AUSTIN, Texas ― In the hours after Mark Anthony Conditt blew himself up, people in need of an immediate scapegoat for the bombings that terrorized this city for nearly three weeks found one in a group called RIOT.
We learned of Conditt’s involvement with the group from BuzzFeed, which had interviewed a woman, Cassia Schultz, who “ran in the same conservative survivalist circles as Conditt in high school.”
Schultz said they were both involved in a group called Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT), a Bible study and outdoors group for homeschooled kids, created and named by the kids and their families, that included monthly activities such as archery, gun skills, and water balloon fights. Conditt and his younger sister would usually attend the activities along with 15 to 20 other kids, according to Schultz.
“A lot of us were very into science; we would discuss chemicals and how to mix them and which ones were dangerous,” said Schultz. “We were into weapons and stuff. A lot of us did role-playing, and RPG [role-playing games]; we’d have foam weapons and act out a battle.”
This seemed irresistibly sinister as it became clear Conditt, 23, was the bomber, and others quickly latched onto the detail.
“Austin bomber Mark Anthony Conditt was part of Christian survivalist group that discussed ‘dangerous’ chemicals,” read a headline on the Independent. Social media went further, with some users claiming that RIOT served as some sort of white supremacist breeding ground or an education center for aspiring chemical weapons experts.
“Austin bomber Mark Conditt was RADICALIZED by a neo-Nazi Christian group that teaches members about dangerous chemicals & guns,” one woman wrote on Twitter, linking to the Independent story. “The group is called RIOT - Righteous Invasion of Truth. No difference between this & ISIS.”
So what exactly goes down at these RIOT events?
“Water balloons, cream pies, frisbee, etc.,” said Pamela Crouch, a parent in the homeschooling community in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville who knows the Conditt family well. “That’s what it is.”
And that “conservative survivalist circle” mentioned in the Buzzfeed article? It was a small group of children “into camping, tying knots in ropes and climbing,” said Crouch, who also knows Schultz. “Very tame stuff.”
“Mark is dead ― so everyone wants someone to blame, but I don’t think they should blame the parents. ... They did not teach Mark hate.” Pamela Crouch, parent in the Pflugerville homeschool community.
Crouch was moved to speak out by what she felt were mischaracterizations of RIOT and of Conditt’s family. She worried the sensational rhetoric surrounding either would “probably continue until the next disaster or the next outrageous” tweet from President Donald Trump.
“I cannot sit idly by while my friends and loved ones are being unjustly accused,” Crouch told HuffPost.
Conditt and his family were part of a tight-knit homeschooling community in Pflugerville, which is home to a variety of Christian camps and other activities for homeschooled kids. If you’re looking to find strains of violent extremism in Conditt’s upbringing, you’ll have a hard time finding any within RIOT, a standard-fare Bible study group.
A RIOT recruiting mailer sent out to parents in 2016 advertises such activities as swimming, potlucks, bowling and “boffer melee,” a popular live-action role-play game in which kids simulate medieval warfare by bonking each other with padded pipes.
The mailer, released to HuffPost in the form of a Facebook posting, reads in part:
Some fun RIOT events in the past included: Game Night, Murder Mystery party, Movie Night w/Pizza, Bowling, Swim Party, Games in the Park, Fun at the Beach (Lake Pflugerville), Skating, Boffer Melee, etc. Food for these events is usually a shared effort - the teens can bring a few dollars each and you can buy it, or everyone can bring snacks/potluck to share. You can also plan an event at Jumpoline, Jumpstreet, Main Event, Spare Time, a movie (in a theatre) followed by dinner nearby, etc. If you can call ahead and get a group rate, that’s best!
Nonetheless, a community of parents in Pflugerville has been upended largely because of a single quote in a single story. The media glare was harsh enough that even the Texas Home School Coalition felt compelled to distance itself from Conditt via a press release.
“Raised by both parents in a Christian home, Conditt reportedly walked away from his faith several years ago,” Tim Lambert, president of the association, said in a statement after Conditt’s death. “Today’s revelations about the Austin bombings provide a stark reminder that we live in a fallen world. Unfortunately, no form of education, public or private, can ensure a tragedy like this will never happen.”
Crouch moved to the area in 1995 and began homeschooling her son in 2004. Her family attended church alongside the Conditts and even went to “home group” ― “which is like Bible study,” she said ― at the Conditt household.
In Crouch’s telling, those services, like other Christian events in the community, were as normal as they come, not to mention “racially and ethnically diverse,” which she appreciated.
Austin “is actually one of the most tolerant cities in the South,” she said. “That is one of the reasons I feel comfortable raising my children here.”
Crouch, like several of her neighbors, was upset about questioning from reporters that seemed to blame Conditt’s parents and the homeschooling community in general for his bombing spree that killed two and injured several others.
Homeschooling, she said, is “a good option for anyone who is not satisfied with the school system. We try to protect our kids from being hurt in the schools, with all the shootings and stabbings and rapes, but we are somehow the dangerous ones?”
As for Conditt’s father and mother, she called them “good folks.”
“Mark is dead ― so everyone wants someone to blame, but I don’t think they should blame the parents,” she said. “They did not teach Mark hate.”