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Man accused of tampering with Austin radio towers in 'extremely rare' case

Police said the suspect tampered with towers that could have impacted Austin first responders' ability to communicate.
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AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: The video attached is related to Austin radio host Jeff Ward's departure from KLBJ.

A man has been charged with criminal mischief after police say he tampered with multiple communication towers in the Austin area. 

Officials are calling it an "extremely rare" case because, typically, this kind of crime is usually tied to some sort of theft. But, in suspect Derek Phillips' case, it appears his sole purpose was to cause the towers to stop functioning properly.

Police began investigating on Aug. 12 after it appeared someone attempted to disable a number of towers in southwest Austin that possibly provided emergency communicators for the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, in addition to emergency communications of the City of Austin and Austin Police Department

The investigation later led to the discovery of prior police reports of similar incidents. One of those was an incident where a gate lock had been cut at the Vega Electrical Substation owned by Austin Energy. The victim reported a breaker had been disabled, leading to partial impairment and damages of about $125.

In another case, a radio tower operated by The Horn had stopped broadcasting in early August. A main breaker had reportedly been turned off, causing partial impairment. A backup generator began operating, eventually running out of fuel and leading to complete impairment. After investigating, it appeared the gate locks and certain cables belonging to the tower had been cut. Damages were estimated at $2,500.


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A third case on Aug. 11 involved the communication tower for the Greater Austin/Travis County Regional Radio System, which is used by law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services, electrical utility services, water, and Austin ISD. In this case, the radio voice system that many public safety agencies like the Travis County Sheriff's Office, Austin Fire Department, Austin-Travis County EMS, the APD and others rely on had been partially impaired.

Witnesses to this incident said they saw a newer model two-door BMW pull into their driveway around 1:45 p.m. and turned around. It then backed into the tower facility. They stated the vehicle had an orange, possibly personalized license plate. The man driving it was described as a white male, about six feet tall, wearing a white T-shirt and possibly glasses, and he was holding a pair of bolt cutters.

A detective eventually identified Phillips, 51, as the suspect in these crimes. She reviewed surveillance video from Lake Travis High School depicting the suspect and his vehicle. The video showed the suspect removing and replacing a pair of bolt cutters inside the trunk of a BMW with an orange license plate after the crime that was reported on Aug. 11.

Police said they also obtained warrants to search GPS data from his vehicle and phone. That data placed the devices at the scenes of the crimes.

Phillips has been charged with criminal mischief, a state jail felony. Austin police told KVUE Sunday afternoon that his warrant remains outstanding at this time.

An official assigned to this case noted that they have investigated offenses centered on communications towers since 2013. To this date, they have never noticed a suspect enter a tower site, disable it and then simply leave without committing a theft.

"The sole purpose of committing this crime was for the communication tower to cease to appropriately function," court documents state. "This type of crime is extremely rare in the city of Austin."

RELATED: Austin radio host Jeff Ward out at KLBJ after more than 20 years


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