Early Christmas morning, residents of the trendy condos along Second Avenue overlooking the bustling historic district of downtown Nashville, Tennessee, found themselves jolted awake by the startling sounds of rapid gunfire. Just a block shy of the Cumberland River, the situation was further inflamed by an ominous computerized female voice loudly proclaiming, “All buildings in this area must be evacuated now. If you can hear this message, evacuate now!”
At roughly 5:30 a.m., when Officers Tyler Luellen and Brenna Hosey of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) arrived to investigate, they discovered the robotic warnings were coming from a Ford Four Winds Chateau Class motorhome, curiously parked near a transmission building belonging to the massive telecommunications conglomerate AT&T.
Playing an odd mix of popular music and spoken messages, which included snippets from the 1964 song “Downtown” by Petula Clark, dismayed officers found the RV’s broadcast had a decidedly foreboding tone. “As soon as she [Officer Hosey] got out of the car, almost immediately, the RV started making an announcement. Somewhere along the lines of, don’t quote me exactly, but, ‘There’s a large bomb within this vehicle. Your primary objective is to evacuate,'” Luellen would later tell CNN.
Heeding the RV’s warning, Luellen and Hosey, joined by Officers Amanda Topping, James Wells, Michael Sipos, and Sergeant Timothy Miller, quickly began going door to door, urging nearby residents to flee the area. By roughly 6:15 a.m., the officers’ efforts were made more fraught as the RV began offering a monotone prediction that it would explode in 15 minutes.
Making good on the threat, with a blinding flash and deafening roar, the RV exploded at 6:29 a.m., showering Second Avenue with debris and obliterated bits of the nearly ten-ton motorhome. “I just saw the biggest flames I’ve ever seen, the biggest explosion. I just saw orange and … felt the heat, the wave,” recounted Officer Topping.
Though three minor injuries were reported, fortunately no one was seriously hurt in the early morning Nashville bombing. Certainly the swift actions of the six Nashville police officers on the scene are partially responsible for the lack of bloodshed. It must be said, however, that the real credit for the incident not being more tragic ultimately goes to the bomber’s seemingly painstaking efforts to minimize casualties. To say this is uncharacteristic behavior for those who build and detonate improvised explosives would be a gross understatement.
Two days after the explosion, on December 27, U.S. Attorney Donald Cochran said a joint team of investigators—composed of the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); and local law enforcement—had determined the perpetrator was longtime Nashville resident Anthony Quinn Warner, 63. Authorities additionally confirmed Warner had been inside of the motorhome when it exploded, making the bombmaker the lone fatality of the entire unusual Nashville bombing.
Officials have said there is no indication that anyone else was involved in the bomb plot. At this time, the FBI continues to probe Warner’s motive for taking such care to ensure no one else was hurt as he committed suicide in spectacular fashion.
On December 29th, “citing sources familiar with the investigation,” ABC News said authorities were exploring whether Warner had been a subscriber to a variety of conspiracy theories, including the belief that a race of shape-shifting “lizard people” hell-bent on world domination covertly live amongst humanity. ABC also reported that Warner was “believed to have spent time hunting for alien life in a nearby state park.”
Affirming ABC’s reporting, just yesterday the FBI released a statement saying they were “aware the suspect sent materials which espoused his viewpoints to several acquaintances throughout the country.” Elaborating on his “viewpoints,” Channel 5 Nashville says at least one of the letters Warner mailed contained bizarre ramblings on conspiracy theories ranging from the moon landing and September 11th, to “reptilians and lizard people that he believed control the earth and had tweaked human DNA.” Warner supposedly wrote extensively on “perception,” saying “everything is an illusion” and “there is no such thing as death.”
New and utterly ridiculous conspiracy theories equally sprung up around the Nashville bombing itself, such as that the blast was actually the result of a missile attack. Potentially more plausible is the hypothesis that Warner may have been motivated by 5G conspiracies and that the AT&T building outside of which the RV was parked was the actual target of the explosion.
Having spent over a decade and a half in law enforcement, including incidents of mass casualty explosions, I’d caution against making any hasty assumptions about Anthony Warner’s motivations for blowing himself up in the early morning hours this past Christmas. That’s not to say that Warner couldn’t indeed have been resolved to martyr himself in a sincere fight against a sinister “deep state” of lizard people. I simply offer a word of caution because correlation doesn’t always equal causation when it comes to criminal behavior.
That’s not to say some more intelligible analysis can’t be performed using the available open-source information. What follows is my analysis of the Christmas Day Nashville bombing, which I offer with the extreme caveat that this evaluation is based solely on the information publicly available at this time and in no way should be considered as definitive.
