guys are OK," said Radtke. "I'll talk to you soon."

It was finally over.

In the nearly six months since that morning, the team has been honored with special pins in a ceremony. But they've avoided talking about what happened publicly.

"I change the subject, you know, talk about something else," said Ridge.

They've also returned to their more routine daily assignments -- and closer to each other.

"It is a group of guys all focused on one thing, being a professional team and personal friends and brothers to each other," Ellsworth said.

To them, what happened that morning was just them doing their jobs, serving their community and protecting us all.

"We are fortunate that none of us were injured during that time," said Ellsworth.

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