In the aftermath of the explosion, specialists with the FBI and ATF would have combed meticulously through Second Avenue collecting crucial clues to help guide the investigation. This detailed on-scene assessment would have included documenting structural damage and, most importantly, looking for fragments of the exploded device. Though it may seem nonsensical, often pieces such as switches, wiring, timers, and circuit boards can be recovered fully intact.
Investigators on the scene will be keyed in on locating residue from the explosive, used to determine what types of chemical compounds were used in the bomb. Technicians will use a handheld chemical detection device, such as an ion mobility spectrometer, to help identify those residues around the blast site. Pieces of evidence will be collected and more in-depth chemical analysis will be performed elsewhere, most likely at the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC) in Quantico, Virginia.
One of the forensic investigators’ principal focuses will ultimately be to determine what type of improvised explosive device (IED) was used. Though officials have already determined Anthony Warner to be the Nashville bomber, the ability to determine what type of IED was used is generally a critical component to identifying a bombing suspect.
While the publicly available evidence is limited, there are a few key pieces of open-source information that offer clues about the type of explosive device Warner used to make his RV bomb.
The first critical piece of open-source information comes from a video of the Nashville bombing captured by an MNPD traffic camera and released by the department on Twitter. Unfortunately, the video isn’t ideal for post-blast analysis; however, I believe it provides some critical information on what type of bomb Warner used.
The initial explosion results in an extremely bright fireball that burns reasonably evenly at the ignition point and rapidly dissipates without much smoke or vaporization. Within roughly four seconds, the fireball has largely been consumed. At approximately 20 seconds post-explosion, the ambient scene mostly returns to a pre-blast state, outside of a lingering haze.
My overwhelming opinion based on the video is that a fuel-based explosive was used instead of other compounds like TNT, black powder, or ammonium nitrate. Yet, when considering fuel-based explosives, hydrocarbons such as gasoline or kerosene can be largely ruled out.
Had the device used gasoline, we would have seen large quantities of dark soot and carbon monoxide produced during burn-off. Kerosene, on the other hand, is frequently used by the entertainment industry for fire performances and special effects because it can produce dramatic fireballs at a low flame temperature that burns very quickly and cleanly. There is no evidence in the video that a fuel such as kerosene was used, however, because we don’t see the ejection of liquid fuel at initial detonation. Had a hydrocarbon been used, we would have seen bits of flaming liquid fuel scattered about the scene and causing a series of small fires.
Instead, the video evidence suggests the Nashville bombing involved a propane-based explosive.
A byproduct of natural gas processing and petroleum refining, propane has a low boiling point, causing it to vaporize when released from a pressurized container. When ignited, propane gas can produce extreme heat to the tune of 2,000–3,000 °F (approximately 1,100–1,700 °C). In the Nashville bombing video, the coloring of the fireball ranges from bright orange to white, indicating the temperature at the point of ignition was indeed somewhere in the ballpark of 2,000 to 3,000 °F.
Like kerosene, propane burns extremely quickly; however, it burns far more cleanly, which is why propane is the preferred fuel for outdoor grills and other home applications. This property would also account for the rapid and relatively clean post-ignition burn-off observed in the Nashville explosion.
Even further indications that a propane bomb was used can be found by examining photos of the scene after the blast.
With an earth-shattering boom and a sudden wave of extremely high-intensity heat, it was assuredly a very terrifying experience for anyone nearby when the bomb went off. Officer Wells—who can be seen briefly in the video released by MNPD and appeared to have been roughly 300 feet from the explosion when it went off—said he suffered temporary hearing loss from the thundering blast.
As frightening as it likely was, an examination of photos taken of the post-blast site now shows this was far from a high-energy explosion.
An incredibly rapid exothermic chemical reaction occurs when an explosion is initiated, converting a solid or liquid explosive into a very hot, dense, high-pressure gas. The expanding high-pressure gas will travel outward radially at extremely high velocity. As it attempts to reach an equilibrium with the ambient air, this in turn produces a wave of highly compressed air called a shock wave. In any explosion, the primary damage is caused by this shock wave.
Compounds such as TNT, C-4, and ammonium nitrate are called “high explosives” because when detonated, they produce shock waves that travel at supersonic explosive velocities.
When detonated near a building, the air blast shock wave from a high explosive will initially reach points closest to the explosion, exerting pressures that are typically several orders of magnitude greater than a structure was designed to withstand. In addition, as the high-pressure wave expands, it will travel throughout a structure both upward and downward, forcing pressure in directions inconsistent with a building’s design.
In a high-explosive blast, an explosion crater will be formed at the bomb’s “seat,” or the closest surface area to the bomb when it was detonated.
In explosion science, a compound’s shattering capability (primarily determined by the detonation pressure it can produce) is known as brisance.
In contrast to high explosives, “low explosives” are compounds that combust slower than the speed of sound and produce shock waves capable of far lower levels of brisance and concomitant damage. Along with substances such as gasoline and gunpowder, propane is indeed classified as a low-explosive compound.
Analysis of various photographs taken of the aftermath fails to show any evidence that high explosives were used in the Nashville Christmas Day bombing.
The blast’s damage radius is relatively localized, ending roughly 50 feet from the bomb’s seat. The explosion crater appears to be relatively small, with less than a foot of depth. Two of the buildings directly across from where Warner’s RV was parked have extensive facade damage; however, we don’t see evidence of radial damage to the buildings consistent with being caused by the initial blast wave. Instead, the sloping piles of debris point to these being the result of collapse, likely a result of structural integrity being compromised at the lower ground level. Public records indicate the collapsed buildings were initially erected in 1890 and housed several condos, loft apartments, and the “$10 Boutique” store.
Previous research has demonstrated that even with the same energy yield as a TNT explosion, the blast wave produced by a propane explosion carries far less pressure. Assuming a propane bomb was used for the Christmas Day bombing, this would explain why damage to the surrounding area was far less as compared to events when high explosives were used.
In my opinion, based on the video of the blast and analysis of images of the scene, all indications suggest Warner used a propane-based improvised explosive device for the Nashville bombing.
For obvious reasons, I’m not going to go into detail on the varying ways a propane bomb can be made, but using readily available 20-pound propane cylinders commonly used for outdoor grilling, and with very little sophistication, Warner could have easily made a reliable timer and electronic pulse detonator to create an improvised fuel-air explosive device. In a very rough estimate, a device made up of around thirty-five 20-pound propane cylinders would match the blast effects seen in the Nashville bombing.
Who Was Anthony Warner?
From what is known so far, Anthony Warner was unmarried and childless and worked as a self-employed computer consultant. State records also show Warner was once licensed to install burglar alarms.
In the weeks leading up to the bombing, Warner gave away his car, telling the recipient that he had cancer. He also reportedly told a client that he was retiring from his IT consulting business.
In November 2020, Warner transferred his Nashville home to a Los Angeles music executive named Michelle Swing. In 2019, Warner had signed an earlier quitclaim deed transferring a separate family property to the 29-year-old Swing. The 2019 gifting prompted Warner’s 85-year-old mother to sue him, claiming the $250,000 home Warner had taken possession of when his brother passed away legally belonged to her. Property records show Swing transferred the property back to Warner’s mother, Betty Lane, in July 2019.
The relationship between Warner and Swing isn’t clear. A lawyer who represented Warner in the property transfers, Ray Throckmorton III, told the Tennessean that Warner described Swing as “the child of a friend of his.” Additional media outlets have reported Swing told investigators she last spoke with Warner a week before Thanksgiving but had never personally met him. After the blast, Warner’s mother reportedly told the Sun, “He’s a good man, I’m devastated and upset. I can’t say any more.”
Interestingly, according to an MNPD police report, the same attorney who represented Warner in the quitclaim deed transfers earlier in 2019 also assisted an ex-girlfriend in notifying Nashville police in August of that year that Warner “was building bombs in the RV trailer at his residence.” According to the report, Throckmorton told police that Warner “knows what he is doing and is capable of making a bomb.”
Records indicate Nashville police attempted to follow up the claims of Warner’s ex-girlfriend but were ultimately unable to make contact with Warner. Officers noted seeing the now-infamous RV parked behind Warner’s home, however they saw no evidence of any crimes and lacked legal authority to encroach and search the property. Nashville police did send the report to the FBI, who reported back, “they checked their holdings and found no records on Warner at all.” A criminal history report released by the FBI showed Warner had only had one run-in with law enforcement—over 40 years ago, when he was arrested for “resale” of marijuana in 1978.
Following a short briefing to the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County, Councilmember Bob Mendes posted on Twitter: “[Nashville Police Chief John Drake] indicated that Warner’s life was spiraling out of control and that Warner was around (I think Drake said) ‘crack heads and drug addicts’ while his life was spiraling. There were apparently problems with family members.”
Assessing why Anthony Warner chose to park an explosive-laden RV on a lonely downtown Nashville street is a far trickier endeavor than assessing how he blew himself into oblivion.
At this time, an unfortunate number of people have adopted a baseless belief that the COVID-19 pandemic is actually not from a virus at all, but rather is being used to cover-up illnesses related to electromagnetic radiation from 5G broadband cellular service. Paranoia fueled by misinformation has led to dozens of arson attacks on cell sites around the world. The majority of these attacks have been limited to Europe, with over 70 arsons in the United Kingdom alone.
Interestingly, the one area of the United States that has seen property damages stemming from 5G conspiracy theories just so happens to be the state of Tennessee. In a joint intelligence bulletin issued last year, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center warned there had been at least nineteen 5G conspiracy-motivated attacks on cellphone towers in Western Tennessee since December 2019.
So far, the hypotheses that Warner was targeting AT&T out of some grossly misguided 5G conspiracy theory are centered on the fact that the bomb-laden RV was parked directly in front of the entrance to the company’s regional transmission center.
Based on analysis of the explosives used in the bombing, we can make a couple of inferences.
- Warner lacked the wherewithal to know his improvised bomb wouldn’t have possessed the destructive power to cause any significant structural damage to the AT&T transmission building.
- Propane was the best explosive substance Warner could readily get his hands on.
- Warner purposefully used a low-explosive device in the Nashville bombing because his intent was never to wreak catastrophic damage to any of the surrounding buildings.
- Warner was exceptionally informed on his target and realized he didn’t need to use high-explosives in order to take down AT&T’s communications network.
- Warner’s Nashville bombing simply wasn’t the most fully baked plot.
It appears likely AT&T as a corporate entity was not itself Warner’s target, as its state headquarters in the 617-foot AT&T Building—a postmodern skyscraper colloquially known throughout Nashville as the “Batman Building” because its top resembles the superhero’s masked visage—is merely a 3-minute walk and less than a block away from the site of the Second Avenue blast.
In the immediate wake of the blast, one of AT&T’s critical hubs for wireless services throughout the Southeast was rendered entirely useless. Backup generators went down, and according to a statement by AT&T, flooding left more than three feet of water in the building’s basement. Consequently, customers in large parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama were without cell phone service for days. More critically, 911 centers throughout the region couldn’t take calls, including the phone lines and internet service for the police department. For three hours on Christmas morning, the Nashville International Airport had to ground all flights, and rival carrier T-Mobile said there were service disruptions up to 250 miles away in Atlanta. AT&T says they were finally able to fully restore service by December 29th.
More certain than his explicit motive is that Anthony Warner took extreme measures to try and ensure the only person harmed in the bombing was him.
Citing federal law enforcement sources, some media outlets have reported the initial sounds of gunfire were actually blared through a PA system on the RV rather than from Warner actually firing a gun on Second Avenue. These same sources speculate that Warner was trying to get the police to the scene to help clear the area, a task facilitated by the more than hour-long PA warning that the RV was going to explode.
While it’s been widely reported that Warner was a conspiracy theorist who believed in such fringe ideas as the existence of a shape-shifting reptilian race bent on world domination, other media outlets have painted a slightly different picture. A police report obtained by the Sun described Warner’s home as “clean and organized,” and investigators failed to find anything directly linking Warner to the explosion during their initial search of the property. The police report notes, “No documentation was found regarding the 25 December 2020 explosion.” So far there have been no reports directly linking Warner’s extreme beliefs with the Nashville bombing.
A Less Sensational Theory Based on Open-Source Analysis
The biggest problem with the 5G conspiracy motive comes from the fact that according to what his ex-girlfriend told police, Warner was building a bomb in his RV as early as August 2019. This would have been several months before the first case of COVID-19 ever emerged, meaning at least initially, a 5G “plan-demic” couldn’t have been Warner’s motive for building a bomb.
Putting on my criminal behavioral analyst hat, one of many that I wore during my law enforcement career, I’ll conclude my analysis by offering an alternative theory for what may have been the motive behind Anthony Warner’s Christmas Day bombing.
Far less sensational than wanting to warn the world of the perceived harms of 5G or subjugation by shape-shifting aliens, available information suggests Warner’s intent was simpler: He wanted to commit suicide.
Acts of terrorism are meant to convey a political message—which means that no matter how illogical, there should still be a clear message coming out of the act. In the Nashville Christmas Day bombing, however, the only discernible message is that Warner intended to die in a public explosion while simultaneously trying to ensure no one else was hurt in the blast. Even the improvised explosive device Warner used limited the amount of damage to the external environment.
The RV being parked directly in front of the AT&T communication hub seemingly fits the 5G conspiracy theory hypothesis; examining the area, though, an argument can equally be made that Warner selected the location because it offered the least likelihood for collateral destruction while still allowing for an arresting and disruptive public spectacle. His reasons for selecting downtown Nashville, rather than some vacant field, may have been based on a psychological fixation with the Music City.
With a notable lack of windows, the all-brick building could easily be imagined to be one of the more stable structures in Nashville’s historic Downtown District. It would arguably have been a pretty big leap for Warner to assume the IED used—which I assess was likely fueled by propane—would ever have been capable of causing the widespread outages in communications that ended up occurring throughout the region.
Why would Warner go to so much trouble if all he wanted to do was kill himself? I think a significant clue comes from what the 63-year-old told one of his neighbors not long before the explosion.
According to The Associated Press, in a conversation less than a week before Christmas, neighbor Rick Laude casually asked Warner, “Is Santa going to bring you anything good for Christmas?” With a smile, Laude says Warner replied, “Oh, yeah, Nashville and the world is never going to forget me.”
We now know Warner’s reply was a tongue-in-cheek reference to his grisly suicide plans.
Warner conveyed two key points in his response to Laude. First, the idea of being known was something Warner considered important. Absent are any references to 5G or shapeshifting reptilians. Instead, we see a man who’d already made the decision to end his life. But rather than quietly dying alone, the man described by neighbors as a “loner” wanted in his final act to be remembered.
Second, Warner notably made a specific reference to “Nashville” rather than simply saying he wouldn’t be forgotten. To me, this suggests the man described as a lifelong resident had a very personal connection to the “Music City.”
Rather than targeting AT&T specifically, Warner may have chosen historic downtown Nashville as the place to take his life based on psychosocial reasons. To Warner, his hometown could have become an anachronistic fixation. Implicitly, Warner may have attached psychological factors such as learned hopelessness, depression, anxiety, high levels of introvertedness and social isolation to the city of Nashville. In essence, for his final act, Warner wanted the city he attached deep feelings of social isolation with to know who he was. In this scenario, traits such as extreme beliefs in conspiracy theories would be a symptom of underlying mental illness and not the ultimate motivation for the Nashville bombing.
Support for this idea can be found in the lyrics to the song that Warner mixed in with his robotic evacuation warnings and bomb threats: “Downtown,” by Petula Clark.
“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown..
Don’t hang around and let your problems surround you…
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown
Where all the lights are bright, downtown
Waiting for you tonight, downtown
You’re gonna be alright now, downtown…
And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you
Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to
Guide them along
So maybe I’ll see you there
We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares
So go downtown
Things will be great when you’re downtown
Don’t wait a minute more, downtown
Everything is waiting for you, downtown…”
One of the biggest potential mistakes we can make is assuming Anthony Warner’s motivations behind the Nashville bombing were rooted in wild conspiracy theories or domestic terrorism without specific evidence. In trying to make sense of what seems senseless, we often project behavioral intentions meant to soothe our consciences, separate ourselves from the circumstances, and justify to ourselves why we could never find ourselves in a similar situation.
But in trying to find a hidden message for “why,” we can easily miss the most obvious message from Warner’s death, which is that suicide rates in America have climbed 35% in the last twenty years. Presently, suicide is the tenth largest cause of death in the United States.
While rates of suicide continue to skyrocket, funding for research to combat the problem continues to dwindle. In 2017, the National Institutes of Health, the largest public funder of biomedical research globally, spent $68 million on suicide research. By comparison, they spent $317 million on sleep studies.
As investigators continue to probe more deeply into the case, Warner’s motive for detonating an improvised explosive and killing himself early Christmas morning may become more evident. Until then, after an in-depth analysis based on available information, it’s my opinion that Anthony Warner set off an easily manufactured propane bomb with the relatively simple intent to end his life on Second Avenue.
At a press conference Tuesday, the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, David Rausch, said that authorities hope to establish a motive, but simply cannot in some cases. I hear Rausch saying that the only motive that can be found right now is that Warner wanted to commit suicide. At the end of the day, this may be the only motive for why Warner did what he did.
Unfortunately, if that’s the case, it’s suggested by both history and our present level of commitment to improving suicide rates and social isolation that the attention and focus needed to ensure an event like the Nashville bombing this past Christmas Day won’t happen again will be slow and small in coming.
Writer’s Note: If you, or someone you know, has thoughts of suicide or self harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The deaf and hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889. All calls are confidential. Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a friend’s social media updates or dial 911 in an emergency. Learn more on the Lifeline’s website or the Crisis Text Line’s website.